It may be a stretch to call Robert Johnson's music unappreciated. His influence has reached from the 1920s to today and will assuredly continue into the far future, yet I wonder how people actually listen to him today.
The myth that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads to become a great guitarist has become a part of American culture and can be found on the printed page, in film, and on television. There's no doubt that Johnson was one of the best guitarists of all time. Spin magazine ranked him number 1
out of 35 guitar gods. Rolling Stone had him at number five out of a hundred guitar greats. Guitar.com was only slightly less enthusiastic, placing him ninth out of the 50 best guitarists. Four of his songs was entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. He's in the Grammy Hall of Fame. The U.S. Post office even issued a commemorative stamp of Johnson.
Robert Johnson has been praised by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, John Hammond, Elton John, and Rory Block, among others. Bands that have been influenced by him include Fleetwood Mac, Rush, and Slipknot.
It's not just his skill on the guitar that has brought him praise. His voice, singing style, and his ability to write lyrics place him as one of the most outstanding musicians of the Twentieth Century. But just who was this man?
He was born, perhaps in 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. His mother married Charles Dodds, who has forced to flee the area by a white mob. Robert and his mother moved to Memphis for two years before Robert was sent back to Mississippi to live with his father, who had changed his last name to Spencer. Thus Robert was known at that time as Robert Spencer. Sometime prior to 1929, he adopted the last name of his natural father, Noah Johnson. He married a sixteen-year-old girl who soon died in childbirth; the story went around that this was Robert's punishment for playing secular music (i.e., the blues).
He became an itinerant musician, playing on street corners, dances, and juke joints throughout the Mississippi Delta and beyond. The record is spotty, in part because he used so many aliases while traveling. He was a friendly, talented man who loved to drink and mess around with women. The enigma that was Robert Johnson died in 1938. One story has it that he was poisoned by a jealous husband, another that he died from syphilis. He was, it is believed, 27. He was buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which is uncertain although at least three sites claim to be his final resting place.
The link below takes you to his complete recordings -- 29 songs recorded in 1936 and 1937.