Eric Clapton called Robert Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived”.
Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27 near Greenwood, Mississippi. It’s not clear how he died and some legends have grown up around the subject, e.g. that he was poisoned by the husband of a woman he had flirted with. On is death certificate, the county registrar wrote that the man on whose plantation Johnson died was of the opinion he died of syphilis.
Just as the details of his death are murky, so are many of the details of his life. Again, there are a number of legends about it, the most important of which is that he made a deal with the devil at a crossroads near the Dockery Plantation (or near Hazelhurst or Beauregard, Mississippi, depending on the version). He met the devil at midnight and handed him his guitar. The devil tuned it and played a few tunes then handed it back. At that instant Johnson attained full mastery over the instrument and gave his soul for the fame he would receive as a musician.
Only a couple of pictures of Robert Johnson exist, and a few recordings.
When you listen to his music, you may not be struck at once by its greatness or power.
I think it’s like trying to understand how the first moving pictures or first “talkies” were received by the audiences of the day. They had never seen anything like them before and their minds were blown. To the contemporary movie audience, bored even with 3D or CGI magic, those early innovations now seem like nothing at all. Maybe it’s the same with the early music innovators.
During his life and even twenty years after his death, Johnson was virtually unknown. He got the recognition he deserved after the 1961 release of the Columbia album, “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, and a much wider and mostly white audience heard his music. Many of the greats of Rock and Roll and R&B claim Johnson as a primary influence.
“Sweet Home Chicago” was one of four of his tunes included by the Rock and Roll all of Fame in their list of 500 that shaped the blues genre. This is the 1936 recording:
I was thinking about all this after stumbling on this version of Sweet Home Chicago, in which Barack Obama helps out the immortal Buddy Guy (and a constellation of other extremely bright stars). Obama could do it all and make you feel good, too. No Executive Order or even Executive Tweet can roll back this part of his legacy.
Some other modern members of the “27-Club”, important and highly original musicians who died at age 27: