- Historic Sites
Seeking The Greatest Bluesman
Robert Johnson died in obscurity in 1938; since then he has gradually gained recognition as a genius of American music. Only recently have the facts of his short, tragic life become known.
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
When I wrote a chapter about Johnson for my book The Bluesmen in 1967, it was no longer necessary to apologize. The emphasis in the new book was on artists whom the growing young white audience considered to be the important blues singers, and Johnson was already becoming a legendary figure. Son House, an older bluesman from the same part of the Mississippi Delta, had been discovered, and from House we had learned the outlines of Johnson’s life. In 1962 I talked with Henry Townsend, a younger bluesman who had met Johnson in St. Louis in the 1930s, and in Chicago in 1965 I met Johnny Shines, who had traveled with him, singing and playing the blues alongside him in his wanderings into cities like Chicago and New York.
Each of them was able to fill in some of the details of Johnson’s life after he’d left the plantation where Son House had known him. By the time I finished a book transcribing and annotating all the songs in 1973—the book is titled, simply, Robert Johnson —I had also spent weeks photographing the towns in the Mississippi Delta where Johnson had played for parties and dances and the small cluster of shacks where he’d grown up. The researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow had found his death certificate, and there were long interviews with his stepson, the blues singer Robert Junior Lockwood. All this was added to what was already known in the long essay that introduced the songs.
On one level the mystery that was so much a part of the legend of Robert Johnson was slowly and patiently being unraveled. He was no longer a hazy figure standing in the dust at a Delta crossroads. In the 1970s two researchers working separately, Steve LaVere and Mack McCormick, found Johnson’s surviving relatives, and after their interviews there wasn’t much else to learn, except exactly what poison was used by the jealous husband who killed him. Finally, in February 1986, Rolling Stone magazine printed the first of two photographs that had been found (it is shown here on page 66). There was the face we had wondered about for so many years. Johnson looked very young, posed in his shirt sleeves with his guitar against a crude cloth backdrop. A cigarette was dangling from his mouth, and he was half smiling. His fingers, on the neck of the guitar, were—as one of the men who had supervised his first recordings remembered—very beautiful. On the cover of his book Searching for Robert Johnson , published in 1989, the blues writer Peter Guralnick reproduced the second photo, which showed Johnson a little older and wearing a stylish suit, tie, and hat (page 56).
Robert Johnson’s life, now that we finally can see who he was and how he grew up, isn’t that much different from the lives of hundreds of other boys growing up in the rough plantation system that still controlled most of northern Mississippi. A likely birth date is May 8, 1911, which would mean that he was twenty-five when he did his first recordings, in San Antonio. When he was growing up, there was some confusion about his name. His mother, Julia Major Dodds, had married a wicker furniture maker named Charles Dodds in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1889. She had had ten children with him when Dodds had to get out of town following a dispute with a local white family. She stayed behind in Hazlehurst with two small daughters.
Dodds stayed in Memphis for two years, using the name Spencer so no one would find him. His wife was finally forced out of their house in Hazlehurst, and her eleventh child, Robert, was born after an involvement with a field worker named Noah Johnson.
Julia Dodds wandered through the camps and small communities at the southern edge of the Delta, picking cotton while her daughter Carrie, who was eight, tried to watch out for Robert. There is a picture of Julia Dodds taken probably a year after Robert was born, and she is unsmiling, short, and round-faced, in a broadbrimmed hat and a loose dark dress with a bow at the neck and a wide cloth belt. There is nothing about her to suggest any of the confusion that had taken over her life.
Charles Dodds at first refused to accept the child his wife had had with Noah Johnson. Finally he relented enough to let the boy move up with him in Memphis, but he wouldn’t let his wife come along. Robert moved in with Dodds when he was three years old; Dodds had also gathered in all ten of the children he’d had with Julia. Robert, for the next few years, was called Robert Leroy Dodds Spencer. His older brother Charles Leroy is supposed to have taught him something about the guitar, but Son House, who probably first encountered Robert when he was fifteen or sixteen years old, remembered that he couldn’t play the guitar at all then. Robert’s mother eventually married again, a man named Dusty Willis, and when Robert was eight or nine years old, she took him to live with them in Commerce, outside Robinsonville.