Johnson, Robert (1911-1938), blues singer. During the blues revival of the early 1960s, he became known through his recordings as the most profound and influential master of the Delta blues. But at that time nearly nothing was known of his life. Research in the 1970s revealed that he was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. His mother, Julia Major Dodds, was separated from her husband, Charles Dodds, a furniture maker, with whom she had ten previous children; Robert's father was Noah Johnson, a plantation worker. Nobody knows how Robert learned music, but when he was 20 he was quickly recognized as a charismatic master. Like other blues singers, he moved from town to town, playing on street corners and at parties; eventually he travelled as far as Chicago and New York. He recorded 29 songs in Texas during 1936 and 1937, and died in 1938, after he was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he might have been having an affair.
He sang about loneliness, sex, and the fear of evil (one of his most gripping songs is called “Hellhound on My Trail”). His voice was high, and sometimes ghostly. With almost uncanny skill, he could change the sound of his guitar to echo the emotions of his singing; he also combined rhythmic, walking bass lines with sustained melodic flights, with a virtuosity never heard before. He influenced Chicago blues and 1960s rock. Long after his death, his songs were recorded by such important blues musicians as Muddy Waters and Elmore James, and also by Eric Clapton (“Crossroads”) and the Rolling Stones (“Love In Vain”). In 1990, a two-CD set of his complete recordings was released, and became an unexpected popular hit.