8 May 1911 - Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst, Mississippi) [died 16th August, 1938]
From The Guardian/Observer http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/ma ... NTCMP=SRCH
Robert Johnson: fans mark the centenary of the great bluesman's birth
Robert Johnson was the most influential blues player of all time. Now the last of his musical collaborators will play for his devotees in a centennial celebration
Robert Johnson died when he was just 27, but he influenced generations of blues musicians.
David "Honeyboy" Edwards's voice all but creaks as he talks, but even at 95 the closest living musical link to blues legend Robert Johnson remains as potent a force as ever.
"I met Robert when I was 20 years old and he was 24," Edwards recalls. "He was playing the harp [harmonica] with Son House and Willy Brown near a Mississippi lake called Lake Cormorant."
On Sunday, fans worldwide will celebrate the centenary of Johnson's birth. Concerts are being held in Greenwood in Mississippi's Delta region, where Johnson died in 1938 aged just 27, as well as a memorial service in nearby Little Zion, believed to be his final resting place. His grandson, Steven, a church minister, will lead the prayers.
For Edwards, Johnson's friend, regular gig partner and the last surviving major blues musician from the era before the second world war, it is a day to cherish. He was present at Johnson's final performance in August 1938. Johnson fell ill while playing in a small country bar, apparently poisoned by a lover's jealous husband, and died a few days later.
"In 1936, he left [his hometown Robinsonville, Mississippi], then he wasn't [really] playing the guitar [well], then he came back next year, famous and playing more tricks and more guitar than anybody in the Mississippi Delta," Edwards says. "Everybody was flocking round him, every time he recorded, it was a hit number nearabouts. We don't know how he done it."
Mystery surrounds Johnson's demise – "no doctor" is the laconic comment on one side of his death certificate. And there is equal uncertainty about what exactly lay behind his musical genius. For many years legend had it that he had sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in a Faustian pact to rise to the top of his profession.
For all his talent and enduring legacy, however, Johnson's music originally had a limited appeal. The sort of recordings he made – a singer accompanied by a single guitar – were already disappearing from the black music scene, and even his greatest hit, Terraplane Blues, sold just 5,000 copies in its first run. But in the early 1960s, a reissue compilation LP of Johnson's music could not have been better timed. Called King of the Delta Blues, with 16 of Johnson's total opus of 41 recorded songs, it became a gateway to the genre for British guitar players, including Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.
"When you think you're getting a handle on playing the blues, you hear Robert Johnson and then think, 'Whoa, there's a long way to go yet'," said Richards in the 1990 documentary The Search For Robert Johnson. Clapton described him as "the greatest folk blues player of all time … the greatest singer, the greatest writer".
"You can't hear a blues tune or a rock tune that don't have some of Robert's chords in it," added another of Johnson's musical associates in the documentary, the late Johnny Shines, "because he made them all."
Thanks to his rise to fame, one of the two known photos of the mysterious Johnson – a grinning, besuited young man – has appeared on everything from LP covers to American postage stamps. His records, and cover versions of them, have sold in millions.
Edwards, who started playing guitar when he was eight, is still on the road. When interviewed, he was on a 100-mile drive to Milwaukee to play at one of the many centennial gigs he will be giving this year. "All I was doing was playing music," Edwards recalls. "When I was running round in America, about 30 years old, I didn't want no woman. I knowed I could make enough money to take care of myself, but I didn't want nobody to take care of." Together Edwards and Johnson made the most of the variety offered by blues, playing upbeat tunes as well as the landmark classics. "We used to play different kinds of music at the time between ragtime stuff and boogie-woogie music," he says.
"I used to play too with a boy who played a saxophone. We didn't play no blues, we'd play a lot of love songs – Stardust, Blue Moon, Out Cold Again, Sophisticated Lady, Stars Fell On Alabama, a lot of different stuff."
Another key blues figure, pianist Pinetop Perkins, died in March. Now Edwards is the last of his generation of bluesmen who is still playing. He says he is still exploring the boundaries of his art. "I ain't learn everything yet at 95," he says. "[But] I got good fingers, that's one thing, I got good fingers. If it weren't for them fingers I wouldn't be going now."
Michael Frank, director of Earwig records and Honeyboy Edwards's manager, said: "Being the only person who really knew Robert Johnson and who can still talk about him, Honey is sought after. [He] is the final bridge to that first generation of the blues, to [guys] like Son House, Robert Johnson and Charley Patton – both in terms of his music and personal associations. He's able to conjure up those stories as if they were yesterday."
Justin Williams, head of popular music at Anglia Ruskin University, said that Johnson's influence on the contemporary music world was clear. "Looking at Eric Clapton trying to recreate Johnson's sound, his struggle for fidelity to Johnson, shows that there was something unique about him," he said.
"Sometimes canons are more about how someone has influenced future music-making rather than their solitary abilities. Dying young is … the ultimate representation of Romanticism. And recording only 41 songs just adds to the mystique."
• The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday 22 May 2011. King of the Delta Blues was the second, not the first, of the Robert Johnson compilations. Johnson's first collection was on the Classic Jazz Masters LP Robert Johnson, 1936-37 in 1961. The King collection (CBS 64102) completing the oeuvre (save for nine alternative takes) was not released in the UK until 1970.