Blues ain t nothing but a good man feeling bad
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Blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad…. The life, legend, and music of Robert Johnson. Watch video, “ Roots of American Entertainment , after presentation. (10 min.). Robert Johnson.

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Blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad…

The life, legend, and music of Robert Johnson

Watch video, “Roots of American Entertainment, after presentation. (10 min.)

Robert Johnson

It could be said that Robert Johnson is the father of modern Rock and Roll. His amazingly short 27 years was the portrait of what the blues were – a curious mix of hard living, life on the road, and tragic loss and lament. Johnson’s own story is raised to mythical proportions in his mysterious and uncanny abilities – and the legend surrounding how he got to be SOOOO good…………

Johnson was born illegitimate in Mississippi in 1911 to Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson. When he was three or four, Johnson's mother sent him to live with her husband, Charles Dodds, who was residing in Memphis and had taken a new name, Charles Spencer. As a youth, Johnson was known as Robert Spencer and Robert Dodds, but when he learned the identity of his real father, he assumed the name Johnson.

Even though Robert was playing music a great deal at this time--mainly the popular recorded blues of the day--and learning even more from Myles Robson, Ernest "Whiskey Red" Brown, and other locals, he still considered himself a farmer when he married Virginia Travis in Penton, Mississippi, in February of 1929.

They began their life together sharing a home with Robert’s half-sister Bessie and her husband, Granville Hines, on the Kline plantation just east of Robinsonville. His wife was expecting.

Robert’s pride was short-lived, however. Whatever hopes and dreams he may have had for his wife and family-to-be were all dashed in one fell swoop.

Both Virginia and the baby died in childbirth in April of 1930. She was only 16 years old!

When the train rolled up to the station I looked her in the eye

When the train rolled up to the station I looked her in the eye

When the train left the station with two lights on behind

When the train left the station with two lights on behind

Well, I was lonesome, I was lonesome and I could not help but cry

All my love's in vain

Well, the blue light was my blues, the red light was my mind

All my love’s in vain

In June of 1930, the Blues singer Son House came to Mississippi. Robert would sneak off the farm at night and follow Son House and his friend Willie Brown to whatever “Juke Joint” they happened to be playing at that night.

Robert played the harmonica fairly well, but was a poor guitarist. When the others would break, he often would pick up their instruments and try to play.

Son House was quoted as saying, “Such another racket you never heard! It'd make people mad, you know. They'd come out and say, "Why don't y'all go in there and get that guitar from that boy!"

Son House

Striking a Deal?

Robert disappeared for a period – some say three months, others say up to a year. What is known is that when he returned, he played the guitar like a master.

Often, he would hear a song on the radio and perform it the same night.

He was also taken to leaving part way through a performance if spectators were too studious of him. This led some to believe the rumors they had heard…

When asked how he learned to play, Johnson is quoted as saying,

"If you want to learn to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a crossroads is. A big black man will walk up there at the stroke of midnight and take your guitar, and he'll tune it..."

They said that Johnson had sold his soul to the devilto play the guitar like a master.

African Voodoo traditions still lingered heavy in the Delta. “The Devil” that Robert was to have met was known as Legba – a demon who would trick people into giving up their souls.

In Christian comparisons this symbol became the devil.

You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown

You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown

That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’ Lord,

Babe, I'm sinkin down…

Standin’ at the crossroad baby, risin’ sun goin’ down

Standin’ at the crossroad baby, eee risin’ sun goin’ down

I believe to my soul now, Poor Bob is sinkin’ down

It is unclear whether or not Johnson actually believed this himself. Alternate stories suggest that his talent came from an intense year of study and practice.

With songs such as “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” “Hellhounds on My Trail”, and “Me and the Devil Blues”, the legend grew.

Me and the Devil Blues

Early this mornin' when you knocked upon my door

Early this mornin‘ ooo when you knocked upon my door

And I said, "Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go.”

Me and the Devil was walkin' side by side

Me and the Devil ooo, was walkin' side by side…

Robert Johnson had been in the Greenwood area for a couple of weeks, sharing Saturday night shows with "Honeyboy" Edwards, who lived in Greenwood.

The Three Forks has been turned into a store and still stands today

Robert had made friends with a local woman, who happened to be the wife of the man who owned the juke house at "Three Forks". She would come into Greenwood on Mondays, supposedly to see her sister, but, in fact, to spend time with him. This made the bar owner jealous.

On the Saturday night of August 13, 1938 during a break in the music, Robert and Sonny Boy Williamson were standing together when someone brought Robert an open half-pint of whiskey. As Robert was about to drink from it, Sonny Boy knocked it out of his hand and it broke against the ground. Sonny admonished him, "Man, don’t never take a drink from a open bottle. You don’t know what could be in it." Robert, in turn, retorted, "Man, don’t never knock a bottle of whisky outta my hand."

Sonny Boy Williamson

And so it was. When a second open bottle was brought to Johnson. Sonny could only stand by, watch, and hope.

It wasn’t too long after Robert returned to his guitar that he soon could no longer sing.

It seems the juke house owner’s jealousy finally got the best of Robert, and someone had laced his whisky with the poison strychnine.

Witnesses said Robert left the bar on all fours barking like a dog – it seems that the hellhounds on his trail had finally caught up to him.

The witnesses were probably describing his death accurately. Ten to twenty minutes after exposure to strychnine, the body's muscles begin to spasm, starting with the head and neck. The spasms then spread to every muscle in the body, with nearly continuous convulsions. The convulsions progress, increasing in intensity and frequency until the backbone arches continually. Death comes from asphyxiation or by exhaustion from the convulsions. The subject will die within 2–3 hours after exposure. At the point of death, the body "freezes" immediately, even in the middle of a convulsion, resulting in instantaneous rigor mortis.

One of Johnson’s 3 tombstones.

Robert Johnson died in 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi. He was only 27.

Robert Johnson: King of the Delta blues singers. His music struck a chord that continues to resonate. His music addressed generations he would never know, and made poetry of his visions and fears.

You may bury my body down by the highway side

Baby, I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone

You may bury my body, ooo down by the highway side

So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

Although not a household name himself, some of those who aspired to be like him are Rock Legends. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Eric Clapton (Cream), The Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley were all inspired by the works of Robert Johnson, and their music has had great impacts on Pop, Rock, Country, Blues, and Heavy Metal.

In 1986, Robert Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.


1. Crossroad Blues

2. Love in Vain

Show video, “Roots of American Entertainment,” Part 2: Birthplace of American Music (10 min.)

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