13 Black Artist Who Inspired Rock: Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson and the Devil
It’s midnight; two lonely dirt roads cross near the Dockery Plantation in rural Mississippi. It’s there that a young man with a guitar waits. He wants to strike a deal, his soul for great talent. The Faustian legend goes that a large black man appears. He tunes the young man’s guitar. The devil owns his soul. From that point on Robert Johnson became one of the greatest guitarists of all time and the King of the Delta Blues.
Much like a trick of the Devil, his life was short (1911-1938). He died at the mystical age of 27 like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and Kurt Cobain. We know little about his life. He received little financial reward or fame during his lifetime. Historians have tried to piece together his life story from a few who remember him. What is known is that he traveled through Mississippi and beyond. He played Saturday night dances and busked in front of stores and restaurants playing and singing the blues. While he roamed, Johnson sometimes stayed with family, but more often he spent his nights with the women he seduced.
The tale of his death is debatable. Most historians believe his flirtation during performing did him in. Usually a polite introvert, he came to life while performing. The most predominate story is that the husband of a woman he flirted with poisoned a bottle of whiskey. He made his wife give Johnson the bottle. That night he was struck ill and soon passed away.
But I’ve got to think of myself as the luckiest guy. Robert Johnson only had one album’s worth of work as his legacy. That’s all that life allowed him. – David Bowie
He had 29 known songs, many recorded twice. These second recorded versions were released decades after his death. Although he never stardom during his life his songs “Cross Road Blues,” “Me and the Devil Blues,” “I Believe I¹ll Dust My Broom,” “Terraplane Blues,” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” are recognized as the greatest of the genre.
Johnson took the intense loneliness, terrors and tortuous lifestyle that came with being an African-American in the South during the Great Depression, and transformed that specific and very personal experience into the music of universal relevance and global reach. Many rock legends have sung his praise. Among the artists influenced by him are Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, the Allman Brothers and Bob Dylan. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted 4 of his songs “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” and “Love in Vain,” because they believed them to have shaped rock music.
I dabbled in things like Howlin’ Wolf, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, but when I heard Son House and Robert Johnson, it blew my mind. It was something I’d been missing my whole life. That music made me discard everything else and just get down to the soul and honesty of the blues. – Jack White
I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.” – Eric Clapton