This Month in Music History – August 16, 1938: Blues Legend Robert Johnson Dies

Legend has it there once w. as a blues guitar player who was so desperate to become famous that he met the devil at the crossroads to cut a bargain. The musician offered the devil up his soul in exchange for the ability the guitar far beyond his or anyone else’s.  He was a big womanizer and fame was the one trump card any man could play tha t could turn a “No” into a “Yes.” History proved it time and time again.  It would be womanizing that sealed the fate of Robert Johnson on August 16, 1938. Johnson succumbed to the poison administered, allegedly by the husband of a woman that Johnson fancied.

Little did Johnson realize that he would achieve that fame he so craved but it would be much later. And only partially as a result of his advancement on the guitar.

It was  the legend of Robert Johnson that first drove white musicologists to Mississippi to document the legend, maybe even find Johnson still alive.


The most notable of the scholars was ethno-musicologists Alan Lomax. He would travel to Mississippi and start to put the  pieces of the many Johnson narratives. There wasn’t a whole lot of verifiable information two for ma definitive narrative. Various fellow ho tmusicians, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and frequent traveling companion Johnny Shines provided little snapshots of the mysterious musician who never stayed in one place long enough.

As for photographs of the guitar player, Wikipedia states:

“The two confirmed images of Johnson were located in 1973, in the possession of his half-sister Carrie Thompson, but were not widely published until the late 1980s. A third photo, purporting to show Johnson posing with the blues musician Johnny Shines, was published in the November 2008 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. It was declared authentic by the forensic artist Lois Gibson and by Johnson’s estate in 2013. The authenticity of the third photo has been disputed by some music historians, including Elijah Wald, Bruce Conforthand Gayle Dean Wardlow, who considered that the clothing suggests a date after Johnson’s death and that the photograph may have been reversed and retouched. In December 2015, a fourth photograph was published, purportedly showing Johnson, his wife Calletta Craft, Estella Coleman, and Robert Lockwood Jr. This photograph was also declared authentic by Lois Gibson, but her identification of Johnson has been dismissed by other facial recognition experts and blues historians. In his book Searching for Robert Johnson, Peter Guralnick stated that the blues archivist Mack McCormick showed him a photograph of Johnson with his nephew Louis, probably taken at the same time as the famous “pinstripe suit” photograph, showing Louis dressed in his United States Navy uniform. This photograph has never been made public.

Those, however, were minor trinkets compared to the sides Johnson left for scholars and fans to pour over.

Wikipedia provides a discography:

Eleven 78-rpm records by Johnson were released by Vocalion Records during his lifetime. A twelfth was issued posthumously.

August 28th, 1990 a 2-disc compilation titled The Complete Recordings by Columbia Records. The release would be extremely popular and lead to a new reassessment of Johnson and his career.