Black History Month: Blues guitar legend spent childhood days in a small Scott County community
(Editor's note: Much of the information for this article was taken from online sources including the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Wikipedia, and Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music by Ted Gioia.)
Most people throughout the region know that Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Jay Hanna "Dizzy" Dean and his brother Paul Dee "Daffy Dean were both born in Lucas, a community in a tiny corner of Logan County.
Today, Lucas is just a wide place in the road between Greenwood and Waldron off US Highway 71, with very little of the original township remaining intact. But it turns out the Dean brothers weren't the only famous people that resided there in the early part of 20th century.
According to family and census records, a young African American name Robert lived with his mother Julia and his stepfather Will Willis in the rural community who was one -year younger than "Dizzy" Dean when he was listed at the age of nine in the 1920 Arkansas census as a resident of the town.
While "Dizzy" went on to record 387 strikeouts in a major league career that saw him go 50-34 with the Cardinals, the New York Giants and the St. Louis Browns from 1934-43, Robert went on to fame as one of the biggest influences of rock and pop musicians, many who to this day cite him as one of the greatest guitarist of all times.
Robert had been born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, possibly on May 8, 1911, to Julia Major Dodds and his father NoahJohnson. Julia later married Charles Dodds, a relatively prosperous landowner and furniture maker, with whom she had ten children. Charles Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners.
Julia later left Hazlehurst with baby Robert, but after two years sent the boy to Memphis to live with her husband, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Robert rejoined his mother around 1919 in the Mississippi Delta area, near Tunica and Robinsonville. They lived on the Abbay and Leatherman Plantation. Julia's new husband, known as Dusty Willis, was 24 years her junior. Robert was remembered by some residents as "Little Robert Dusty", but he was registered at Tunica's Indian Creek School as Robert Spencer.
In the 1920 census, he was listed as Robert Spencer, living in Lucas, with Will and Julia Willis. Robert was "at school" in 1924 and 1927 so he lived in the community at least eight years, and was just about the same age as "Dizzy" Dean.
After school, Robert adopted the surname of his natural father and at the age of eighteen married sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis in February of 1929. She died in childbirth shortly after and Robert migrated to Robinsonville, Missippi. They say he resolved to abandon the "settled life" of a husband and farmer to become a full-time Delta blues musician after her death.
People that knew Robert in Robinsonville remembered him as a "little boy" who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Soon after, Robert left Robinsonville for the area around Martinsville, close to his birthplace, possibly searching for his natural father and it was there he worked on his guitar style.
When Johnson next appeared in Robinsonville, he seemed to have miraculously acquired a guitar technique unlike anything anyone could remember hearing. When he lost his second wife to the rigors of childbirth, he then took to the road, as a full time performer.
In many places he stayed with members of his large extended family or with female friends. He did not marry again but formed some long-term relationships with women to whom he would return periodically. In other places he stayed with a woman he seduced at his first performance.
In each location, Robert's hosts were largely ignorant of his life elsewhere. He used different names in different places, employing at least eight distinct surnames. He had two recording sessions in Texas, and those 29 "sides" make up the entire existing catalog of music he left behind when he died at the age of twenty-seven.
None other than the legendary Eric Clapton has called Johnson "the most important blues guitarist that ever lived."
Musicians such as Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Robert Plant have cited both the lyricism and musicianship of Johnson as key influences on their own work. Many of his songs have been covered over the years, becoming hits for other artists, and his guitar licks and lyrics have been borrowed and re-purposed by many later musicians.
No one even knows for sure where Robert is buried, with his final resting place surrounded by as much mystery and intrigue as to what lead a Mississippi--and later Arkansas -- dirt farmer to become one of the most revered musicians of all time. Three separate cemeteries in Mississippi and Tennessee claim to be Robert's final resting place.
And some even say that the "competent harmonica player but embarrassingly bad guitarist" may have even "made a deal with the Devil" at a crossroads in rural Mississippi to get his guitar "licks".
From Mississippi to Arkansas to the crossroads....such was the life of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, posthumous Grammy winner. and blues legend Robert Johnson.