Once in a lifetime it seems that an artist from a musical genre outside the mainstream will transcend his particular style to become a popular icon in his own right. Delta bluesman Robert Johnson achieved such transcendent status — but not in his lifetime. Johnson died on Aug. 16, 1938, reputedly poisoned at a juke joint near Greenwood, Mississippi, having enjoyed only one hit record (“Terraplane Blues”) during his brief recording career. But in the years following Columbia Records’ LP reissues of his 1936-37 recordings, Johnson’s stature began to grow, as did the mythology surrounding the obscure details of his life and death. As both blues and rock bands began resurrecting his songs, and as various critics, historians and screenwriters theorized, analyzed, researched and even fictionalized the history and mystery of Robert Johnson, the legend exploded. The most fantastic scenario (for the movie “Crossroads”) had him selling his soul to the devil at a lonely country crossroads in Mississippi. When Columbia repackaged Johnson’s recordings as a boxed set in 1991, the public was so captivated by the spectre of the haunted blues poet that the set became the best-selling vintage blues reissue ever, not just in America but in Europe and Japan as well. College students who had never owned a blues record now had the Robert Johnson box on their shelves.

Johnson’s records sound startlingly original to listeners who have never heard much blues from the ’30s, and his style and his songs have reappeared in the music of so many famous blues and rock performers that his music has been cited as the source point of rock ‘n’ roll. But musicologists have traced every piece of music he recorded back to earlier sources — back primarily to the bluesmen who were the true stars of the 1930s: Leroy Carr, Kokomo Arnold, Peetie Wheatstraw, Lonnie Johnson, Johnnie Temple, Roosevelt Sykes, Blind Blake, and Charley Patton, among others. Yet Johnson did undeniably achieve something special and unique in the poetic, emotional quality of his original lyrics and guitar playing, and in the passion and intensity of his vocal performances. However, rather than citing him as the source from whom all blues has flowed ever since, a more realistic assessment would be to see Johnson as the gifted chemist who took all the blues he’d heard, added a volatile new trace element or two, funneled it all into his own mixture, and distilled it into a modernized form that was ready-made to be accessed, adapted, and amplified by a particular group of artists (including Muddy Waters and Elmore James) who followed and rose to greater fame, a process that extended to rock ‘n’ roll through the recordings of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and many more.

The history of Johnson’s life has been harder to document than that of his songs. Various birth places, birthdates, and death sites have been cited, and headstones have been placed in three different graveyards. But the most commonly accepted bio is that he was born on May 8, 1911 (or 1912 according to one census report and the age [26] listed on his death certificate) near Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and lived as a boy in Memphis and on the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation in Robinsonville, Mississippi. Johnson’s early guitar playing did not impress veteran Son House, one of the key influences on Johnson’s style, but at some later date when the two met, House was amazed that Johnson had become a spectacular guitarist. It was House’s story, related to interviewer Pete Welding, that gave rise to some of the speculation about Johnson’s involvement with the supernatural: “He must have sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that.” In the interim Johnson had actually spent some time back in Hazlehurst, where he had found a guitar mentor in Ike Zinnerman . Johnson began traveling, entertaining crowds wherever he went with a reputation for being able to play any song after hearing it just once. Johnson made his classic recordings, including “Hell Hound on My Trail,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Love in Vain,” and “Cross Road Blues,” at sessions in Dallas and San Antonio.

The fascination with Robert Johnson, the man, the music, and the myth, is nowhere so evident today as in the Mississippi Delta. Blues pilgrims from around the world continue to arrive in Clarksdale or Greenwood asking for directions to Johnson’s grave or searching for “THE” crossroads. But some of Robert Johnson’s secrets can never be unearthed.

— Jim O’Neal