The story of Robert Johnson, one of the most influential blues musicians to have ever lived, is an enigma. His quick transition from novice guitar player to master of the craft is attributed to a deal with the devil. His cause of death at 27 remains murky and the site of his grave is uncertain. Even information about what Johnson looked like is slim—there are only three published photographs of him, the most recent revealed two years ago by a relative. The mystery does more than just add layers to Johnson’s story: It highlights the miracle that we even know of Johnson’s genius.
Johnson, born in Mississippi in May of 1911, was the youngest of 11 children born to Julia Major Dodds, the daughter of freed slaves. His conception was a result of Dodds’ affair with a field hand named Noah Johnson after Dodds’ husband fled Mississippi and his family to avoid being lynched over a dispute with white landowners.
The South that Johnson knew was two generations removed from slavery and the failure of Reconstruction—the era of Jim Crow was taking hold. Legalized segregation and lynchings led many black Americans to migrate north to safer conditions and more opportunities. But Johnson did not leave. Johnson stayed in Mississippi and picked up a guitar.
According to blues patriarch Son House, Johnson’s career did not begin well. His first performance in front of a live audience resulted in him being removed from the stage. Johnson responded by disappearing for around a year before returning to the juke joint where he had previously been ejected. After receiving permission to take the stage, Johnson shocked the bar patrons with the playing of someone who had, in a very short time, not only become a master of his craft but an innovator—a rapid transformation that led to the myth that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil.