New Robert Johnson biography to feature unreleased photos and new life insights, Smithsonian announces

Walt's Look Around: Robert Johnson's family and musical heritage
Walt's Look Around: Robert Johnson's family and musical heritage
Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 12:38 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 1, 2023 at 5:29 AM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - New details will be revealed about the life and circumstances of one of the most mysterious figures in American music next month, according to an announcement made by the Smithsonian Institute last week.

A new biography of Johnson entitled “Biography of a Phantom” was left unfinished by folklorist Mack McCormick, who died in 2015. Now, the book is set to be released on April 4 by Smithsonian Books. The biography is expected to fill much-discussed gaps left open by a lack of record-keeping during the blues guitarist’s life. Johnson died a mysterious death at age 27 in 1938 after a performance in the Mississippi Delta.

Information on pre-ordering the book can be found here.

The book is also expected to have 40 previously unreleased photographs related to McCormick’s findings, possibly including unseen photos of the bluesman himself. To date, only three known photos of Johnson exist.

Although he only received moderate success during his lifetime, Johnson’s legend looms largely in the history of American music in the decades since his death. Most musicologists agree his unique style of songwriting and approach to the guitar which included a blend of blues music with the country-folk music of the day was an early blueprint for what would eventually become rock-n-roll. Rock artists in the 1960s such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones all cited Johnson as a major influence on their playing.

Johnson is most known for the myth that he once sold his soul at the crossroads to Satan to gain guitar skills. It was a myth that held a life of its own as delta musicians used it to explain how the musician became a guitar master in such a short period of time.

Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, directly two and a half hours north of New Orleans. For most of his life, he lived in the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas and traveled across the country by rail seeking opportunities in professional entertainment.

McCormick, the author of the upcoming release, was an archivist from Texas who put together a massive collection of historic music recordings, photographs, and artifacts that document American roots music in his native state, Western Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Following his death, his family donated the findings to the Smithsonian Institute. In addition to the Johnson biography, the majority of McCormick’s archives on American music will become public.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will exhibit items from the collection beginning June 23, and the display will run for two years.

The following track appears on a collection that will be released from McCormick’s archives:

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