Few stories are as shrouded in mystery as Robert Johnson’s. The beloved guitarist unwittingly spawned an entire movement of music in two recording sessions from 1936-1937. Some say he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for otherworldly guitar playing and singing skills, but whatever the case may be, there’s no denying the impact that Robert Johnson has had on music.
The bluesman was born in the Mississippi delta on this day, May 8th, of 1911. Though he only lived for twenty-seven years, Johnson’s guitar-playing would live on through two recording sessions: one in San Antonio in 1936, the other in Dallas in 1937. Each produced some of Johnson’s most renowned songs, like “Cross Road Blues”, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, “Come On In My Kitchen”, “They’re Red Hot”, “Walkin’ Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, and countless more.
When the recordings were reissued in 1961, they received a lot of attention worldwide. It was Robert Johnson’s voice and guitar style that would go on to influence artists like The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and countless others. He essentially created rock n’ roll, years before others would popularize it. He also was one of the best guitar players, not only of his time but of all time, capturing an emotional raw style with just an acoustic.
Another intriguing aspect of the Robert Johnson story is the mystery of his identity. Little is known about Johnson’s origins, and, while his birthday is celebrated on this day because that’s what his mother remembered, there’s really little evidence that May 8th, 1911 is actually Johnson’s birthday. Only a handful of Robert Johnson photographs exist, and the circumstances surrounding his death are unclear as well. Of course, if you sell your soul to the devil in exchange for guitar playing abilities, the devil is going to collect his due sooner or later…
In 2011, Sony Legacy released the Centennial Collection on Johnson’s 100th birthday, complete with each of the 42 tracks and outtakes recorded by Johnson during his two studio sessions. The remastered audio adds an extra dynamic to the recordings, almost bringing Johnson and his music back to life. In celebration of what is presumably Johnson’s 107th, let’s listen to Robert Johnson’s The Centennial Collection below: