Johnson, Robert, 1911–38, African-American blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter, b. Hazelhurst, Miss. A sharecropper's son, he grew up absorbing the music of Delta bluesmen, learning the harmonica and then mastering the guitar. Johnson left home around 1930 and for the rest of his life traveled the country, playing and singing at parties, juke joints, barrelhouses, and other venues. His reedy voice and virtuoso guitar technique combined in a classic blues sound, plaintive and lonely. The vagaries of love and evil are the themes of many of the songs he sang, whether written by others or himself, e.g., "Terraplane Blues" and "Hellhound on My Trail." In San Antonio (1936) and Dallas (1937) he recorded 29 blues songs, but a year later he was poisoned by a jealous husband. Though all that remains of his legendary work are those Texas recordings, Johnson's influence has been profound, on later blues players and on rock and rollers, some of whom, e.g., the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, have recorded his songs.
See his lyrics ed. by B. Groom and B. Yates (1969); biographies by P. Guralnick (1989) and S. Calt (2001); P. R. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture (2004), and E. Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.