In 1961, the sleeve notes to the album King of the Delta Blues Singers included reminiscences of Don Law who had recorded Johnson in 1936. Law added to the mystique surrounding Johnson, representing him as very young and extraordinarily shy. The success of the album led blues scholars and enthusiasts to question every veteran blues musician who might have known Johnson or seen him in performance. A relatively full account of Johnson's brief musical career emerged in the 1960s, largely from accounts by Son House, Johnny Shines, David Honeyboy Edwards and Robert Lockwood.
Despite this work, very little was known of Johnson's early life with any certainty. The noted blues researcher Mack McCormick began researching his family background, but was never ready to publish. McCormick's research eventually became as much a legend as Johnson himself. In 1982, McCormick permitted Peter Guralnick to publish a summary in Living Blues (1982), later reprinted in book form as Searching for Robert Johnson. Later research has sought to confirm this account or to add minor details. A revised summary acknowledging major informants was written by Stephen LaVere for the booklet accompanying the compilation album Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1990), and is maintained with updates at the Delta Haze website. The documentary film The Search for Robert Johnson contains accounts by Mack McCormick and Gayle Dean Wardlow of what informants have told them: long interviews of David Honeyboy Edwards and Johnny Shines, and short interviews of surviving friends and family. These published biographical sketches achieve coherent narratives, partly by ignoring reminiscences and hearsay accounts which contradict or conflict with other accounts.
The two confirmed images of Johnson were located in 1973, in the possession of the musician's half-sister Carrie Thompson, and were not widely published until the late 1980s. A third photo, purporting to show Johnson posing with fellow blues performer Johnny Shines, was published in the November 2008 edition of Vanity Fair magazine. The same article claims that other photographs of Johnson, so far unpublished, may exist.
The first two photographs and the royalties from the Complete Recordings were so remunerative as to make Johnson's biography a cause for litigation. Carrie Thompson's claim to be Robert's half-sister has been recognized under law, and Claud Johnson has been recognized as Robert's natural son and sole living heir.
Five significant dates from his career are documented: Monday, Thursday and Friday, November 23, 26, and 27, 1936, at a recording session in San Antonio, Texas. Seven months later, on Saturday and Sunday, June 19–20, 1937, he was in Dallas at another session. His death certificate was discovered in 1968, and lists the date and location of his death. Two marriage licenses for Johnson have also been located in county records offices. The ages given in these certificates point to different birth dates, as do the entries showing his attendance at the Indian Creek School, Tunica, Mississippi. Most of these dates can be discounted, however, since Robert was not listed among his mother's children in the 1910 census. Carrie Thompson claimed that her mother, who was also Robert's mother, remembered his birth date as May 8, 1911. The 1920 census suggests he was born in 1912.
Other facts about him are less well established. Director Martin Scorsese says in his foreword to Alan Greenberg's film script Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, "The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend."
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, probably on May 8, 1911 or 1912, 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 gave birth to 10 children. Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners. Julia herself left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but after some two years, sent him to live in Memphis with Dodds, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Around 1919, Robert rejoined his mother in the area around Tunica and Robinsonville, Mississippi. Julia's new husband was known as Dusty Willis; he was 24 years younger than she. Robert was remembered by some residents as "Little Robert Dusty." However, he was registered at the Indian Creek School in Tunica as Robert Spencer. He is listed as Robert Spencer in the 1920 census with Will and Julia Willis in Lucas, Arkansas, where they lived for a short time. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927 and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he studied continuously and was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. One school friend, Willie Coffee, has been discovered and filmed. He recalls that Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp.
After school, Robert adopted the surname of his natural father, signing himself as Robert Johnson on the certificate of his marriage to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February 1929. She died shortly after in childbirth.
Around this time, the noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner, Willie Brown, already lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a boy who had followed him around and tried very unsuccessfully to copy him. Johnson then left the Robinsonville area, reappearing after a few months with a miraculous guitar technique. House's boast seems to be credible; Johnson later recorded versions of "Preaching the Blues" and "Walking Blues" in the older bluesman's vocal and guitar style. However, House's chronology is questioned by Guralnick. When House moved to Robinsonville in 1930, Johnson was a young adult, already married and widowed. The following year, he was living near Hazlehurst, where he married for the second time. From this base Johnson began travelling up and down the Delta as an itinerant musician.
According to a legend known to modern blues fans, Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, he was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. After tuning the guitar, the Devil played a few songs and then returned it to Johnson, giving him mastery of the guitar. This was, in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust; in exchange Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous.
This legend was developed over time, and has been chronicled by Gayle Dean Wardlow, Edward Komara and Elijah Wald, though Wald sees the legend as largely dating from Johnson's rediscovery by white fans more than two decades after his death. Folk tales of bargains with the Devil have long existed in African American and European traditions, and were adapted into literature by, amongst others, Washington Irving in "The Devil and Tom Walker" in 1824, and by Stephen Vincent Benet in "The Devil and Daniel Webster" in 1936. In the 1930s the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt recorded many tales of banjo players, fiddlers, card sharps, and dice sharks selling their souls at crossroads, along with guitarists and one accordionist. The folklorist Alan Lomax considered that every African American secular musician was "in the opinion of both himself and his peers, a child of the Devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace as sinful in the extreme".
Johnson seems to have claimed occasionally that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but it is not clear that he meant it seriously. However, these claims are strongly disputed in Tom Graves' biography of Johnson, Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, published in 2008. Son House once told the story to Pete Welding as an explanation of Johnson's astonishingly rapid mastery of the guitar. Welding reported it as a serious belief in a widely read article in Down Beat in 1966. However, other interviewers failed to elicit any confirmation from House. Moreover, there were fully two years between House's observation of Robert as first a novice and then a master. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be "The Crossroads" at Clarksdale and in Memphis.
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. He played what his audience asked for — not necessarily his own compositions, and not necessarily blues. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries, most notably Johnny Shines, later remarked on Johnson's interest in jazz and country. Johnson also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience — in every town in which he stopped, Johnson would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.
Fellow musician Johnny Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated that Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. In Samuel Charters' Robert Johnson, the author quotes Shines as saying:
"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 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 who was about fifteen years his elder and the mother of musician Robert Lockwood, Jr. Johnson, however, reportedly also cultivated a woman to look after him in each town he played in. Johnson supposedly asked homely young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases the answer was yes — until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.
Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir, who helped the careers of many blues players, put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas. At the recording session, held on November 23, 1936 in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall. This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. Johnson was probably nervous during his session in the makeshift recording studio (a new and alien environment for the musician), but he may simply have been focusing on the demands of his emotive performances. In addition, playing into the corner of a wall (referred to as "corner loading") was a sound-enhancing technique that simulated the acoustical booths of better-equipped studios. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these.
Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were "Come On In My Kitchen", "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" and "Cross Road Blues". "Come on in My Kitchen" included the lines: "The woman I love took from my best friend/Some joker got lucky, stole her back again/You better come on in my kitchen, it's going to be rainin' outdoors." In "Cross Road Blues," another of his songs, he sang: "I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please/Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Ain't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by."
When his records began appearing, Johnson made the rounds to his relatives and the various children he had fathered to bring them the records himself. The first songs to appear were "Terraplane Blues" and "Last Fair Deal Gone Down", probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. "Terraplane Blues" became a moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.
In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas, Texas, for another recording session in a makeshift studio at the Brunswick Record Building, 508 Park Avenue. Eleven records from this session would be released within the following year. "Stones In My Passway" and "Me And The Devil" are both about betrayal, a recurring theme in country blues, while "Hellhound On My Trail" is about the fear of the Devil, another common theme. Other themes in Johnson's music include impotence ("Dead Shrimp Blues" and "Phonograph Blues") and infidelity ("Terraplane Blues", "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" and "Love in Vain").
Because Johnson did two takes of most songs during these sessions, and recordings of those takes survived, there is the more opportunity to compare two different performances of a single song by Johnson than for any other blues performer of his time and place.
Six of Johnson's blues songs mention the devil or some form of the supernatural. In "Me And The Devil" he began, "Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning, umb, when you knocked upon my door/And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go,'" before leading into "You may bury my body down by the highway side/You may bury my body, uumh, down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride."
It has been suggested that the Devil in these songs does not solely refer to the Christian model of Satan, but equally to the African trickster god (himself associated with crossroads), Legba, although author Tom Graves claims the connection to African deities is tenuous at best. Graves' contention, however, probably stems from a lack of familiarity with the pervasive retention of African religious roots among Southern Blacks early in the 20th century. As folklorist Harry M Hyatt discovered during his research in the South from 1935–1939 when African-Americans born in the 19th or early 20th century told interviewers that they or anyone they knew had "sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads," they did not intend to convey thereby that the person in question was an evil, hell-bound anti-Christian. The confusion arises in the eyes of white interpreters who don't understand that the crossroads deity is a survival from polytheistic African religions and that he has been assigned the only name he can be given in a monotheistic religion. There is ample evidence supporting the African religious retentions surrounding Legba and the making of a "deal" (not selling the soul in the same sense as in the Faustian tradition cited by Graves) with this so-called "devil" at the crossroads.
In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois, and then to some states in the East. He spent some time in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas. By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.
Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood. There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding his death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says she was the wife of the juke joint owner, and that she was unaware that the bottle of whiskey she gave to Johnson had been poisoned by her husband; in another version, she was a married woman unrelated to the juke joint owner.
Researcher Mack McCormick asserts that he interviewed Johnson's alleged poisoner in the 1970s and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man. Johnson was allegedly offered an open bottle of whiskey that was laced with strychnine. Fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson, whose often-fabricated stories and half-truths warrant taking any claims lightly at best, allegedly advised him never to drink from an offered bottle that had already been opened. According to Williamson, Johnson replied, "Don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey, also laced with strychnine, and accepted it. Honeyboy Edwards, another blues musician, claims to have been present as well and essentially confirms this account, though his statement is questionable.
Johnson is reported to have begun feeling ill the evening after drinking from the bottle and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Strychnine was a common pesticide and thus was readily available at the time. Although it is very bitter-tasting and extremely toxic, a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could plausibly have gone unnoticed while still producing the symptoms (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) and eventual death that Johnson experienced.
In his book Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, Tom Graves uses expert testimony from toxicologists to dispute the notion that Johnson died of strychnine poisoning. He states that strychnine has such a distinctive odor and taste that it cannot be disguised, even in strong liquor. He also claims that a significant amount of strychnine would have to be consumed in one sitting to be fatal, and that death from the poison would occur within hours, not days.
The precise location of his grave remains a source of ongoing controversy, and three different markers have been erected at supposed burial sites outside of 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 memorial 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. Also in 1990 a small marker with the epitaph "Resting in the Blues" was placed in the cemetery of Payne Chapel near Quito, Mississippi, by the cemetery's owner Richard Johnson with the help of California music writer Jas Obrecht, who was making a putative claim to a relationship with Johnson. This alleged burial site, in an apparent attempt to strengthen a claim, happens to be located in the center of Richard Johnson's family plot.
More recent research by Stephen LaVere (including statements from Rosie Eskridge, the wife of the supposed gravedigger) 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. Sony Music has placed a marker at this site.
In 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond, who owned some of Johnson's records, sought him out 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 still played two of Johnson's records from the stage.
Robert Johnson's son, Claude Johnson, and grandchildren currently reside near Hazlehurst, Mississippi.