Robert Johnson

Very little in the way of cold hard facts is know about the life of Robert Johnson, a Mississippe-born and -raised musician whose work was, like that of so many of the artists on this list, radically ahead of its time. During his way-too-short life, from 1911 to 1938, he played his music on street corners, outside barber shops, and by storefronts, but it wasn’t till the 1960s that people really came to appreciate his work, especially the 29 amazing blues songs that he wrote and recorded in Texas in 1936 to 1937, which became huge influences on artists like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards.

Because so much of his actual life remains shrouded in mystery, a lot of crazy myths have emerged around Johnson’s legend, the most popular being that he got his musical talents by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. Although I admit this is a really cool and creepy story, I think it’s safe to say that Johnson’s talent was entirely his own, and not the work of Satan!

Madge Gill

Madge Gill was an English artist who lived from 1882 to 1961. She spent her early childhood in seclusion, before being place in an orphanage at the age of nine. She was then sent to work on a farm in Canada, where she lived until she was 19, at which time she returned to England to live in East Ham with an aunt who introduced Madge to astrology and spirituality. After marrying and having three kids, one of whom died as a child, Madge gave birth to a still-born baby and then contracted an unknown illness that made her blind in her left eye. Soon after that, she became convinced that a spiritual guide named Myrninest wanted her to create art.

Over the next 40 years, Madge created thousands of drawings, most of them on long rolls of calico fabric—heavy, tightly woven cotton that would stretch over 30 feet. Her son Laurie says his mom would enter a trancelike state before making her art—not just drawings but also knitwork, tapestry, music, and more. Almost all of her drawings were of women, and Madge often signed her work with Myrninest’s name. She never sold or exhibited her work, claiming that they belonged to her spirit guide and that she was afraid of angering her.

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson is arguably one of the greatest poets ever, but she kept almost all of her work a secret. She lived and worked in isolation, and of the 10 or so of her 1,800 known poems that were published during her lifetime, it seems like probably 90 percent of them were submitted to journals and book companies anonymously by people who knew her.

Since she spent most of her time alone in her bedroom, her main communication with the outside world was in the form of letters to friends, family, fellow poets, and mentors, some of which contained more poems. Most of that correspondence was burned by Lavinia Norcoss Dickinson, Emily’s younger sister, after Emily died in 1886, per the poet’s instructions.

I’m glad so much of Dickinson’s poetry has survived today, but I also wonder what she’d think of the fact that high school kids are reading her stuff 126 years after her death, considering how averse she was to publishing her work during her lifetime, and to leaving a complete written legacy. In her poem know as “Fame is a fickle food” she writes:

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set.

Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the
Farmer’s Corn—
Men eat of it and die.

There’s something so admirable and punk-rock about an artist who creates just for themselves and wants nothing to do with fame and acclaim, right?

Martín Ramírez

Martín Ramírez was born in Mexico in 1895 and migrated to the USA in the early 1920s. As an adult he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was institutionalized in several hospitals in California; it was in those hospitals that he first began making art.

Since mental hospitals weren’t known for their well-stocked art departments back in the ’30s and ’40s, Ramírez made due with whatever materials he could scrounge up—paper bags, bread, potatoes, saliva, etc. He made his own paint by mixing ground-up crayons and colored pencils with his own spit.

He drew scenes that depicted linear movement, like trains traveling through tunnels, and zig-zagged landscapes that created this mesmerizing illusion that the drawings were popping right off of the brown paper bag surface. A lot of his pieces referenced Mexican folk-art iconography, 20th-century pop culture, and expressed deep humor and profound darkness. Today Ramírez is widely considered one of the greatest artists of his day, though no one knew of him until a museum intern discovered them in the mid-1990s, some 30 years after Ramírez died.

Sibylle Baier

Don’t you just want to cry for like two thousand centuries after listening to this song? It is one of the saddest, most breathtaking things I have ever heard. Sibylle Baier, a German singer and actress, recorded 14 such beautiful, breathy folk songs between 1970 and 1973, in secret, with no intention of ever releasing them to the public. She wrote them after taking a road trip with a friend from the Alps to Genoa, a context that makes this song so much more sad to me.

Baier’s music was featured in Wim Wenders’s 1973 film Alice in the Cities, in which she also appeared, but she ultimately decided not to pursue music or acting, choosing instead to concentrate on raising her family.

About 30 years later, Sibylle’s son Robby collected her songs on a CD to give as a present to family members. He also had the foresight to send a copy to J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., who liked it enough to pass it along to the music label Orange Twin. The label released the songs as the album Colour Green in 2006, to widespread praise.

This isn’t really a posthumous-fame story, because happily Sibylle Baier is still with us. On her her official website, the latest post reads:

Hello, and thanks for walking by here. I (her son Robby) set this site up for my mother to give fans access to some more pictures and songs…. Sibylle will most likely never see this site. She is really quite perplexed by all the attention that her album Colour Green has gotten. My father keeps telling her about all the pages and articles that are out there, but she, though smitten, prefers to hear about her accolades through the eyes and ears of her family. The web makes her dizzy, I think.