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Happy Birthday to the Father of the Blues, the Mysterious Robert Johnson

For a man who was not only the avowed forerunner of modern blues music -- Eric Clapton once called him "the most important blues singer that ever lived" -- relatively little is known about the brief life of Robert Johnson. Even the information that has been uncovered is often contradictory or in dispute. 

Still, more than a hundred years after his birth on May 8, 1911, his influence resonates and his songs remain standards that are covered to this day. However, we do know that he enjoyed little recognition during his lifetime. Most of his performances were confined to juke joints and street corners.

With the tiny bit of factual information on Johnson, it's little surprise that even his name is in dispute. His mother's second husband was Dusty Willis, and as a result, the youngster was known by some as "Little Robert Dusty." When he was registered at school, he was identified as Robert Spencer. Later, when he went on the road, he continued to adopt a variety of aliases. It was only after he completed his education that he took the name of his natural father and identified himself as Robert Johnson on a marriage certificate confirming his union with 16-year-old Virginia Travis. 

After his young wife died in childbirth, another popular myth was born -- that he was cursed by the devil for playing secular songs. In fact, Johnson was supposed to have formed a pact with the devil, and it was said that his evolution from a terrible guitarist to a remarkably innovative musician was due to satanic influences. Many claimed that the encounter transpired at a crossroads (as suggested by one his most enduring songs), while others believed that it took place at a graveyard. Since Johnson never alluded to the incident, it appears that only the devil knows for sure.

Likewise, Johnson's birth date is a matter of debate. Two different marriage licenses have been located, but each gives a different date, as does his school registration. His sister says his mother gave the year of his birth as 1911, but the 1920 census specifies 1912. Only three actual photos of him are known to exist, and much of his life story is based on hearsay or anecdotal evidence that is unreliable at best. 

The cause of his death on August 16, 1938, has been the subject of differing reports as well. Most accounts say that he was poisoned by the husband of a woman he courted, but who that man was has never been ascertained. Some say he was poisoned with strychnine, but others insist that the poison could have been detected and avoided, even though it was allegedly used to spike his whiskey. Supposedly, he hung on for three days until he succumbed to death, but others will testify to the fact that if he had been poisoned, his death would have come within hours. Likewise, his final resting place is a matter of debate. Three different gravestones are said to mark this spot. Others say that since he was penniless, when he passed, his remains were placed in a pauper's grave near where he died.

It follows, then, that even the intimate descriptions of his personality have also become contradictory. Although he was an avid, traveling troubadour and involved in many personal relationships throughout his life, those who knew him said he was very shy, soft-spoken, and fond of whisky. And while he wrote several songs that would later become classics, he often entertained his audiences by playing well-known standards. Even his recording career was marked with inconsistency. It lasted only two years, but in that short time, he was associated with no fewer than three record labels.

The contradictions even extend to his musical style. While most credit him with playing Delta blues, he also incorporated elements of country blues, urban blues, and even jazz and swing into his sound. Either way, he didn't get his due until much later. With the release of the album King of the Delta Blues Singers in 1961, Johnson's name finally became better known, and his reputation increased substantially. 

In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as "an early influence," and four of his songs are included among the tracks that helped shape the evolution of the genre. The Complete Recordings, a double-disc box set released by Sony/Columbia Legacy on August 28, 1990, won a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album, and in 2006, he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award nearly half a century after his passing.

It's a mark of his relevance that many of Britain's elder musical statesmen have credited Johnson as a key influence in their own career tracks:

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin publicly stated that he and his contemporaries owe their existence to him in some way. Zeppelin once recorded "Traveling Riverside Blues," a song based on Johnson's original, and quoted a number of Johnson's songs in the lyrics.

Eric Clapton called Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived." He devoted an entire album to Johnson's songs with 2004's Me and Mr. Johnson. His recording of "Crossroads" with Cream in 1969 became one of his signature songs, and Cream's cover of "Four Until Late" helped define their seminal sound.

The Rolling Stones were huge fans of Robert Johnson, as evidenced by the fact that they recorded two of his numbers -- "Love in Vain" for their album Let It Bleed and "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" for Exile on Main Street.

During their original blues incarnation, Fleetwood Mac performed Johnson songs on their early albums. Lead guitarist Peter Green would later go on to record Johnson's entire catalog over the course of two albums, The Robert Johnson Songbook and Hot Foot Powder.

Alexis Korner, the so-called "Founding Father of British Blues", cowrote and recorded a song titled "Robert Johnson" on his 1978 release, The Party Album.

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One thing's certain - the Robert Johnson songbook has yet to reach its final chapter.

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Lee Zimmerman

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