73 years ago today, Robert Johnson is thought to have passed away outside of Greenwood, Mississippi. Johnson is literally the stuff legends are made of. He is likely the most celebrated, revered Blues man to have ever lived, and his legacy, influence and even his sales are still burning red-hot decades after his death — a striking testimony to his unmatched musical talent. Johnson is a mainstream legend, the poster boy of the faustian “selling your soul to the devil” pact, and the archtypical idea of what a true delta blues man was. There is no question Robert Johnson was a creative and skilled guitarist, however, many modern greats such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards prefer a different description: genius. And yet, even though a recent reissue of the only 29 songs he ever recorded sold half a million copies and won a Grammy, virtually nothing is known about Robert Johnson, the man.
Numerous researchers, historians, fans and writers have spent countless hours digging through records, trying to find information that pertained to Johnson. A number of books have been written on the man, and what little we do know, or rather believe to be true, has been dissected nearly every way possible. Yet, despite all of this, what we know for certain is that Johnson recorded a mere 29 songs, and that a man named Robert Johnson, after three painful days of suffering, passed away today, August 16th, 1938. He was quietly buried in a makeshift grave, with no fanfare, and no mourners. Even the exact location of that grave is a matter of dispute. Though the true details of the man named Robert Johnson are likely forever gone to history, the most important contribution he left to the world, his music, has lived on to influence countless musicians and fans alike.
“The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.” – Martin Scorsese
Those that Johnson has inspired reads like a who’s who of rock stars: Eric Clapton, Jack White, John Lennon, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, Robert Plant, and dozens of other artists have spoken candidly about their influence by, and awe of, Johnson’s prowess. Posthumous Grammy awards, Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, topping numerous “best guitarist” charts, Grammy Hall of Fame, Blues Foundation Awards, Special honors from Library of Congress, and dozens of tribute albums from Eric Clapton, Rory Block, Big Head Todd, and countless compilations are among Johnson’s many vast posthumous achievements, nearly all of which were showered upon his ghost starting nearly 40 years after his death.
While his life may be relegated to near-mythical status, without his music, the landscape of our popular culture and our musical development as a country and a world would never have been the same. We are forever in the debt of a man that we know nothing about.