The Lesser-Known Member of the 27 Club: Robert Johnson’s Deal with the Devil

Why is Robert Johnson one of the most studied country blues musicians? The blues singer and guitarist from the 1930s apparently influenced tons of artists, from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton The Rolling Stones. He shaped the future of rock’n’roll as we know it. So what is it about this man from rock and blues past that makes him so mysterious? Well, it could just be…perhaps…his deal that he supposedly made with the devil.

Robert Johnson holding his guitar for an album cover photo.
Source: Tumblr

The most popular story surrounding Johnson’s life, the one that inspired, fascinated and even tired everyone out, is the one about him selling his soul to the Devil. The music and short-lived life of Robert Johnson have been surrounded by mystery. But one thing is clear – he was a damn good blues musician. Dying at the age of 27 and making a supposed deal with the devil are just some of the things that turned this man into a legend.

The 27 Club

If you haven’t heard of the notorious “27 Club,” it’s an unofficial list of talented musicians who have died way before their time; at the age of – you guessed it – 27. It only seems reasonable to think the number represents something mystical or beyond our means, right? Decades before Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse all left us at the same age, Robert Johnson could be seen as the club’s founding member.

Amy Winehouse at the Elle Style Awards in 2007. / Janis Joplin performing in the 1960’s. / Jim Morrison of The Doors.
Photo by Alan Davidson, / Ray Stevenson, / Araldo Di Crollalanza,

Before selling your soul to rock and roll ever became a “thing,” Robert Johnson died in 1938, at age 27, under mysterious and violent circumstances. By that point, he was already a legend. His story of meeting the devil at the “Crossroads” to make a deal for his extraordinary talent had already become an urban legend at the time. After his death, the music legend became what may be argued as the first-ever rock star.

The 11th Child

Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, around May 8, 1911. Between then and August 16, 1938 (27 years later), he lived a remarkable life. One that warranted the description of “The greatest singer, the greatest writer.” Johnson passed away at Three Forks, near Greenwood, Mississippi. This was during a time when life expectancy was shorter than today’s. And Johnson’s was cut even shorter.

Steven and Robert Johnson standing with a painting of Robert Johnson with Tanya Scott, Ben Minnifield, and Claud Johnson in 2014.

Robert’s mother, Julia, had 10 children before Robert was even born. All 10 were born in wedlock, by the way, with her sharecropper husband named Charles Dodds. Julia was around 40 years old when Robert was born (this time, illegitimately). His father was a plantation worker named Noah Johnson. It was probably because her husband Charles wasn’t around.

Growing Up in Memphis

Charles Dodds had to move out of Mississippi to Memphis as a result of the problems he was having with some Hazelhurst landowners. He was forced by a lynch mob to leave town. Julia left Hazlehurst with her baby Robert, but two years later, she sent the boy to Memphis to live with her distant husband, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.

A cotton plantation in Mississippi in 1937 with cabins in the background belonging to the sharecroppers.
Photo by Granger /

Robert grew up in Memphis, learning the basics of the guitar from one of his brothers. Then, when he was around eight or nine in 1919, Robert went back to live with his mother and her new husband in the Mississippi Delta plantation. Her husband was known as Dusty Willis, who was 24 years younger than her.

Meant for Music

While Robert was registered at Tunica’s Indian Creek School as Robert Spencer, many people around town called him Little Robert Dusty. He was much more interested in music than working in the fields, which happened to cause problems with his stepfather. An old school friend, Willie Coffey, who was interviewed many years later, recalled that as a kid, Robert was already recognized for playing the harmonica and jaw harp.

A young boy playing Jaw harp.
Photo by Maria Symchych /

Coffey also said how Robert was absent for long periods of time, which suggests that he might have been living and studying in Memphis (as opposed to Mississippi where he went to school with Coffey). After school, Robert changed his last name to that of his father’s, signing as Robert Johnson on the certificate of his marriage – one that would end too soon…

A Short and Tragic Marriage

By the time he was 19, Robert had met and fell for a girl named Virginia Travis. The two got married on February 17, 1929, in Penton, Mississippi. She was just 16 years old at the time and sadly, she passed away a year later in April of 1930 during childbirth. Surviving relatives of Virginia later told blues researcher Robert “Mack” McCormick what her death meant to Robert.

Robert “Mack” McCormick in January 1962.
Photo by Ed Valdez / Houston Chronicle

According to his late wife’s relatives, her early death was a “divine punishment” for Robert’s eventual decision to sing secular songs, which legend has it was his choice to sell his soul to the devil. But don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon.

By 1930, someone by the name of Son House ended up becoming a major influence on Johnson.

A “Little Boy” Learning the Guitar

Son House was considered to be the most gifted of the Delta bluesmen of that time. He had just moved to live in Robbinsville, where his musical partner, Willie Brown lived. And that’s when Robert first heard him play. Later, House recalled Johnson as a “little boy” who played a mean harmonica. House recalled years later that “he blew a harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar.”

The Gateway to the Blues museum and visitors center in Tunica, Mississippi.
Photo by Jim West / imageBROKER /

It was House and Willie Brown that served as Robert’s unofficial guitar teachers. He would sit and watch them play, and when they would take a break he played their guitars. According to House, Johnson wasn’t good at all, “…such a racket you never heard ‘Get that guitar away from that boy’” people would say. “He’s running people crazy with it.”

This was said of the eventual music legend…

Hiatus in Martinsville

Soon after seeing House play, Johnson left for Martinsville (close to his birthplace) possibly to search for his birth father. There he perfected the same guitar style as Son House. He also learned other guitar styles from Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman. The legend behind Zimmerman was that he learned supernaturally to play guitar when he would visit graveyards at midnight.

Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman holding a guitar at the foot of a bed.
Source: Tumblr

While he was living in Martinsville, Johnson had a baby out of wedlock with a woman named Vergie Mae Smith. He then married Caletta Craft in May of 1931 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. In 1932, the married couple moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi. As pattern has it, Caletta also died in childbirth. Johnson would then start what was called a “walking” or traveling musician.

He Came Back a New Musician

Robert Johnson would travel through the Delta, working on his guitar playing and performing at Juke joints and picnics. By 1932, when Johnson showed up again in Robinsonville, it was as though he miraculously acquired a guitar technique. Son House and Willie Brown were staggered by his improvement. “He was so good. When he finished, all our mouths were standing open.”

A black and white photograph of Son House holding a guitar.
Source: wikipedia

House was interviewed much later as research was being done on Johnson. He was asked whether he attributed Johnson’s newfound miraculous technique to this legendary pact with the devil. His answer was taken as confirmation, which only begs the question: What happened to Robert Johnson when he was in Martinsville? Did he meet the devil? And what was involved in this deal?

His Deal With the Devil

The deal with the devil legend entered the mainstream when the 1986 movie ‘Crossroads,’ starring Joe Seneca and Ralph Macchio came out. According to the legend, the young aspiring musician who came from a plantation in rural Mississippi had a tremendous desire to become a blues musician. Legend has it that he was told to take his guitar to a crossroad by Dockery Plantation at midnight. It was there that he met a large black man who took the guitar and tuned it.

Steve Vai, Gretchen Palmer, Ralph Macchi, and Joe Seneca in Crossroads 1985 on stage.
Photo by Columbia / Kobal /

The devil then played a few songs on the guitar and returned it to Johnson, essentially giving him mastery of the instrument. So what was the deal? In exchange for his soul, he would be able to create the blues music that he would eventually become famous for. Not only were Son House and Willie Brown amazed, Johnson was making heads turn and listen…

A Wandering Musician

From 1932 until his untimely death in 1938, Robert Johnson moved a lot between the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta. And on occasion, he would travel much farther. He went to Chicago, New York, Detroit, and St Louis. Johnson traveled and played with blues musician Johnny Shines. Johnson met Shines in 1933, who was just 17 years old at the time.

Johnny Shines performing on stage.
Source: Tumblr

Johnny said how Robert was as likely to perform other people’s songs as his own. He performed songs by everyone from Bing Crosby to Lonnie Johnson. He would, like many others, perform the songs that earned him the most money, songs his audiences were requesting. Story has it that Johnson would often concentrate his performance on one woman in the audience.

Getting Signed

By the time he was in his mid-20s around 1935 (and after his second wife died), he went to H.C. Speir’s store in Jackson, Mississippi. Like many of his musical colleagues, he wanted to record his music. Speir wasn’t just a store – it was a place that scouted talent for the ARC record label. By November 23, 1936, Robert Johnson was in San Antonio to record his first of 29 tracks.

Farish Street in Jackson in the ‘30s with the H.C. Speir store.
Source: YouTube

That day, he recorded the track ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues.’ The following days, he would record ‘32-20 Blues’ and a bunch of other songs. What was he paid? He got possibly no more than $100. Johnson was back on a train in no time to get back to Mississippi and resume the life of a traveling musician, only a tiny bit richer from his recording session.

His First Hit Singles

Johnson’s first release was ‘Terraplane Blues’ together with ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues.’ The double track was the only one that sold in somewhat high numbers at the time. Then ‘32-20 Blues’ was coupled with ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down,’ followed by ‘I’ll Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ with ‘Dead Shrimp Blues.’

Johnny Shines performing the blues.
Source: Pinterest

His sales were by no means plentiful, but they were good enough for Johnson to be sent back for some more recording sessions. This time, he went to Dallas to record three more sides on June 19, 1937. He left with 10 more songs. After that session, Johnson stuck around Texas, playing gigs with Johnny Shines.

Shines had this to say about Johnson…

Speaking of Peculiar

“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,” Johnny Shines said. “Robert would be standing up playing someplace, playing like nobody’s business. At about that time, it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure.”

Blues City Café on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennesse.
Photo by Patrick Frillet /

“And money would be coming from all directions. But Robert would 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.”

It’s clear that Johnson went to the beat of his own drum. Something that would eventually lead to his death…

Was Robert Johnson Murdered?

It is still not understood exactly how Robert Johnson died, and considering the fact that it’s been decades since his death, chances are we might never know what really happened. At this point, there is only hearsay as to the details of his death. Johnson died on August 16, 1938, by Greenwood, Mississippi, of “unknown causes.”

Gayle Dean Warlow over ten years ago. / Gayle Dean Warlow in 2019.
Photo by Jeff Harris/

His death was never reported publicly; he simply disappeared from historical records and it wasn’t until about 30 years later, when Gayle Dean Wardlow, a music researcher, started looking into Johnson’s life and found his death certificate. The certificate only listed the date and location of his death, with no official cause. You can imagine how strange this would be – that a musician who died of mysterious causes went unnoticed. And not just any musician. One that made a “deal with the devil!”

Mysterious Circumstances

No formal autopsy was ever done. Keep in mind that this was in the late 1930s. Therefore a dead black man was found by the side of a road near a farm and only a death certificate was issued. A certificate in which no immediate cause of death was determined. Some theories were thrown around as to how he died. It’s likely that he contracted congenital syphilis.

Robert Johnson’s death certificate.
Source: Twitter

It was later suspected by medical professionals that it was likely a contributing factor in his death. But with 30 years of urban legend and folklore contributed to the stories of his death and what had really happened to the blues singer and musician.

Maybe a look into his actions before his death will help…

Theories on His Death

There are differing accounts that describe the events before his death. Johnson was playing for a few weeks at a country dance about 15 miles from Greenwood. One theory has it that Johnson was murdered by a jealous husband of a woman who he flirted with. Blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson said that Johnson had been flirting with a married woman.

Sonny Boy Williamson, blues singer, with his harmonica.
Photo by Associated Newspapers /

And at one of their shows and she gave him a bottle of whiskey that was poisoned by her husband. But when Johnson took the bottle, Williamson whacked it out of his hand, telling him to never drink from a bottle that he personally didn’t see opened. Johnson replied by saying, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Not long after, he was given another bottle and accepted it. That was the “poisoned bottle.”

Tracking Down the Murderer?

Johnson was reported as having felt ill the evening after he accepted that bottle and had to be helped back up to his room in the early morning. Over the next few days, his condition got steadily worse. Witnesses reported that Johnson died in a sudden state of severe pain. Musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick claimed to have found research to support this theory.

Nux Vomica, known as The Strychnine Tree is a highly poisonous alkaloid strychnine and brucine and looks like mushrooms.
Photo by Medicimage /

McCormick claimed that he tracked down the man who murdered Robert Johnson and even got a confession from him in a personal interview. The only thing is he didn’t reveal the man’s name. While the poison, called strychnine, was suggested as the one that killed Johnson, experts think it’s false and have reasons for why they don’t think it was poison at all…

The Poison Isn’t So Likely

Tom Graves wrote a book called “Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson.” He used expert testimony from toxicologists to make his argument that strychnine has such a noticeable odor and taste that it couldn’t be disguised, even if it was in strong liquor. So basically, Johnson would have noticed and wouldn’t have drunk from the bottle.

The cover of the book ‘The Life And Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson’ by Tom Graves.
Source: Pinterest

Graves also argued that a significant amount of that poison would have to be taken in one sitting in order for it to be fatal. Also, death from the poison would take hours, not days. So, if the poison would have smelled so bad that he would have noticed and if the effects would have taken a lot less time, then it sounds like poison wasn’t the cause of Johnson’s death. So what was?

Some Clarifying Information

Cornelia Jordan, from the LeFlore County registrar, conducted an investigation into Johnson’s death years later and wrote a clarifying note on the back of his death certificate. She wrote: “I talked with the white man on whose place this negro died, and I also talked with a negro woman on the place. The plantation owner said the negro man, seemingly about 26 years old, came from Tunica two or three weeks before he died to play banjo at a negro dance given there on the plantation.”

The Dockery farms seed house, part of the old Dockery Farms plantation.
Photo by Ed Mithcell / Future Publishing /

“He stayed in the house with some of the negroes, saying he wanted to pick cotton. The white man did not have a doctor for this negro as he had not worked for him… He was buried in a homemade coffin furnished by the county. The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the man died of syphilis.”

Syphilis or Marfan Syndrome?

So was it syphilis as some had assumed? Researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow was the one who found the death certificate and the information on the back of it, which points to the notion that Johnson might have been born with congenital syphilis. According to some doctors, it’s entirely possible that Johnson had an aneurysm that was caused by syphilis combined with his love of drinking moonshine.

An old weathered wooden barn with a cow skull on the wall and a Moonshine Still.
Photo by Greg Welch /

In 2006, a medical practitioner by the name of David Connell analyzed the photographs showing Johnson’s “unnaturally long fingers” and “one bad eye.” Based on those photos, Connell suggested that Johnson might have had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes people to have long and lanky limbs. Apparently, it could have affected his guitar playing and even contributed to his death.

Eric Clapton Devoted a Whole Album to Him

Johnson made only a few recordings in his short life (29 songs in total) but those songs went on to influence legends like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, fellow 27 club member Brian Jones, and many others. Not to mention the hundreds of blues guitarists in the Delta and Chicago who tried to pick Johnson’s brain, stopping short of selling their own souls to outplay him.

Eric Clapton at a Christmas Special performance in Britain in 2004.
Photo by Andre Csillag /

Johnson didn’t know it at the time, but he would eventually influence just about everyone who picked up a guitar and played rock and blues. Eric Clapton was one of the most vocal in paying tribute to the King of the Delta Blues. He even recorded a complete album in his name: 2004’s Sessions for Robert J.

His Style of Music

While the cause and circumstances of his death are covered in mystery, his influence on future rock and roll is clear. One short film on Johnson claims: “one thing is for certain: No Robert Johnson, No Rock and Roll.” Other early bluesmen, such as Blind Willie Johnson and Son House, had similar influence on 60s blues revivalists, as did electric guitar players like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King.

BB King performing in 1984.
Photo by Nils Jorgensen /

But Johnson was an innovator and a singular voice, but his range, like most blues players at the time, consisted of versions of older songs, or responses to other talented musicians. But two of his songs, “Cross Road Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues,” contributed the myth about his pact with the devil.

His Songs Gave Clues

Both of the songs “Cross Road Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues,” contributed to the popular myth of his pact with Lucifer, including lyrics about a dark angel coming to collect his debt. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Satan comes knocking on his door early in the morning. “Hello, Satan,” sings Johnson, “I believe it’s time to go.”

A drawing of Robert Johnson handing his guitar to the devil and ‘I went to the crossroad’ written on top.
Source: Pinterest

A lot of what is known about Johnson’s life comes from these songs, as well as rumors and insinuations. One blues singer claims she met Johnson as a child and remembers him by the end of his life as “ill” and “sickly,” according to the Austin Chronicle. He was “in a state of physical disrepair as though he’d been roughed up.”

At the Crossroads

People living in the Delta today will roll their eyes when tourists ask them where they can find the infamous “crossroads.” That is if they don’t know how to find it on their own (or if they don’t use Waze). Those who are more Google Maps savvy don’t bother asking and just go to the junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49.

The “crossroads” of Highway 61 and Highway 49.
Source: Tumblr

The crossroads of these two highways is half a mile from the one that most likely would have existed in Johnson’s lifetime. Here’s the thing: there are no actual crossroads. In “Cross Road Blues,” Robert sang of a man’s need to make choices. Choosing between good and evil. But people took the metaphor as literal crossroads.

Lyrics of the Devil

The lyrics of the famous song go: “I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees/I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above ‘Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.’”

One long-standing Delta myth talks of a bluesman waiting by deserted country crossroads under the dark sky of a moonless night, waiting for Satan himself to come and tune his guitar.

A movie cover for Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-In-Law.

The urban legend was made even more relevant to Johnson’s frequent references to the devil. In “Me And The Devil Blues,” he sings, “Me and the Devil, was walkin’ side by side.” But Johnson was not the only bluesman who sang about the devil. Skip James, Tampa Red, Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, and Peetie Wheatstraw all sang about Satan. Wheatstraw even nicknamed himself “The Devil’s Son-in-law” after making one of his 1931 recordings.

Keith Richards Gives Him Credit Where Credit is Due

If Johnson was still alive, he would have been 100 years old now. He became one of the most studied of all country blues musicians, the subject of many books, movies, and essays. Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) said of Johnson’s music in 1990: “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.”

Keith Richards performing in 1964.
Photo by Frank Monaco /

Johnson’s approach to the guitar was complex and advanced. When Keith Richards’ bandmate Brian Jones first introduced him to Johnson’s music, he asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?” He didn’t realize that Johnson was playing one guitar. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself,” Richards said. He also stated how “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.”

Chucka Chucka Rhythm

“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,” Keith Richards described of Johnson’s style. Johnson also had the same impact on frontman Mick Jagger. And the band performed his song “Walkin’ Blues” at the Rock and Roll Circus in 1968.

The Rolling Stones and more at the Rock and Roll Circus in 1968.
Source: Tumblr

According to Elijah Wald, in his book called “Escaping the Delta,” Johnson was most respected in his day for his ability to play a wide range of styles, from country slide guitar to jazz and pop. He could pick up guitar parts immediately after hearing a song. His first recorded song, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” was very different from the prevailing Delta style of the time.

He Wasn’t a Loner

Not everyone believes the myths that have been told about Robert Johnson and his life. According to folklorist Barry Lee Pearson, professor at the University of Maryland and co-author of the book “Robert Johnson: Lost and Found,” says none of the myths about him are true. “The popular mythology has him as a total loner and kind of lived this life in regret as a repayment for his alleged sin of making a contract with Old Scratch.”

The cover of the book Robert Johnson: Lost and Found by Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch.
Source: Pinterest

Despite having no real biographical information, Pearson says the early blues writers of that time got a little carried away. “Everybody was so anxious to make this devil story true that they’ve been working on finding little details that can corroborate it,” he explained.

A Lasting Impression by an Unknown Talent

The timing of Johnson’s death was pretty tragic. A legendary Columbia Records talent scout by the name of John Hammond was hoping to book Johnson at Carnegie Hall for the “Spirituals to Swing” concert in 1938 (the year he died). Hammond ended up being the driving force behind the first reissued album of Johnson’s music in 1961 – King of the Delta Blues Singers.

Johnson’s album called Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues singer.
Source: eBay

At the time, Johnson was so unknown that Columbia Records didn’t even have a photo of him to put on the cover of the album. The album was produced by Frank Driggs, who wrote the liner notes. “If you read the liner notes,” Driggs said, “you see next to nothing. ‘Cause I just created a thing out of whole cloth when I wrote the notes. Because there really was very little known about the guy.”

Clapton Identified With Him

That LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, essentially introduced Johnson’s music to a whole new generation of young, and mostly white blues fans, including the likes of Eric Clapton, as he told NPR in 2004. “It was on Columbia, and it had, like, some pretty interesting sleeve notes on it about the fact that these were the only sides he had cut,” Clapton recalled.

Eric Clapton in Blind Faith.
Photo by Smp /

Clapton explained how he instantly identified with him. “They had done it in a hotel room, and when he was auditioning for the sessions, he was so shy, he had to play facing into the corner of the room. I mean, I immediately identified with that, because I was paralyzed with shyness as a kid.”

He Was Unlike the Others

But there might be another reason why Johnson recorded the track facing the wall. Elijah Wald, the musician and author of “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues,” claims that there were blues musicians who played guitar and sang better than Johnson, but unlike most of them, Johnson learned from listening to the radio and records.

Elijah Wald performing at Hillman City Collaboratory in Seattle, Washington.
Photo by Joe Mabel / Creative Commons Attribution

Sound is one of the things that distinguished Johnson’s tracks from other records of that time. By facing the wall, Wald thinks Johnson might have been making his vocals sound better. Wald said: “Robert Johnson certainly was very conscious of what a hit record sounded like. If you listen to something like Come on in My Kitchen, he’s singing very quietly, and he actually has a moment when he says, “Can’t you hear the wind blowin’?” He whispers it and then plays this very quiet riff. That never would have worked on a street corner or a Mississippi juke joint, but it sounds great on records.”

His Music is Still Being Sold

Many of Johnson’s friends of the past, including Johnny Shines, dismissed the devil myth as false. “No,” Shimes said, “he never told me that lie. If he would’ve, I would’ve called him a liar right to his face. You have no control over your soul. How you gonna do anything with your soul?” But the myth persists, mostly because it helped sell records.

Steve Berkowitz sitting posed for the camera, producer at Sony Legacy.
Source: Twitter

In fact, it’s still helping sell records to this day. Steve Berkowitz, a producer at Sony Legacy, is reissuing Johnson’s music again, only this time in a new centennial edition. “That was always the heart and soul of the marketing plan,” Berkowitz explained. “We always knew the music was great. But a guy sells his soul to the devil at midnight down at the crossroads, comes back and plays the hell out of the guitar, and then he dies. I mean, it’s a spectacular story.”

Where is Robert Johnston Buried?

The location of where Johnson is buried might be just as confusing as the circumstances surrounding his death. There are actually three headstones standing in separate cemeteries around Greenwood (where he died). One headstone was erected by Sony Music. At another location, a headstone was paid for and planted by the members of ZZ Top.

The gravesite of Robert L. Johnson with ‘musician and composer, he influenced millions beyond his time’ written on it.
Photo by Ed Mithcell / Future Publishing /

Then, in the summer of 2000, an 85-year-old woman by the name of Rosie Eksridge said that long ago her husband helped bury Johnson in a graveyard located 3 miles from Three Forks. That spot now has a headstone placed in the graveyard. But in the 1991 documentary, ‘The Search for Robert Johnson,’ John Hammond, Jr. suggests that due to poverty and lack of transportation Johnson was most likely buried in a pauper’s grave (“potter’s field”) very close to where he died.

A Genius Songwriter?

Johnson’s music is considered brilliant, and his delivery and guitar playing were unique and respected, but the songs he recorded were derivative of other earlier recordings. And for sure, those records are probably derivative of other songs that were passed around from one generation to the next. But it would only be fair to reveal Johnson’s influences.

Skip James performing in black and white.
Source: Tumblr

The song ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ was Influenced by Leroy Carr. ‘I’ll Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’ was based on Kokomo Arnold’s ‘Sagefield Woman’ Blues. ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ was based on Kokomo Arnold’s ‘Old Original Kokomo Blue’s.’ ‘Come on in My Kitchen’ was influenced by ‘Sitting on Top of The World’ by The Mississippi Sheiks. The song ‘32-20 Blues’ was based on Skip James ‘22-20 Blues.’ And those are just a few examples.

Other Robert Johnsons

The Radiolab podcast episode titled “Crossroads” was broadcast in April 2012 on NPR. The episode raised the possibility that there may have been more than one Robert Johnson traveling around the Delta region at the time, also making music. This only interfered with the already confusing and fragmented biographical information.

A street sign marking the crossing of the Blues Alley and Delta Avenue in Mississippi.
Photo by Ed Mitchell / Future Publishing /

Producers of the podcast brought along Tom Graves, Elijah Wald, David Evans, and Robert “Mack” McCormick to support this theory. The back of the death certificate even attributed that (possibly another) Robert Johnson had come to the area to play the banjo (not guitar) and died of syphilis. Oh, and Johnson was reportedly seen twice after his death: once in 1939 and the next in 1941 in Memphis. Buy, you know, who knows…

Very Few Photographs

There were two confirmed images of Johnson which were located in 1973 and in possession of his half-sister Carrie Thompson. But those photos weren’t published until the late 80s. A third photo, seemingly showing Johnson posing with Johnny Shines, was published in the 2008 issue of Vanity Fair.

A mural of Robert Johnson with lyrics from his song crossroad blues on the side of a building.
Photo by Ed Mitchell / Future Publishing /

That photo was declared authentic by forensic artist Lois Gibson as well as Johnson’s estate in 2013. But the third photo has been disputed by music historians, including Elijah Wald, Bruce Conforth, and Gayle Dean Wardlow. They think the clothing comes from a date after Johnson’s death. They also think the photograph might have been reversed and retouched. Then in 2015, a fourth photograph was published, showing Johnson, his second wife Calletta Craft, Estella Coleman, and Robert Lockwood Jr.

His Son and Only Heir

Johnson didn’t leave a will. In 1998, a man named Claud Johnson, a retired truck driver living in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, got what he was looking for. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled him as the biological son of Robert Johnson and his only heir. It was discovered that he was born to Virgie Jane Smith (the woman who died in childbirth).

Photograph of Claud Johnson in 2000.
Photo by Rogelio Solis / Associated Press

Their relationship was attested to by their friend, Eula Mae Williams, but relatives descended from Johnson’s half-sister, Carrie Harris Thompson, also contested Claud Johnson’s claim that he was indeed Johnson’s son. The result of the court’s ruling? Claud Johnson was to receive over $1 million in royalties. Claud later died, at age 83, on June 30, 2015, leaving six children behind.

A New Fortune

Even after winning the estate and when finances were no longer a concern, Claud Johnson was still driving his gravel truck – the one he had driven for years. It was his reminder of the hard work that guided his life. In 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Claud could keep the profits from the only two official photographs of his father.

Claud Johnson and Eric Clapton.
Source: Pinterest

While Robert Johnson was poor by the time of his death, his estate later made millions. There had been a collection of his recordings, which won a Grammy in 1990. The album cover featured one of the two photos of Johnson, wearing a suit and holding his guitar. Cloud was deemed his only heir, but other relatives sued him in 2000, but the Court ruled the lawsuit as having been filed too late.

An Honest Living

Claud worked several jobs in his life, including being a barbecue restaurant owner and a painter for an electric company. He became a gravel truck driver in his later years. “Even before he inherited his father’s estate, he would buy lots of fruits and nuts and put them in baskets and deliver them to elderly homebound people in the community,” his lawyer said.

Claud Johnson and his son Michael standing in front of one of the two known photos of his father.
Photo by Greg Jenson / Clarion-Ledger / File 2006.

“The only real change after was that his list grew bigger and the baskets were larger.”

His father received many posthumous awards for his music from many years ago. He even got a Grammy. In 2006, Claud accepted the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award that was dedicated to his father Robert Johnson. He must have been very proud.