This Day in History: November 23rd- Robert

This Day In History: November 23, 1936

Robert_JohnsonThe issue of an extramarital affair, Robert Johnson was born as Robert Dodds in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, the son of Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson. (Julia briefly took up with Noah after her husband and father of her other ten children had to flee town in order to avoid being hanged after he injured a white man in a fight. Robert would later change his last name to Johnson as a teenager.) The date usually given for Robert’s birth is May 8, 1911, but like so many things involving the legend, it’s impossible to nail down the precise details.

Johnson’s interest in music began early. He first learned how to play harmonica and then picked up the basics of guitar playing from his older brother. After his first wife died in childbirth at the age of 16 in 1930 and he deserted his second one in 1931, Robert disappeared for about a year.

Reportedly a poor guitar player when he left, when he reemerged in Robinsonville, Mississippi, he was a guitar virtuoso. This was the beginning of the mythology surrounding the man. While many have claimed he accomplished this by selling his soul to the devil, something Robert never seemed to have explicitly denied, it’s more likely his guitar skill came thanks to an amazing amount of practice and studying daily under guitar player Ike Zimmerman who Johnson lived with during that time. Helping to fan the flames of the devil story, supposedly the pair often stayed up to all hours playing in a nearby graveyard so as not to disturb anyone with their late night jam sessions.

From here, he became a traveling musician, playing bars, street corners, and juke joints throughout the South. Ernie Oertle, a talent scout for American Record Corporation’s Vocalion label, caught Johnson’s act and invited him to make some recordings.

Johnson’s first ever recording session took place on November 23, 1936, at the Gunter Hotel at 205 East Houston Street in San Antonio, Texas. Vocalion producer Don Law had booked two adjoining rooms, one for the recording equipment, and one for the musicians. Johnson recorded eight tracks during that session, including the classics “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and “Terraplane Blues.” Robert received roughly $300 (about $5000 today) and no royalties for his efforts.

That night, Don Law got a phone call. Johnson had landed himself in the Bexar County jail. Soon out, recording sessions resumed on November 26-27, and Robert recorded “Cross Road Blues” and several other enduring blues standards. He went to Dallas the following June to lay down ten more tracks such as “Hellhound On My Trail” and “Traveling Riverside Blues.”

Fueled by an insatiable wanderlust, Robert continued to play up and down the Delta, and as far away as Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. But wandering wasn’t the only thing Johnson lusted after. He was a big hit with the ladies in every town he went to- but the ladies weren’t always single.

This brings us to Johnson’s death. Like almost everything else about Johnson’s life, nobody knows for sure what caused his death, but the leading theory is that he was poisoned by an angry husband or boyfriend of one of Johnson’s numerous love interests.

As for the official cause of death at the time, Cornelia Jordan, the LeFlore County Registrar, wrote on Johnson’s death certificate:

I talked with the white man on whose place this negro died and I also talked with a negro woman on the place. The plantation owner said the negro man, seemingly about 26 years old, came from Tunica two or three weeks before he died to play banjo at a negro dance given there on the plantation. He stayed in the house with some of the negroes saying he wanted to pick cotton. The white man did not have a doctor for this negro as he had not worked for him. He was buried in a homemade coffin furnished by the county. The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the negro died of syphilis.

Whatever the case, Johnson fell ill after drinking at a dance and was reportedly writhing in pain for three days until finally dying in a boarding house in Greenwood Mississippi on August 16, 1938. Virtually unknown at the time of his death, his music resurfaced in 1961 on the hugely influential compilation album King of the Delta Blues Singers.  He lives on today not only through the blues music he helped popularize but his influence can also be widely seen in the evolution of Rock and Roll, R&B, Hip Hop, and Country.

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One comment

  • I do not understand why this page is part of the “Today I Found Out” collection. I am nearly 65. I have been involved with music almost all my life (playing three keyboard instruments and two brass instruments, singing in public, listening to countless thousands of hours of recordings in various genres, etc.). Yet I have never even heard of this man, Robert Johnson, and — before a few minutes ago — I had never heard ANY of his songs.

    I just listened to two of his songs (i.e., his own recordings) on YouTube, and I found them to be boring, repetitious, “stock” blues melodies. They required no special talent to perform. (He needed no help from the devil to learn to play the way he did.) Far more important, however, than the fact that his music is mediocre (at best) is the fact that no one ought to bother writing about, or reading about, such morally degrading subjects as those described above — illegitimate birth, womanizing, dying from a venereal disease, etc..

    This page was just so disgusting and worthless that it ought to be deleted, in my opinion.