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Who Is Robert Johnson?

04/17/2015 03:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

Everything in our universe has an origin, a point in time where the person, story or object was thrust into existence. Some origins are infinitely more interesting and dramatic than others, but how do we know if all of them are true?

Back in 1938, talent seeker John Hammond wanted to have a concert in Carnegie Hall called "From Spirituals to Swing." The point of this concert was to show the evolution of music from African Americans starting from slave spirituals up to the popular music of the time, swing. Along the way, Hammond realized he needed an artist to represent southern blues, so he sent one of his talent seekers down to Mississippi. The man came back with a record from an artist who no one knew of, but said to Hammond that this man was the best he found. Hammond listened to the record, and said that this man needed to be in the concert. While Hammond was looking for this man, he found out that he had died. The blues singer died from a poisoned glass of whiskey he had been given by the husband of a woman who the musician had slept with (a proper death for a Mississippi blues singer if I've ever heard one). At the concert, Hammond ended up playing the dead musicians record over the PA because he wanted everyone else to hear this soon to be legendary dead musician, Robert Johnson.

On March 23rd, 2004, Eric Clapton released an album called "Me and Mr. Johnson," which contained recreations of many of Robert Johnson's most well known songs. This album brought Robert Johnson back into the spotlight after many dormant decades. An already widely known story about Robert Johnson began to circulate even more. The story goes that Robert Johnson actually used to not be a very good musician. He wasn't anyone special and wasn't even somewhat good enough to be someone special one day. One day, Johnson came back to his town, and shocked everyone with how unbelievably good he suddenly was. When asked how he got so good out of nowhere, Johnson supposedly responded that one night he went to a crossroads just before midnight. He sat there playing his guitar, when "a large black man" walked up to him, took his guitar, played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson and walked away. In that moment, Johnson sold his soul to the devil for mastery of the instrument.

This story is an integral part of the history of music. While it's memorable, and gives a ton of depth and complexity to Robert Johnson, it's unclear whether or not it's actually true. The story about the crossroads actually came from Tommy Johnson, a completely different blues musician. At some point in time, for better or for worst, the names got switched. Robert Johnson conveniently has 3 songs that all seem to point back to the crossroads story, while it seems pretty clear that he had nothing to do with the story of the crossroads. This leaves the modern day viewer, such as you or me, in the dark in terms of the true origins of the blues legend Robert Johnson. While Robert Johnson's origin may not be necessarily true, his music is no less phenomenal and mesmerizing to listen to with the story of him selling his soul to the devil for unbelievable talent.

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