On This Day In Music History: Robert Johnson

The first time I heard the words and music of Robert Johnson, I was listening to a Led Zeppelin album.

It was October 1969. I was in high school and the previous August, I’d seen Led Zeppelin in concert in Framingham, MA with my good friend, Tom. The new album, their second release, was awesome. One track, “The Lemon Song,” had some rather interesting lyrics. The liner notes gave songwriting credit to all four members of the band.

About six weeks later, I heard the words and music of Robert Johnson again. That time I was listening to Let It Bleed, the new album by the Rolling Stones (my other favorite band back then) and the song “Love In Vain” really stood out with its gorgeous acoustic guitar playing, evocative lyrics and passionate Mick Jagger vocals. The songwriter was listed as “Woody Payne.”

That sort of thing happened quite a bit in the 60’s.

Robert johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. To list but two of his many accolades, Cub Koda, writing in The All Music Guide to the Blues said that he is “certainly the most celebrated figure in the history of the blues.”  Author Peter Guralnick wrote: “Robert Johnson created music of the highest sophistication, music in which not a single note is misplaced, in which metaphor can become meaning without the need for explanation.” The “How” of how he became such an artist is the subject of more speculation than for that of any other musician.

Over the course of five recording sessions, Nov.23, 26 & 27, 1936 in San Antonio, Texas and June 19 & 20, 1937 in Dallas, Texas, he recorded a total of 29 songs or “sides.” His records, 10-inch, 78-rpm discs with one song per side, sold mostly to an African-American audience in the rural South and Southwest. At the time, the total sales from the sides released from his first sessions numbered around 5000 discs. 

In 1961, John Hammond and Frank Driggs of Columbia Records gathered 16 of Johnson’s sides together and released them on a 12-inch LP, entitled The King of the Delta Blues Singers. Volume 2 soon followed. Both albums are available on CD.

If you haven’t heard the words and music of Robert Johnson by Robert Johnson, don’t wait any longer. If you have, listen again.

Robert Johnson died of mysterious circumstances on August 16, 1938.

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1 Response to On This Day In Music History: Robert Johnson

  1. Tom Savage says:

    It’s a sad commentary on the far reaching extent of racism in this cournty at that time, where artists like Robert Johnson were essentially banned from the mainstream. It is only through the determination of those folks interested in preserving this music that it eventually found its way to the UK, to be embraced by the rock and blues icons we know today. Considering the limited runs of these sides, it’s amazing that any of it survived.

    With those thoughts in mind, I want to pay my respects to the fabulous Lena Horne, who died this week at 92. She endured much of the same, yet lived long enough to become a beloved American jazz insititution.

    That Zep show we attended in ’69 has to go down as one of the great muscial events of our lives….

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