Boston Globe, February 18, 2011
One hundred years ago – the exact date was May 8, 1911 – Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Miss. He lived 27 years and left only 29 songs, but his impact on the blues and its progeny, rock ‘n’ roll, is immeasurable. The legend around Johnson – its crux his mythical encounter with the devil at a dusty Delta crossroads – only amplifies his aura.
The paradox is that Johnson is, in other ways, little known, as if the legend overwhelmed the facts of a man’s brief, hard life. Performed by everyone from Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to legions of anonymous players in nondescript bars, his songs – “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “Love in Vain,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” and more – are so tightly bound to the sinew of American culture as to feel like common property.
Johnson himself remains phantomatic, that thin voice and haunting guitar on scratchy original recordings that only got mass-market diffusion with a 1990 complete box set.