(c) google images. All images remain the property of their creator.
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1911. After his death in 1938 he became known as The King of the Delta Blues Singers. Despite being recognized as a competent harmonica player, another musician Son House said he was an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Johnson took the name of his natural father and it is believed that he left the town of Robinsonville in order to search for him. During his stay in Martinsville he trained with Son House and another guitar player, Isaiah ‘Ike’ Zinnerman who was rumoured to have gained his own guitar skills supernaturally by lurking in graveyards at midnight.
When he returned to Robinsonville he seemed to have gained a new proficiency with the guitar, his skill level having supposedly risen too much and too fast to be attributed to practice or tuition alone, although there were at least two full years between House meeting Johnson as a novice guitar player and labelling him as a master.
According to legend Johnson was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. Crossroads have long been a place associated with darkness and demons and to this day are locations for many creepy games, such as Tsuji-ura.
At the crossroad Johnson made a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul for mastery of the guitar. This legend may have arisen because Johnson chose to play secular songs, which was known locally as ‘selling your soul to the devil.’ After this legend became well known Son House was interviewed and asked whether he believed it. His equivocal answers were taken as confirmation that such a deal took place. Another version suggests that this meeting took place in a graveyard, not at a crossroad, probably influenced by his connection to Zinnerman. You can read more about the pact here.
Johnson died at age 27. Reports about his death vary greatly, but one of the more well known accounts details how Johnson was playing at a dance near Greenwood and began flirting with a married woman. She offered him a bottle of whisky, poisoned by her husband, but a friend knocked it from his hand, advising him not to drink what he hadn’t seen opened. Johnson was apparently angered by this and accepted the next poisoned bottle. He died three days later in severe pain. Although strychnine was suggested as the possible cause, both Tom Graves and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards have made compelling cases which dispute this (strychnine has a distinctive odour and taste and kills rapidly).
Another source claims that Johnson died of syphilis.
It is believed he was buried as a pauper in an unmarked grave in the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City. However, more recent research has suggested he was in fact buried under a pecan tree in the Little Zion Church.