Robert Johnson facts for kids
Quick facts for kids
Studio portrait c. 1936, one of only three verified photographs of Johnson
|Birth name||Robert Leroy Johnson|
May 8, 1911|
Hazlehurst, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||August 16, 1938
Greenwood, Mississippi, U.S.
Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues musician and songwriter. His landmark recordings in 1936 and 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians. Although his recording career spanned only seven months, he is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly the Delta blues style, and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes him as being "the first ever rock star".
As a traveling performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson had little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime. He participated in only two recording sessions, one in San Antonio in 1936, and one in Dallas in 1937, that produced 29 distinct songs (with 13 surviving alternate takes) recorded by famed Country Music Hall of Fame producer Don Law. These songs, recorded solo in improvised studios, were the totality of his recorded output. Most were released as 10-inch, 78 rpm singles from 1937–1938, with a few released after his death. Other than these recordings, very little was known of him during his life outside of the small musical circuit in the Mississippi Delta where he spent most of his life; much of his story has been reconstructed after his death by researchers. Johnson's poorly documented life and death have given rise to much legend. The one most closely associated with his life is that he sold his soul to the devil at a local crossroads to achieve musical success.
His music had a small, but influential, following during his life and in the two decades after his death. In late 1938 John Hammond sought him out for a concert at Carnegie Hall, From Spirituals to Swing, only to discover that Johnson had died. Brunswick Records, which owned the original recordings, was bought by Columbia Records, where Hammond was employed. Musicologist Alan Lomax went to Mississippi in 1941 to record Johnson, also not knowing of his death. Law, who by then worked for Columbia Records, assembled a collection of Johnson's recordings titled King of the Delta Blues Singers that was released by Columbia in 1961. It is widely credited with finally bringing Johnson's work to a wider audience. The album would become influential, especially on the nascent British blues movement; Eric Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived." Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant have cited both Johnson's lyrics and musicianship as key influences on their own work. Many of Johnson's songs have been covered over the years, becoming hits for other artists, and his guitar licks and lyrics have been borrowed by many later musicians.
Renewed interest in Johnson's work and life led to a burst of scholarship starting in the 1960s. Much of what is known about him was reconstructed by researchers such as Gayle Dean Wardlow and Bruce Conforth, especially in their 2019 award-winning biography of Johnson: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson (Chicago Review Press). Two films, the 1991 documentary The Search for Robert Johnson by John Hammond Jr., and a 1997 documentary, Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?: The Life & Music of Robert Johnson, which included reconstructed scenes with Keb' Mo' as Johnson, were attempts to document his life, and demonstrated the difficulties arising from the scant historical record and conflicting oral accounts. Over the years, the significance of Johnson and his music has been recognized by the Rock and Roll, Grammy, and Blues Halls of Fame; and the National Recording Preservation Board.
Life and career
Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, possibly on May 8, 1911, to Julia Major Dodds (born October 1874) and Noah Johnson (born December 1884). Julia was married to Charles Dodds (born February 1865), a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker, with whom she had ten children. Charles Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but in less than two years she brought the boy to Memphis to live with her husband, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer. Robert spent the next 8–9 years growing up in Memphis and attending the Carnes Avenue Colored School where he received lessons in arithmetic, reading, language, music, geography, and physical exercise. It was in Memphis that he acquired his love for, and knowledge of, the blues and popular music. His education and urban context placed him apart from most of his contemporary blues musicians.
Robert rejoined his mother around 1919–1920 after she married an illiterate sharecropper named Will "Dusty" Willis. They originally settled on a plantation in Lucas Township in Crittenden County, Arkansas, but soon moved across the Mississippi River to Commerce in the Mississippi Delta, near Tunica and Robinsonville. They lived on the Abbay & Leatherman Plantation. Julia's new husband was 24 years her junior. Robert was remembered by some residents as "Little Robert Dusty", but he was registered at Tunica's Indian Creek School as Robert Spencer. In the 1920 census, he is listed as Robert Spencer, living in Lucas, Arkansas, with Will and Julia Willis. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927. The quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he was relatively well educated for a man of his background. A school friend, Willie Coffee, who was interviewed and filmed in later life, recalled that as a youth Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp. Coffee recalled that Robert was absent for long periods, which suggests that he may have been living and studying in Memphis.
Once Julia informed Robert about his biological father, Robert adopted the surname Johnson, using it on the certificate of his marriage to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died in childbirth shortly after. Surviving relatives of Virginia told the blues researcher Robert "Mack" McCormick that this was a divine punishment for Robert's decision to sing secular songs, known as "selling your soul to the Devil". McCormick believed that Johnson himself accepted the phrase as a description of his resolve to abandon the settled life of a husband and farmer to become a full-time blues musician.
Around this time, the blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville, where his musical partner Willie Brown lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a "little boy" who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Soon after, Johnson left Robinsonville for the area around Martinsville, close to his birthplace, possibly searching for his natural father. Here he perfected the guitar style of House and learned other styles from Isaiah "Ike" Zimmerman. Zimmerman was rumored to have learned supernaturally to play guitar by visiting graveyards at midnight. When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he seemed to have miraculously acquired a guitar technique. House was interviewed at a time when the legend of Johnson's pact with the devil was well known among blues researchers. He was asked whether he attributed Johnson's technique to this pact, and his equivocal answers have been taken as confirmation.
While living in Martinsville, Johnson fathered a child with Vergie Mae Smith. He married Caletta Craft in May 1931. In 1932, the couple settled for a while in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the Delta, but Johnson soon left for a career as a "walking" or itinerant musician, and Caletta died in early 1933.
From 1932 until his death in 1938, Johnson moved frequently between the cities of Memphis and Helena, and the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighboring regions of Mississippi and Arkansas. On occasion, he traveled much further. The blues musician Johnny Shines accompanied him to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and Indiana. Henry Townsend shared a musical engagement with him in St. Louis. In many places he stayed with members of his large extended family or with female friends. He did not marry again. He used different names in different places, employing at least eight distinct surnames.
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. Musical associates have said that in live performances Johnson often did not focus on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead pleased audiences by performing more well-known pop standards of the day – and not necessarily blues. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, he had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries later remarked on his interest in jazz and country music. He also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience; in every town in which he stopped, he would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.
Shines was 20 when he met Johnson in 1936. He estimated Johnson was maybe a year older than himself (Johnson was actually four years older). Shines is quoted describing Johnson in Samuel Charters's Robert Johnson:
Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of a peculiar fellow. Robert'd be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody's business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money'd be coming from all directions. But Robert'd just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn't see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks. ... So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along.
During this time Johnson established what would be a relatively long-term relationship with Estella Coleman, a woman about 15 years his senior and the mother of the blues musician Robert Lockwood Jr. Johnson reportedly cultivated a woman to look after him in each town he played in. He reputedly asked homely young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases, he was accepted, until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.
In 1941, Alan Lomax learned from Muddy Waters that Johnson had performed in the area around Clarksdale, Mississippi. By 1959, the historian Samuel Charters could add only that Will Shade, of the Memphis Jug Band, remembered Johnson had once briefly played with him in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and New York City. In 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond, who owned some of Johnson's records, directed record producer Don Law to seek out Johnson to book him for the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. On learning of Johnson's death, Hammond replaced him with Big Bill Broonzy, but he played two of Johnson's records from the stage.
In Jackson, Mississippi, around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir, who ran a general store and also acted as a talent scout. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who, as a salesman for the ARC group of labels, introduced Johnson to Don Law to record his first sessions in San Antonio, Texas. The recording session was held on November 23–25, 1936, in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played 16 selections and recorded alternate takes for most of them. Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom", "Sweet Home Chicago", and "Cross Road Blues", which later became blues standards. The first to be released was "Terraplane Blues", backed with "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", which sold as many as 10,000 copies.
Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session with Don Law in a makeshift studio at the Vitagraph (Warner Bros.) Building, on June 19–20, 1937. Johnson recorded almost half of the 29 songs that make up his entire discography in Dallas and eleven records from this session were released within the following year. Most of Johnson's "somber and introspective" songs and performances come from his second recording session. Johnson did two takes of most of these songs, and recordings of those takes survived. Because of this, there is more opportunity to compare different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his era. In contrast to most Delta players, Johnson had absorbed the idea of fitting a composed song into the three minutes of a 78-rpm side.
Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi, of unknown causes. Johnson's death was not reported publicly. Almost 30 years later, Gayle Dean Wardlow, a Mississippi-based musicologist researching Johnson's life, found Johnson's death certificate, which listed only the date and location, with no official cause of death. No formal autopsy had been done. Instead, a pro forma examination was done to file the death certificate, and no immediate cause of death was determined.
In 2006, a medical practitioner, David Connell, suggested, on the basis of photographs showing Johnson's "unnaturally long fingers" and "one bad eye", that Johnson may have had Marfan syndrome, which could have both affected his guitar playing and contributed to his death due to aortic dissection.
The exact location of Johnson's grave is officially unknown; three different markers have been erected at possible sites in church cemeteries outside Greenwood.
- Research in the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggests Johnson was buried in the graveyard of the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City, Mississippi, not far from Greenwood, in an unmarked grave. A one-ton cenotaph in the shape of an obelisk, listing all of Johnson's song titles, with a central inscription by Peter Guralnick, was placed at this location in 1990, paid for by Columbia Records and numerous smaller contributions made through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund.
- In 1990, a small marker with the epitaph "Resting in the Blues" was placed in the cemetery of Payne Chapel, near Quito, Mississippi, by an Atlanta rock group named the Tombstones, after they saw a photograph in Living Blues magazine of an unmarked spot alleged by one of Johnson's ex-girlfriends to be Johnson's burial site.
- More recent research by Stephen LaVere (including statements from Rosie Eskridge, the wife of the supposed gravedigger, in 2000) indicates that the actual grave site is under a big pecan tree in the cemetery of the Little Zion Church, north of Greenwood along Money Road. Through LaVere, Sony Music placed a marker at this site, which bears LaVere's name as well as Johnson's. Researchers Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow also concluded this was Johnson's resting place in their 2019 biography.
John Hammond Jr., in the documentary The Search for Robert Johnson (1991), suggests that owing to poverty and lack of transportation Johnson is most likely to have been buried in a pauper's grave (or "potter's field") very near where he died.
According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Johnson had a tremendous desire to become a great blues musician. One of the legends often told says that Johnson was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. (There are claims for other sites as the location of the crossroads.) There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The Devil played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This story of a deal with the Devil at the crossroads mirrors the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.
Johnson is considered a master of the blues, particularly of the Delta blues style. Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, said in 1990, "You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it". But according to Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, Johnson in his own time was most respected for his ability to play in a wide range of styles, from raw country slide guitar to jazz and pop licks, and for his ability to pick up guitar parts almost instantly upon hearing a song. His first recorded song, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", in contrast to the prevailing Delta style of the time, more resembled the style of Chicago or St. Louis, with "a full-fledged, abundantly varied musical arrangement". The song was part of a cycle of spin-offs and response songs that began with Leroy Carr's "Mean Mistreater Mama" (1934). According to Wald, it was "the most musically complex in the cycle" and stood apart from most rural blues as a thoroughly composed lyric, rather than an arbitrary collection of more or less unrelated verses. Unusual for a Delta player of the time, a recording exhibits what Johnson could do entirely outside of a blues style. "They're Red Hot", from his first recording session, shows that he was also comfortable with an "uptown" swing or ragtime sound similar to that of the Harlem Hamfats, but as Wald remarked, "no record company was heading to Mississippi in search of a down-home Ink Spots ... [H]e could undoubtedly have come up with a lot more songs in this style if the producers had wanted them."
An important aspect of Johnson's singing was his use of microtonality. These subtle inflections of pitch help explain why his singing conveys such powerful emotion. Eric Clapton described Johnson's music as "the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice". In two takes of "Me and the Devil Blues" he shows a high degree of precision in the complex vocal delivery of the last verse: "The range of tone he can pack into a few lines is astonishing." The song's "hip humor and sophistication" is often overlooked. "[G]enerations of blues writers in search of wild Delta primitivism", wrote Wald, have been inclined to overlook or undervalue aspects that show Johnson as a polished professional performer.
Johnson is also known for using the guitar as "the other vocalist in the song", a technique later perfected by B.B. King and his personified guitar named Lucille: "In Africa and in Afro-American tradition, there is the tradition of the talking instrument, beginning with the drums ... the one-strand and then the six-strings with bottleneck-style performance; it becomes a competing voice ... or a complementary voice ... in the performance."
Johnson mastered the guitar, being considered today one of the all-time greats on the instrument. His approach was complex and musically advanced. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson's music by his bandmate Brian Jones, he asked, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing it was Johnson playing one guitar. "I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realise he was doing it all by himself", said Richards, who later stated that "Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself". "As for his guitar technique, it's politely reedy but ambitiously eclectic—moving effortlessly from hen-picking and bottleneck slides to a full deck of chucka-chucka rhythm figures."
Johnson fused approaches specific to Delta blues to those from the broader music world. The slide guitar work on "Ramblin' on My Mind" is pure Delta and Johnson's vocal there has "a touch of ... Son House rawness", but the train imitation on the bridge is not at all typical of Delta blues—it is more like something out of minstrel show music or vaudeville. Johnson did record versions of "Preaching the Blues" and "Walking Blues" in the older bluesman's vocal and guitar style (House's chronology has been questioned by Guralnick). As with the first take of "Come On in My Kitchen", the influence of Skip James is evident in James's "Devil Got My Woman", but the lyrics rise to the level of first-rate poetry, and Johnson sings with a strained voice found nowhere else in his recorded output.
The sad, romantic "Love in Vain" successfully blends several of Johnson's disparate influences. The form, including the wordless last verse, follows Leroy Carr's last hit "When the Sun Goes Down"; the words of the last sung verse come directly from a song Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded in 1926. Johnson's last recording, "Milkcow's Calf Blues" is his most direct tribute to Kokomo Arnold, who wrote "Milkcow Blues" and influenced Johnson's vocal style.
"From Four Until Late" shows Johnson's mastery of a blues style not usually associated with the Delta. He croons the lyrics in a manner reminiscent of Lonnie Johnson, and his guitar style is more that of a ragtime-influenced player like Blind Blake. Lonnie Johnson's influence is even clearer in two other departures from the usual Delta style: "Malted Milk" and "Drunken Hearted Man". Both copy the arrangement of Lonnie Johnson's "Life Saver Blues". The two takes of "Me and the Devil Blues" show the influence of Peetie Wheatstraw, calling into question the interpretation of this piece as "the spontaneous heart-cry of a demon-driven folk artist".
Johnson is mentioned as one of the Delta artists who was a strong influence on blues singers in post-war styles. However, it is Johnson's guitar technique that is often identified as his greatest contribution. Blues historian Edward Komara wrote:
The execution of a driving bass beat on a plectrum instrument like the guitar (instead of the piano) is Johnson's most influential accomplishment ... This is the aspect of his music that most changed the Delta blues practice and is most retained in the blues guitar tradition.
This technique has been called a "boogie bass pattern" or "boogie shuffle" and is described as a "fifth–sixth [degrees of a major scale] oscillation above the root chord". Sometimes, it has been attributed to Johnnie Temple, because he was the first to record a song in 1935 using it. However, Temple confirmed that he had learned the technique from Johnson: "He was the first one I ever heard use it ... It was similar to a piano boogie bass [which] I learned from R. L. [Johnson] in '32 or '33." Johnny Shines added: "Some of the things that Robert did with the guitar affected the way everybody played. In the early thirties, boogie was rare on the guitar, something to be heard." Conforth and Wardlow call it "one of the most important riffs in blues music" and music historian Peter Guralnick believes Johnson "popularized a mode [walking bass style on guitar] which would rapidly become the accepted pattern". Although author Elijah Wald recognizes Johnson's contribution in popularizing the innovation, he discounts its importance and adds, "As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note".
Johnson's contemporaries, including Johnny Shines, Johnnie Temple, Henry Townsend, Robert Lockwood Jr., Calvin Frazier, and David "Honeyboy" Edwards were among those who kept his music alive through performing his songs and using his guitar techniques. Fellow Mississippi native Elmore James is the best known and is responsible for popularizing Johnson's "Dust My Broom". In 1951, he recast the song as a Chicago-style blues, with electric slide guitar and a backing band. James' version is identified as "one of the first recorded examples of what was to become the classic Chicago shuffle beat". The style often associated with Chicago blues was used extensively by Jimmy Reed beginning with his first record "High and Lonesome" in 1953. Sometimes called "the trademark Reed shuffle" (although also associated his second guitarist, Eddie Taylor), it is the figure Johnson used updated for electric guitar.
Several of Johnson's songs became blues standards, which is used to describe blues songs that have been widely performed and recorded over a period of time and are seen as having a lasting quality. Perone notes "That such a relatively high percentage of the songs attributed to him became blues standards also keeps the legacy of Robert Johnson alive." Those most often identified are "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Dust My Broom", but also include "Crossroads" and "Stop Breaking Down". As with many blues songs, there are melodic and lyrical precedents. While "Sweet Home Chicago" borrows from Kokomo Arnold's 1933 "Old Original Kokomo Blues", "Johnson's lyrics made the song a natural for Chicago bluesmen, and it's his version that survived in the repertoires of performers like Magic Sam, Robert Lockwood, and Junior Parker".
In the first decades after Johnsons' death, these songs, with some variations in the titles and lyrics, were recorded by Tommy McClennan (1939), Walter Davis (1941), Sonny Boy Williamson I (1945), Arthur Crudup (1949), Elmore James (1951–1959), Baby Boy Warren (1954), Roosevelt Sykes (1955), Junior Parker (1958), and Forest City Joe (1959). Pearson and McCulloch believe that "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Dust My Broom" in particular connect Johnson to "the rightful inheritors of his musical ideas—big-city African American artists whose high-powered, electrically amplified blues remain solidly in touch with Johnson's musical legacy" at the time of Columbia's first release of a full album of his songs in 1961.
In Jim O'Neal's statement when Johnson was inducted into the Blues Foundation Blues Hall of Fame, he identified "Hell Hound on My Trail", "Sweet Home Chicago", "Dust My Broom", "Love in Vain", and "Crossroads" as Johnson's classic recordings. Over the years, these songs have been individually inducted into the Blues Hall's "Classic of Blues Recording – Single or Album Track" category.
In the mid-1950s, rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry adapted the boogie pattern on guitar for his songs "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Johnny B. Goode". Author Dave Rubin commented:
his [Berry's] utilization of the bass-string cut-boogie patterns popularized by Robert Johnson on songs like "Sweet Home Chicago" ... subtly altered the swing feel of the boogie blues into a more driving, straight 4/4 meter while still maintaining a limber lilt that is often missing in the countless imitations that followed.
The pattern "became one of the signature figures in early electric guitar-based rock and roll, such as that of Chuck Berry and the numerous rock musicians of the 1960s who were influenced by Berry", according to Perone. Although music historian Larry Birnbaum also sees the connection, he wrote that Johnson's "contributions to the origins of rock 'n' roll are negligible". The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Johnson as an early influence in its first induction ceremony, in 1986, almost a half century after his death. It also included four of his songs it deemed to have shaped the genre: "Sweet Home Chicago", "Cross Road Blues", "Hellhound on My Trail", and "Love in Vain". Marc Meyers, of the Wall Street Journal, commented, "His 'Stop Breakin' Down Blues' from 1937 is so far ahead of its time that the song could easily have been a rock demo cut in 1954."
Several rock artists describe Johnson as an influence:
- Eric Clapton – "Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived". He recorded several of Johnson's songs as well as an entire tribute album, Me and Mr. Johnson (2004). Clapton feels that rather than trying to recreate Johnson's originals, "I was trying to extract as much emotional content from it as I could, while respecting the form at the same time."
- Bob Dylan – "In about 1964 and '65, I probably used about five or six of Robert Johnson's blues song forms, too, unconsciously, but more on the lyrical imagery side of things. If I hadn't heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down—that I wouldn't have felt free enough or upraised enough to write. [His] code of language was like nothing I'd heard before or since."
- Robert Plant – "A lot of English musicians were very fired up by Robert Johnson [to] whom we all owe more or less our existence, I guess, in some way". Led Zeppelin recorded "Traveling Riverside Blues" and quoted some of Johnson's lyrics in "The Lemon Song".
- Keith Richards – "I've never heard anybody before or since use the [blues] form and bend it so much to make it work for himself ... he came out with such compelling themes [and] just the way they were treated, apart from the music and the performance, [was appealing]." The Rolling Stones recorded "Love in Vain" and "Stop Breaking Down".
- Johnny Winter – "Robert Johnson knocked me out—he was a genius. [He and Son House] both were big influences on my acoustic slide playing." He recorded "Dust My Broom" with additional guitar by Derek Trucks.
Until the 1980s, it was believed that no images of Johnson had survived. However, three images of Johnson were located in 1972 and 1973, in the possession of his half-sister Carrie Thompson. Two of these, known as the "dime-store photo" (December 1937 or January 1938) and the "studio portrait" (summer 1936), were copyrighted by Stephen LaVere (who had obtained them from the Thompson family) in 1986 and 1989, respectively, with an agreement to share any ensuing royalties 50% with the Johnson estate, at that time administered by Thompson.
A third photograph of Johnson, this time smiling, was published in 2020. It is believed to have been taken in Memphis on the same occasion as the verified photograph of him with a guitar and cigarette (part of the "dime-store" set), and is in the possession of Annye Anderson, Johnson's step-sister (Anderson is the daughter of Charles Dodds, later Spencer, who was married to Robert's mother but was not his father). As a child, Anderson grew up in the same family as Johnson and has claimed to have been present, aged 10 or 11, on the occasion the photograph was taken.
Johnson left no will. In 1998, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Claud Johnson, a retired truck driver living in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, was the son of Robert Johnson and his only heir. The court heard that he had been born to Virgie Jane Smith (later Virgie Jane Cain), who had a relationship with Robert Johnson in 1931. The relationship was attested to by a friend, Eula Mae Williams, but other relatives descended from Robert Johnson's half-sister, Carrie Harris Thompson, contested Claud Johnson's claim. The effect of the judgment was to allow Claud Johnson to receive over $1 million in royalties. Claud Johnson died, aged 83, on June 30, 2015, leaving six children.
Eleven 78-rpm records by Johnson were released by Vocalion Records in 1937 and 1938, with additional pressings by ARC budget labels. In 1939, a twelfth was issued posthumously. Johnson's estate holds the copyrights to his songs. In 1961, Columbia Records released King of the Delta Blues Singers, an album representing the first modern-era release of Johnson's performances, which started the "re-discovery" of Johnson as blues artist. In 1970, Columbia issued a second volume, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II.
The Complete Recordings, a two-disc set, released on August 28, 1990, contains almost everything Johnson recorded, with all 29 recordings, and 12 alternate takes. Another alternate take of "Traveling Riverside Blues" was released by Sony on the CD reissue of King of the Delta Blues Singers. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Johnson's birth, May 8, 2011, Sony Legacy released Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection, a re-mastered 2-CD set of all 42 of his recordings and two brief fragments, one of Johnson practicing a guitar figure and the other of Johnson saying, presumably to engineer Don Law, "I wanna go on with our next one myself." Reviewers commented that the sound quality of the 2011 release was a substantial improvement on the 1990 release.
Awards and recognition
- 1980 – Blues Hall of Fame: performer
- 1986 – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: early influence
- 1990 – Spin magazine: first in its list of "35 Guitar Gods" on the 52nd anniversary of his death
- 1991 – Grammy Award: best historical album (The Complete Recordings)
- 1991 – Blues Music Award: reissue album (The Complete Recordings)
- 1994 – U.S. Postal Service: commemorative stamp
- 1995 – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll": "Sweet Home Chicago", "Cross Road Blues", "Hellhound on My Trail", "Love in Vain"
- 1998 – Grammy Hall of Fame: "Cross Road Blues"
- 2000 – Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame: Blues pioneer
- 2003 – National Recording Registry: The Complete Recordings
- 2003 – Rolling Stone's David Fricke: fifth on his list of "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time"
- 2006 – Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award: performer
- 2008 – Marker No. 29 on the Mississippi Blues Trail at his birthplace in Hazlehurst; also, at his presumed gravesite in Greenwood
- 2010 – Gibson.com: ninth on its list of "Top 50 Guitarists of All Time"
- 2014 – Grammy Hall of Fame: "Sweet Home Chicago
- 2015 – Rolling Stone No. 71 on its list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" (down from No. 5 on its 2003 list chosen by David Fricke)