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    Nearly 100 Years After Robert Johnson's Death, These Twentysomething Musicians Are Making Him Go Viral

    This is my favorite thing to happen on Facebook in a long time.

    Delta bluesman Robert Johnson is one of American history’s most important musicians — and its most mysterious. We don't know a lot about Johnson’s life, and what we do know is a tangled mix of legend and fact.

    The most famous story about Johnson begins with him leaving town after developing a reputation as an embarrassingly bad guitarist.

    A 1920s era black man in the south walks away
    Netflix

    When he returned not even two years later, he shocked everyone by suddenly being just about the best guitarist on the planet.

    The same man from above returns with a guitar
    Netflix

    How did he get so good, so fast? Word soon went 'round that it was all the result of a trip Johnson made to the crossroads at midnight.

    A depiction of Johnson taking his guitar to the crossroads
    Netflix

    There, Johnson supposedly met the devil and traded his soul in exchange for absolutely otherworldly guitar-playing ability.

    Johnson kneeling and raising his guitar at the crossroads
    Netflix

    Like all Faustian bargains, though, it ended badly, with Johnson poisoned and killed just a few short years later at the age of 27.

    Now, did Johnson really sell his soul to the devil? Or did he just develop a phenomenal talent? Whatever the truth is, the 29 recorded songs he left behind had a massive influence on music, and especially rock 'n' roll (Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, for example, owe him a massive debt).

    The grave of RObert Johnson
    The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Im

    All of this is a preamble to telling you about an amazing new project spearheaded by three incredibly talented modern blues musicians: Jontavious Willis, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, and Marquise Knox.

    Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images, Gary Miller / Getty Images, James Fraher / Getty Images

    Willis, 24, is from Greenville, Georgia. He was nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards for his album Spectacular Class.

    Ingram, 22, is from Clarksdale, Mississippi. His debut album Kingfish was also nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards.

    Knox, 29, is from St. Louis, Missouri, and has performed with blues legends B.B. King and Pinetop Perkins.

    Their project is called #TheRobertJohnsonChallenge, and it sees the three musicians (who are also friends) each taking a turn learning a Robert Johnson song — and then posting a performance of it on Facebook. And man, they sure make Johnson's music feel alive and vibrant here in the present day.

    Facebook: CKI662

    Above, Ingram performs his take on "When You Got a Good Friend."

    The trio tells BuzzFeed they were inspired to start the challenge last summer after a new photo of Johnson — only the third verifiable one of him in existence — emerged as the cover of the book Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson by Johnson's stepsister, Annye C. Anderson.

    A smiling photo of Robert Johnson
    HACHETTE BOOKS

    The photo — featuring a smiling, joyful Johnson — made them rethink the common perception of him as a dark and mystical character. As Jontavious said on the Fretboard Journal podcast:

    "It was eye-opening. He was such a young Black guy, you can see the life in him. A lot of people try to depict him as this mysterious man who tried to sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads, but it made me see him as one of my homeboys. A 25-year-old. An innocent young dude ready to fill the world with music. As my brother Marquise said, 'I don’t see anyone who sold his soul at the crossroads.' He's just somebody who studied music and loved what he did."

    Of course, learning how to play a Robert Johnson song isn't easy, as they're notoriously difficult. The trio said, "Each song poses its own challenge — the main goal is getting in Robert’s groove and making it our own."

    Facebook: JontaviousWillis

    Above, Jontavious Willis performs "Walkin' Blues."

    Ideally, they say it should take a couple hours to get one of the songs down. "If a couple hours pass and you can’t get in the vein on the song, it’s like drawing blood, you got to look elsewhere."

    Facebook: video.php

    Above, Marquise Knox performs "Me and the Devil Blues."

    The challenge has become very popular on Facebook, bringing new attention to the music of Robert Johnson and inspiring people from all over the world to try their own versions. "It’s been overwhelming to see what started off as a brotherly challenge turn into this," they said.

    Facebook: ramcheungblues

    Above, a musician from Hong Kong, Ram Cheung, contributed to the challenge with his take on Johnson's "Rambling on My Mind."

    Willis, Ingram, and Knox want to thank everyone who has participated in the challenge (either by watching or performing), and they hope it has helped people understand Johnson better. "Robert was a young, 25-year-old Black man when he released his first single facing the world with the weight of the Jim Crow South on his shoulders. If we could take a snapshot of his life and place it into 2021, he would likely have Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, be a part of this challenge, and saying Black Lives Matter 100 years ago and 100 years in the future."

    View this video on YouTube

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    Above is a recording of Robert Johnson performing his song "Come on in My Kitchen."

    Find out more about these three talented blues artists:

    Marquise Knox: Spotify, Facebook, Instagram, official website.

    Jontavious Willis: Spotify, Facebook, Instagram, official website.

    Christone “Kingfish” Ingram: Spotify, Facebook, Instagram, official website.