Johnson was born near Terry, Mississippi, and in about 1910 moved to Crystal Springs, where he lived for most of his life. He learned to play the guitar and, by 1914, was supplementing his income by playing at local parties with his brothers Major and LeDell. In 1916 Johnson married and moved to Webb Jennings' plantation near Drew, Mississippi, close to the Dockery Plantation. There he met other musicians, including Charlie Patton and Willie Brown.
By 1920, Johnson was an itinerant musician based in Crystal Springs but traveling widely around the South, sometimes accompanied by Papa Charlie McCoy. In 1928, he made his first recordings, with McCoy, for Victor Records, including "Canned Heat Blues", in which he sang of drinking methanol from the cooking fuel Sterno. The song features the refrain "canned heat, mama, sure, Lord, killing me." The blues group Canned Heat took their name from this song. Johnson's "Big Road Blues" inspired Canned Heat's song "On the Road Again". A significantly different version of the song appears as "Canned Heat" on the album Big Road Blues by K. C. Douglas.
Johnson recorded two further sessions, for Victor in August 1928 and for Paramount Records in December 1929. He did not record again, mistakenly believing that he had signed away his right to record. Some suggest he had been intentionally given this mis-impression by people at Paramount Records. This resulted in a legal settlement with the Mississippi Sheiks, who had used the melody of Johnson's "Big Road Blues" in their successful "Stop and Listen". Johnson was party to the copyright settlement but was too drunk at the time to understand what he had signed.
Johnson's recordings established him as the premier Delta blues vocalist of his day, with a powerful voice that could go from a growl to a falsetto. He was an accomplished guitarist and also performed tricks with his guitar, playing it between his legs and behind his head and throwing it in the air while playing.
His style influenced later blues singers, such as Robert Nighthawk and Howlin' Wolf (whose song "I Asked for Water [She Brought Me Gasoline]" was based on Johnson's "Cool Drink of Water Blues"), and the country singer Hank Williams. Johnson was a talented composer, blending fragments of folk poetry and personalized lyrics into set guitar accompaniments to craft striking blues compositions such as "Maggie Campbell".
To enhance his fame, Johnson cultivated a sinister persona. According to his brother LeDell, he claimed to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for his mastery of the guitar. This story was later also associated with Robert Johnson to whom Tommy Johnson was unrelated.
Johnson remained a popular performer in the Jackson area through the 1930s and 1940s, sometimes performing with Ishman Bracey. He influenced other performers, partly because he was willing to teach his style and his repertoire. His influence on local traditions is described by David Evans in the books Tommy Johnson (1971) and Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues (1982).
The Tommy Johnson Blues Festival is held annually in Crystal Springs on the third weekend in October. The inaugural festival was held in Jackson and Crystal Springs in 2006.1
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