Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, where he and his family worked on a plantation. Robert’s mother, Julia, and her husband Charles Dodds, had ten children before Robert was born.
When Robert was around four years old, Charles Dodds moved to Memphis and he was sent to live with him. There he learned the basics of the guitar and then he was again sent to live with his mother and her new husband Dusty Willis.
Even from an early age, Robert was interested in music and it is known that he had skill playing the harmonica as a child but he was a terrible guitar player.
The bluesman Son House, a contemporary of Robert said that he was not good at all until he disappeared for a few weeks. When he returned, he possessed unmatched guitar-playing skills and an impressive technique.
Soon he became a master of blues. Apparently, he was so good that rumors spread that he made a pact with the Devil so he could obtain guitar-playing talent.
Legend has it that Johnson took his guitar to the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61, where he made a deal with the devil, who retuned his instrument in exchange for his soul. Johnson wrote a song titled Me And The Devil and he just fueled the rumors even more.
He traveled around the U.S. as an itinerant musician and he wrote and recorded 29 songs in Dallas and San Antonio from 1936 to 1937. Among them are “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” and “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Another mystery attached to Johnson’s life is his death. In the summer of 1938, he was playing in Greenwood, Mississippi when someone gave him a poisoned bottle of whiskey. Apparently, Robert Johnson drank the whiskey and died three days later on August 16, 1938. He was only 27 years old.
No one knows for sure who poisoned Robert Johnson. Some say that a woman gave him the poisoned bottle of whiskey while another theory states that the whiskey was given to him by a jealous husband of a woman Johnson was involved with.
The story about Robert Johnson does not end with his death and his burial place is a matter of debate as well. There are three headstones erected in separate cemeteries around Greenwood.
In the 1960s, when the reissue of Johnson’s work came out, he became popular again and influenced many musicians like Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, the Rolling Stones and many others. He is one of the greatest blues performers of all time.