DEAD: Robert Johnson

DEAD: ON THIS DATE

Robert Johnson (aged 27)
American blues singer and musician

Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues singer, songwriter and musician. His landmark recordings in 1936 and 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that has influenced later generations of musicians. Johnson’s poorly documented life and death have given rise to much legend. The one most closely associated with his life is that he sold his soul to the devil at a local crossroads to achieve musical success. He is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly as a progenitor of the Delta blues style.

DEATH: Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, near Greenwood, Mississippi, of unknown causes. His death was not reported publicly; he merely disappeared from the historical record and it was not until almost 30 years later, when Gayle Dean Wardlow, a Mississippi-based musicologist researching Johnson’s life, found his death certificate, which listed only the date and location, with no official cause of death. No formal autopsy was done, as a dead black man found by the side of the road near a farm, a pro forma examination was done to file the death certificate, and no immediate cause of death was determined. It is likely he had congenital syphilis and it was suspected later by medical professionals that may have been a contributing factor in his death. However, 30 years of local legend and oral tradition had, like the rest of his life story, built a legend which has filled in gaps in the scant historical record.

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