Johnson, Robert (iii) [Dodds, Robert; Spencer, Robert]
(b Hazlehurst, MS, 8 May 1911; dGreenwood, MS, 16 Aug 1938). American blues singer and guitarist. As a boy he travelled with his mother around plantations and labour camps playing the jew’s harp and the harmonica. About 1927 he acquired a guitar. He was married in 1929 but his wife died in childbirth the following year. He then led a brief and reportedly wild adult life as a musical hobo in the South. Shortly before his apparently violent death, he made a number of excellent and highly influential recordings in San Antonio and Dallas; they characterize Mississippi blues of the mid-1930s and form the link between this tradition and modern Chicago blues. His work was influenced by Son House and recordings by the guitarist Lonnie Johnson, and clearly shows an awareness of Skip James and Hambone Willie Newbern, whose themes he adapted in 32·20 Blues (1936, Voc.) and If I had possession over Judgment Day (1936, Col.). The latter piece, not issued in his lifetime, revealed the tormented, even prophetic theme in his work that culminated in Hell Hound on my Trail (1937, Voc.). Johnson’s voice was taut and often strained, and he sometimes used falsetto effectively, as on Kind Hearted Woman (1936, Voc.). His guitar playing combined dramatic rhythms with agitated whining effects produced by a bottleneck slide. The persistent walking bass rhythm in I believe I’ll dust my broom and Ramblin’ on my Mind (both 1936, Voc.) profoundly influenced both the postwar generation of blues singers, including Elmore James, his one-time companion Johnny Shines and his stepson Robert Lockwood jr, and those involved in the British blues-rock boom of the 1960s such as Eric Clapton and John Mayall. Alternative recording takes of his performances show that they were well-rehearsed. He performed popular songs, such as My Blue Heaven, and became a professional travelling musician in the 1930s, using Helena, Arkansas, as his home base. Johnson epitomized for white blues enthusiasts the quintessential black American blues artist, and his life and work have become a romantic legend. When his complete recordings were re-issued on two CDs in 1990 the set rapidly sold 500,000 copies, becoming the most successful blues issue to that date.