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Johnson, Robert

(born c. 1911, , Hazlehurst, Miss., U.S.—died Aug. 16, 1938, near Greenwood, Miss.) American blues composer, guitarist, and singer whose eerie falsetto singing voice and masterful, rhythmic slide guitar influenced both his contemporaries and many later blues and rock musicians.

Born into the large family of a sharecropper, Johnson was reared in Memphis, Tenn., and near Robinsonville, Miss. He learned to play the harmonica and then the guitar, probably influenced both by recordings and by personal contact with Eddie “Son” House, Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and other well-known Mississippi Delta bluesmen. He traveled widely throughout Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee and as far north as Chicago and New York, playing at house parties, juke joints, and lumber camps and on the street. In 1936–37 he made a series of recordings in San Antonio and Dallas, Tex. His repertoire included several blues songs by House and others, but Johnson's original numbers, such as “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” and “Love in Vain” are his most compelling pieces. Despite the limited number of his recordings, Johnson had a major impact on other musicians, including Muddy Waters and Elmore James.

Johnson died of poisoning after drinking strychnine-laced whisky in a juke joint.

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