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Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 to August 16, 1938) is arguably the most famous Delta blues singer and guitarist in history, even though he didn't live to see his twenty eighth birthday and didn't start recording until three years before his death.
Despite having such little time in the music industry, Robert Johnson has become widely acclaimed and popular, and has profoundly influenced a wide spectrum of musicians, some of whom view him as a near demi-god. Among his more well-known fanbase are Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and most famously Eric Clapton and Cream. Clapton has covered many Johnson songs, a big portion of his "Unplugged" line up were Johnson compositions and an entire album full of covers titled "Me and Mr. Johnson."
The most widely known legend surrounding Robert Johnson says that he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 61 and U.S. Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi in exchange for prowess in playing the guitar. Actually, the location Johnson made reference to is a short distance away from that intersection. The legend was told mainly by Son House, but finds no corroboration in any of Johnson's work, despite titles like "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hellhound on My Trail". With this said, the song "Cross Road Blues" is both widely and loosely interpreted by many as a descriptive encounter of Johnson selling his soul.
The older Tommy Johnson (no relation, although it is speculated that they were cousins), by contrast, also claimed to have sold his soul to the Devil. The story goes that if one would go to the crossroads a little before midnight and begin to play the guitar, a large black man would come up to the aspiring guitarist, retune his guitar and then hand it back. At this point (so the legend goes) the guitarist had sold his soul to become a virtuoso (A similar legend even surrounded virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini a century before.)
His death remains a matter of controversy. Some accounts state that he was given poisoned whiskey at a dance by the husband of a woman he had been secretly seeing. Others claim that it was just The Devil collecting his debt after the old legend of Robert Johnson dealing with the devil.
However, the latest, and unfortunately less dramatic and more plausible theory (published by David Connell in the British Medical Journal) is that Robert Johnson suffered from Marfan's Syndrome. Marfan's is a genetic disorder characterized by disproportionately long limbs, long thin fingers, a tall stature - all of which can be seen in the two photos that exist of Robert Johnson. Marfan's Syndrome is a cause of heart defects, and a complication such as an aortic dissection could lead to Robert Johnson's excruciatingly painful death.
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