Episode 8: Finding Robert Johnson in the Mississippi Delta

The origins of Blues music is a complex weave of traditions, and the genre echoes suffering and endurance through centuries of hardship. Evolving from blended musical forms brought to the United States by enslaved Africans, then taking on the rhythm of work in the fields and heart of spirituals, the oppressive environment of the Jim Crow South ultimately shaped the Blues as we know it today. 

Today, the Blues are more often romanticized as the ballads of down and out troubadours, rambling and poor, but following their passion for music. Blues legend Robert Johnson’s story epitomizes these hard realities and an enduring mythology that surrounds his memory. Legend has it that Johnson signed a deal with the devil to perfect his guitar playing. And like so many legends, mystery shrouds the actual person and what really happened in his 27 years on earth, how he died and where he is buried. Until 2002, nobody knew for certain where the King of the Delta Blues Singers was laid to rest. 

Report for America corps member Alexandra Watts takes us on a journey to Robert Johnson’s final resting place in the Mississippi Delta.

Robert Johnson’s influence

The deal with the devil is a legend, but it’s fact that without Robert Johnson, you would likely have no Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or any other musician who can trace their musical roots back to the blues. This curated list of songs by Robert Johnson – and covers of his songs – shows his influence over musicians throughout the years. Did we miss any? Add the original song and its cover to this collaborative Spotify playlist!

Dispatch

Helping new generations of Mississippians discover the legacy of the blues

Do you like American music?

Listen to the songs and stories of immigrants to America in our award-winning fifth season of the GroundTruth Podcast, “The New American Songbook.”

Listen to previous episodes of On the Ground with Report for America: