These are just some of the descriptions offered by musicians and writers that have been awed by the music of Robert Johnson. Even the facts of his life are confusing. Julia was probably around forty years old when Robert was born illegitimately; his father was a plantation worker called Noah Johnson. Charles Dodds had moved to Memphis as a result of problems he was having with some prominent Hazelhurst landowners. Robert Johnson grew up in Memphis and learned the basics of the guitar from a brother. Then, aged around eight or nine, Robert moved back to the Delta to live with his mother and her new husband Dusty Willis.
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His job had also exposed him to the painstaking, detail-oriented detective work that often goes into identifying and authenticating vintage guitars. Even when the make, model, and serial number of an instrument are apparent, pinpointing its age and value sometimes requires scrutinizing the idiosyncrasies of its construction. Schein enjoyed this aspect of the business, and when he had nothing better to do, he would sometimes log on to eBay to test his knowledge against the sellers who were advertising vintage guitars on the Web site. At the very least, he found it amusing that some people had no idea what they were selling. Two young black men stared back at Schein from what seemed to be another time. They stood against a plain backdrop wearing snazzy suits, hats, and self-conscious smiles. The man on the left held a guitar stiffly against his lean frame. Neither man looked like B. King, but as Schein studied the figure with the guitar, noticing in particular the extraordinary length of his fingers and the way his left eye seemed narrower and out of sync with his right, it occurred to him that he had stumbled across something significant and rare.
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Jimmy Webb And The Great Americana Songbook
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in , went unreported in The Times. Little about the life Robert Leroy Johnson lived in his brief 27 years, from approximately May until he died mysteriously in , was documented. A birth certificate, if he had one, has never been found. What is known can be summarized on a postcard: He is thought to have been born out of wedlock in May in Mississippi and raised there. School and census records indicated he lived for stretches in Tennessee and Arkansas. He took up guitar at a young age and became a traveling musician, eventually glimpsing the bustle of New York City. But he died in Mississippi, with just over two dozen little-noticed recorded songs to his name. Decades after his death, he became one of the most famous guitarists who had ever lived, hailed as a lost prophet who, the dubious story goes, sold his soul to the devil and epitomized Mississippi Delta blues in the bargain. The chasm between the man Johnson was and the myth he became — between mortal reach and posthumous grip — has marooned historians and conscientious listeners for more than a half-century.
His landmark recordings in and display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians. He is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly the Delta blues style. 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 , and one in Dallas in , that produced 29 distinct songs with 13 surviving alternate takes recorded by famed Country Music Hall of Fame producer Don Law. These songs, recorded at low fidelity in improvised studios, were the totality of his recorded output. Most were released as inch, 78 rpm singles from — , 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.