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Charles Dodds had been forced by a lynch mob to leave Hazlehurst following a dispute with white landowners.
Julia left Hazlehurst with baby Robert but after two years sent the boy to Memphis to live with her husband, who had changed his name to Charles Spencer.
Musical associates have said that in live performances Johnson often did not focus on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead pleased audiences by performing more well-known pop standards of the day – and not necessarily blues.
With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, he had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries later remarked on his interest in jazz and country music. Robert'd be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody's business. During this time Johnson established what would be a relatively long-term relationship with Estella Coleman, a woman about 15 years his senior and the mother of the blues musician Robert Lockwood, Jr.
One Faustian myth says that he sold his soul to the devil at a local crossroads of Mississippi highways to achieve success.
As an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, Johnson had little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime.
Here he perfected the guitar style of House and learned other styles from Isaiah "Ike" Zimmerman.
House was interviewed at a time when the legend of Johnson's pact with the devil was well known among blues researchers.
From 1932 until his death in 1938, Johnson moved frequently between the cities of Memphis and Helena, and the smaller towns of the Mississippi Delta and neighboring regions of Mississippi and Arkansas.Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a "little boy" who was a competent harmonica player but an embarrassingly bad guitarist.Soon after, Johnson left Robinsonville for the area around Martinsville, close to his birthplace, possibly searching for his natural father.He also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience; in every town in which he stopped, he would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later. He estimated Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. But Robert'd just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. Johnson reportedly cultivated a woman to look after him in each town he played in.
Shines is quoted describing Johnson in Samuel Charters's Robert Johnson: Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And you wouldn't see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks. He reputedly asked homely young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases he was accepted, until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on.In 1941, Alan Lomax learned from Muddy Waters that Johnson had performed in the area around Clarksdale, Mississippi.