JAMES "SPARKY" RUCKER
Robert Johnson and the Roots of the Delta Blues
(The text in this essay is protected by copyright and is for the personal use of students, scholars, and the public. Any commercial use or publication of it is strictly prohibited.)
Out of the Delta Region of Mississippi came a young man who’s legacy was to be a creation of a whole new style for the playing of the blues. A young man who was rumored, as claimed by Son House, to have “made a deal with the Devil.”1 This man’s name was Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazelhurst, MS to Julia Dodds and Noah Johnson.2 A land dispute had been the cause of Julia’s rightful husband, Charles Dodds, Jr., leaving Mississippi for the greener pastures of Tennessee. Charles had abandoned his wife of 18 years fleeing the wrath of the “prominent Marchetti Brothers” to set up residence under the name of “Spencer” in Memphis in 1907.3 Dodds later sent for his “mistress” Serena, and her sons, along with some of his children by Julia, and together they made a “new life” for themselves.4
Julia Ann Majors Dodd, in light of her abandonment by Charles Dodds, soon took up an acquaintance with Noah Johnson, Robert’s father. She later moved to Memphis and moved in with Charles and his family, including Serena. Dodds was loathe to accept this child which was not his, and this became a major source of friction in the now Spencer household.5 Julia finally struck out on her own leaving Robert in the care of his stepfather and stepmother, as the breach between she and Charles was too great to overcome.6 It was in this atmosphere of uncertainty that Robert began to play the blues and to hone his skills as a musician. He was later to have a major influence on the music from the delta and to become the “father” of the “Chicago Blues” sound.
To fully understand the “Delta Blues” and Robert Johnson’s place in it’s hierarchy, we have to examine his predecessors and contemporaries. One such man was Charlie Patton (1891-1934),7 who was born near Bolton and Raymond in southern Mississippi.8 He was a small but powerful man who was “discovered” while working on William O. Dockery’s plantation which was “between Cleveland and Ruleville” near Rosedale, MS.9 Patton was a “half-brother”10 to Sam Chatmon and other members of the famous Chatmon Family of “Mississippi Sheiks” fame. The prevalent Minstrel and Medicine Show music of those days heavily influenced Charlie’s music as is evidenced by his “clowning” during his performances.11 He would “slap” the strings of his guitar12 and pound it to accentuate the rhythms and syncopation of the music. His unusual style influenced many musicians of his time like Willie Brown and Tommy Johnson, both legends in their own right.13 His influence on Tommy Johnson can be seen in comparing his song “High Water Everywhere”14 with Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues.” Strains of both songs can be heard in the music of Sam Chatmon, Babe Stovall’s “Careless Love/Big Road Blues,” The Mississippi Sheiks’ “Stop and Listen,”15 and Memphis musician Hattie Hart’s “I Let My Daddy Do That” (1934).16 He often sacrificed the musicality of his performances for the sake of showmanship by standing up and playing the guitar behind his head as he sang and danced.17 It is evident, to a certainty, that Charlie had a musical influence on Robert Johnson. Compare Charlie’s “Tom Rushen Blues” (c. 1928/29)18 with Robert’s “From Four Till Late” (1937).19 These songs share similar tunes and techniques.
Other influences on Robert Johnson were Mississippi musicians Eddie “Son” House, and Willie Brown who accompanied both “Son” House and Charlie Patton on numerous occasions. Robert even mentions Willie Brown in his song “Crossroads.”
“You can run, you can run…tell my friend Willie Brown.”20
Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. was born near Clarksdale, MS on March 21, 1902.21 He had spent many of his years as a sharecropper and a Baptist preacher before his career as a musician began to emerge. He remembered Robert as “a little boy standing around…[who] blew a harmonica…but who wanted to play a guitar… He’d slip off and come over to where we were…and sit down…and watch from one to the other [“Son” and Willie Brown]…and he would pick one of [the guitars]…up…and such another racket you never heard!”22 “Son” was to change his mind about Robert’s guitar style a few years later when Robert again showed up at a gig which “Son” and Willie were playing. “He was so good!” said House. “When he finished all our mouths were standing open.”23 Years later when “Son” first heard Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” (1936) he remarked, “That boy is really going places.”24 “Son” House’s influence on Robert can be seen when one compares House’s “My Black Mama”25 (c.1929) with Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” (1936)26. The strident guitar lick, which Robert “borrowed” from “Son” is also evident in the song “Come On in My Kitchen.” (1936)27 Another comparison between the two is on House’s “Preachin’ the Blues”28 with Robert Johnson’s “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” (1936).29 Still another comparison between “Son” House and Robert Johnson can be found when contrasting the guitar styles of House’s “Walking Blues”30 with Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” (1936)31
A lot of these musicians made their living by playing in “Road Houses” or “Juke Joints” for dances, or by playing “on the streets” for tips. Some used a metal guitar called a “National Steel-bodied Guitar,"32 which contained a metal resonator, that rang out with a loud crisp sound, which could be heard over the noise of the dance, or the street sounds. In careful listening to some of Robert Johnson’s recordings it appears that he used one of these guitars from time to time.33
Robert had an immediate influence on some of his contemporaries like Johnny Shines, who traveled with Robert in his last years. John and another musician named Robert Jr. Lockwood34 were frequently seen with Johnson as they toured the country playing their special brand of music. “We’d be playing on a street corner,” said Johnny, “when we’d look up…and Robert would be gone. We’d not see him again for several months.”35
There were many later musicians who showed some of Robert Johnson’s influence were Mississippi based James “Son” Thomas and Lonnie Pitchford. “Son” Thomas was an unassuming man, very kind and gentle, who had a rough life. His songs reflected his suffering. Lonnie Pitchford, a member of my generation, seemed to posses the spirit of Robert Johnson’s music. But sometimes it seemed that the Robert Johnson “lifestyle” possessed him as well. If one closed their eyes you would swear that you were listening to Robert Johnson himself. Alcohol and body abuse finally wore him down. The world will sorely miss the potential that Lonnie Pitchford possessed.
In assessing Robert Johnson’s influence on later musicians we also have to turn to the so-called “Chicago Blues” sound. Artists such as “Muddy Waters” (McKinley Morganfield), “Howling Wolf” (Chester Burnett), and Elmore James all owe their styles to Robert Johnson. “Muddy” played bottleneck style on “Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings”(The Historic 1941-42 Library of Congress Field Recordings).36 In the interview with Alan Lomax, which is also included on this recording, “Muddy” gives credit to Robert Johnson’s recording of “Walkin’ Blues” (1936)37 and “Son” House’s guitar playing for the musical inspiration behind the song “Country Blues”(1941).38 He stated that he didn’t know Robert personally but that he had learned a lot from his friend “Son.”39 When “Muddy” moved his music and his style to Chicago where he added amplification, harmonica, horns, drums, and bass, etc., the “Chicago Blues” was born.
Another Mississippi musician who helped to form the “Chicago Blues” style was Chester “Howling Wolf” Burnett. His “blues howl” [similar to the “blue yodel” of Robert Johnson] earned him the nickname of “Howling Wolf.” “Wolf” was a major influence on Tennessee blues man Johnny Shines. “They used to call me ‘Little Wolf’,” said John.40 John Shines was to alter his style of playing after he met and traveled with Robert Johnson.41 The best example of Robert Johnson’s influence on “Wolf” can be seen in the powerful bottleneck playing of the song “Red Rooster”42 “Wolf’s” influence on the “Chicago Blues” is undisputed.
Elmore James’ effect on the “Chicago Blues” sound is also undisputed. When one hears his song, “Sweet Home Chicago” one only has to hear the earlier Robert Johnson recording of “Sweet Home Chicago” (1936)43 to see who his immediate influence was.
“On Saturday night…August 13, 1938,”44 Robert Johnson met his death in Greenwood, MS while playing at a Jook Joint at Three Forks. His legendary “woman troubles” brought on his demise. He and Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards had been playing together at the club for two weeks.45 Dave mentioned that Robert had been “messin’ around” with a woman and this made her boyfriend/husband angry. As they were playing someone passed an open bottle of whiskey around and offered it to Johnson. “Honeyboy” said, “Man! Don’t be drinkin’ from an open bottle!”46 Robert’s response was typical of someone his age when he responded that no one would tell him what to do. He drank from the bottle which contained poison…supposedly placed there by the jealous woman’s husband. Three days later he was dead.47 This last episode in Robert Johnson’s life can be summed up in these lines from his song “Kindhearted Woman Blues” (1936).48
“She’s a kindhearted woman she studies evil all the time…You [just as] well’s to kill me as to have it on your mind.”49
James “Sparky” Rucker