CODEX Entry 5001: Robert Johnson
Born in 1911¹, his mother’s husband, Charles Dodd’s had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and he changed his name to Charles Spencer. Robert, later changed his name to his natural father’s, Johnson. In 1929, aged eighteen, he married a sixteen-year-old who was pregnant. She died in childbirth. Johnson was an embarrassingly bad guitarist². But he disappeared for a few months, searching for his natural father. He met Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, who was rumoured to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight. When Johnson reappeared, he seemed to have miraculously acquired superb guitar technique and a number of innovative original blues songs³. Close friends confirmed the legend that Johnson had made a pact with the devil in return for his guitar skills. Robert’s married a second women who was pregnant, and she also died mysteriously in childbirth in 1932. Robert began moving all over the country performing his jazz in numerous bars and on street corners, using eight different surnames for each region. Robert was described by friends and lovers as well mannered, soft spoken, and indecipherable. He would often just vanish halfway through a song. But he could pick up a new song after hearing it just once. He recorded two albums in 1936 and 1937, and then vanished in 1938, aged 27. His death was not reported publicly; he merely disappeared from the historical record, and it was not until almost 30 years later that a researching musicologist found his death certificate, which listed only the date and location, with no official cause of death4. No formal autopsy was done, as a dead black man found by the side of the road was not unusual. Eric Clapton said he was the most important Blues musician that ever lived5, and he is listed as a key inspiration for Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant. He is regularly cited as the creator of modern blues6. The song played here is ‘Me and the Devil Blues’.
¹ Wardlow, G. Chasin’ That Devil Music
² Guralnick, Peter. Searching for Robert Johnson
³ Guralnick, Peter.
4 Havers, Richard, ‘The Devil’s Music: The Life And Legacy Of Robert Johnson’
5 The Observer. July 16, 2006, ‘The 50 Albums That Changed Music’