- Robert Johnson
"Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)"
I have loved the blues ever since I can remember. There is something in the blues that sidles up to you quietly and easily. Then, when it feels as right and as comfortable to you as an old leather shoe, it turns in the flick of a guitar pick, rips your insides out, and holds them up raw.
The power of the Blues is what continues to amaze me. Listen to John Lee Hooker. Some of his cuts simply feature him singing alone with an acoustic guitar. He keeps time by stomping on the wooden floor. Yet this man, now in his mid-70's, can still generate more power and emotion than anything heavy metal or rock can dish out. Simply incredible.
I wrote a poem called Blues Highway. I hope you like it.
Can't You Hear The Wind Howl? The Life And Music of Robert Johnson
The Blues Room is Proud to Present
This Month's Featured Artist:
Credited by some writers with more originality than was in fact the case, it was as an interpreter that Johnson excelled, raising a simple music form to the level of performance art at a time when others were content to iterate the conventions. He was one of the first of his generation to make creative use of others' recorded efforts, adapting and augmenting their ideas to such extent as to impart originality to the compositions they inspired.
Tempering hindsight with perspective, it should be noted that only his first record, 'Terraplane Blues', sold in any quantity; even close friends and family remained unaware of his recorded work until decades later, when researchers such as Gayle Dean Wardlow and Mack McCormick contacted them. In all, Johnson recorded 29 compositions at five sessions held between 23 November 1936 and 20 June 1937; a further 'bawdy' song recorded at the engineers' request is as yet unlocated.
It has never been established which, if any, of his recordings were specifically created for the studio and what proportion were regularly performed, although associate Johnny Shines attested to the effect that 'Come On In My Kitchen' had upon audiences. Similarly, the image of shy, retiring genius has been fabricated out of his habit of turning away from the engineers and singing into the corners of the room, which Ry Cooder identifies as 'corner loading', a means of enhancing vocal power. That power and the precision of his guitar playing are evident from the first take of 'Kind-hearted Women Blues', which, like 'I Believe I'll Dust My Broom' and 'Sweet Home Chicago', is performed without bottleneck embellishment.
All eight titles from the first session in San Antonio, Texas, exhibit the attenuated rhythm patterns, adapted from a boogie pianist's left-hand 'walking basses', that became synonymous with post-war Chicago blues and Jimmy Reed in particular. Several alternate takes survive and reveal how refined Johnson's performances were, only 'Come On In My Kitchen' being played at two contrasting tempos. Eight more titles were recorded over two days, including 'Walkin Blues', learned from Son House, and 'Cross Road Blues', the song an echo of the legend that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil to achieve his musical skill. 'Preachin' Blues' and 'If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day' were both impassioned performances that show his ability was consummate. The balance of his repertoire was recorded over a weekend some seven months later in Dallas. These 11 songs run the gamut of emotions, self-pity, tenderness and frank sexual innuendo giving way to representations of demonic possession, paranoia and despair.
Fanciful commentators have taken 'Hellhound On My Trail' and 'Me And The Devil' to be literal statements rather than the dramatic enactment of feeling expressed in the lyrics. Johnson's ability to project emotion, when combined with the considered way in which he lifted melodies and mannerisms from his contemporaries, gainsay a romantic view of his achievements. Nevertheless, the drama in his music surely reflected the drama in his lifestyle, that of an itinerant with a ready facility to impress his female audience.
One such dalliance brought about his end a year after his last session, supposedly poisoned by a jealous husband while performing in a jook joint at Three Forks, outside Greenwood, Mississippi. At about that time, Columbia A&R man John Hammond was seeking out Johnson to represent country blues at a concert, entitled 'From Spirituals To Swing', that took place at New York's Carnegie Hall on 23 December 1938. Big Bill Broonzy took Johnson's place.
Robert Johnson possessed unique abilities, unparalleled among his contemporaries and those that followed him. The importance of his effect on subsequent musical developments cannot be diminished but neither should it be seen in isolation. His name was kept alive in the 80s by a comprehensive reissue project, while in the 90s he was included as part of the US stamp series celebrating the classic blues artists.
Also see this other fantastic Robert Johnson site, Hellhound On My Trail.
Order Crossroads (VHS)
Order The Search for Robert Johnson (VHS)
Order Love in Vain : A Vision of Robert Johnson by Alan Greenberg, Martin Scorsese (Designer)
Drop a quarter in the indigo jukebox to start the midi music...
Dust My Broom - Robert Johnson
The Thrill is Gone - B.B. King
Road House Blues - The Doors
Green Onions - Booker T and the MGs
Don't Answer the Door - B.B. King
Sweet 16 - B.B. King
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