Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy (would be) 100 years, Robert Johnson ...Party at the Crossroads?

Beautiful Melodies telling you Terrible Things Vol. VI

Robert Johnson only made one record, his body of work was just one record. Yet there's no praise or esteem high enough for the body of work he represents. He's influenced hundreds of artists. There are people who put out 40 or 50 records and don't do what he did.
~ Bob Dylan ~

It was winter 2010 and I was taking a trip up to Sedona and ultimately Flagstaff (Arizona for those who don’t know) with some friends. We wanted to get out of town for a bit, see some sights, see some snow. At the time I had a 10-disc CD changer in my car (I still do, I just don’t use it so much anymore) and for this particular trip I had a mixture of CD’s that both set/fit my mood for road trips, as well for winter weather. Robert Johnson does that for me, maybe it’s the vision in my head of him walking a cold windy night in Chicago, snow on the ground, guitar case in hand, Devil at his tail. Johnson is the King of the Delta blues, not Chicago blues, but with a song like “Sweet Home Chicago,” and the story of his trip through there with Johnny Shines, I think of him walking along the streets of that city just as much as I think of him at those crossroads near Dockery Plantation (in Tennessee, once again, this is the King of the Delta blues we’re talking about) where the legend is he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the Devil tuning his guitar and playing him some songs he could use.

“I’m going to Chicago, two thousand miles away, Boy won’t you tell me that you you’ll be my friend someday?”
~ Robert Johnson, “Sweet Home Chicago” ~

Point of this story is at some point my Robert Johnson disc pops on, and we listen to it all the way through. My girlfriend and me quietly humming along in our own high-pitched voices to the afore-mentioned takes of “Sweet Home Chicago.” We were almost embarrassed about doing this, until we suddenly heard a noise from the backseat. One of those traveling with us suddenly found herself doing the same thing. At one point near the end of the disc she asked “Who is this?” I replied, of course “This is Robert Johnson.” She let out of “huh” and sort of sat silently for a second, then said “He’s pretty good.” It’s funny to think about now, but I was almost mad that she only had said ‘pretty good.’ I mean here was a guy that influenced more people in music than just about anyone, yet he was only ‘pretty good?’ This is the guy Brian Jones played Keith Richards, and changed his idea of blues and guitar playing forever with!

Keith Richards - “Who’s playing guitar alongside his?”
Brian Jones – “It’s only him.”
Keith Richards – “That’s all one guy!?”
~ the two Rolling Stones listening to Columbia’s “King of the Delta Blues” vinyl LP in Jones’ and Richards’ apartment in the early 1960’s. ~

Of course, I think back now, I’m glad she found him interesting enough to both hum to and ask about, and should be proud that she found him pretty good. That’s just the music elitist in me coming out, unfortunately. Similarly I remember one time a friend, who often looks to me for music advice, was getting into the blues. Yet when I mentioned Johnson he flatly said he didn’t find much interest in him, and I chastised him for it. Yet some months, maybe a year later, he took back his remark, exclaiming simply: “Man, isn’t he great?” For me, looking back, it just reminds me of the type of impact an artist can still have one someone in today’s world, even, such as with the girl I mentioned, someone like her with music tastes far and away from the basics of Johnson, even though he influenced some of those later folks more than some would like to admit. This is a guy who in 1990, when Columbia re-mastered and re-released his entire recording catalogue in a box set, was expected to sell 20,000 to 30,000 units, yet it ended up going platinum (the first ever blues record to do so) and also won a Grammy, back when it, you know, meant a little something more.

“The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.”
~ Martin Scorsese ~

Labels like ‘legend’ and ‘myth’ truly can find themselves attached to Johnson, with more truth than most artists who try to grab those labels. There’s only a handful of dates where we can assign Johnson to a specific place in history, there are literally only two known pictures of the man, with one or two other recently discovered “possibilities.” Even his death is a bit of a mystery, though it’s commonly believed he was poisoned. Then there’s the legend of selling his soul to the Devil, and even though fellow players like Eddie “Son” House talked of his sudden leap in skills during this period, it’s widely believed the song “Crossroad Blues” (that’s right, it’s NOT an Eric Clapton/Cream song) is not about selling his soul but the believed dangers blacks had during that era of being found alone late at night past curfew, and the song is detailing him trying to make it home without being lynched. Then again, in addition to the Devil interpretation of "Crossroad Blues," he also has tunes such as "Me and the Devil Blues" and "Hellbound on my Trail." Yet no matter, it just adds to the Johnson legend. Lonnie Johnson had a similar legend which was used to somewhat comedic effect in 2000’s “O’ Brother! Where art Thou?” While other blues legends of the period, such as another favorite of mine Charley Patton, recorded a number of sessions over a number of years, Johnson recorded literally only recorded in a studio twice in his career. A three day set of sessions in 1936 and a second two-day set of sessions in 1937.

"We'd all play for the Saturday night balls, and there'd be this little boy hanging around. That was Robert Johnson…He'd sit at our feet and play during the breaks and such another racket you'd never heard."
~ Eddie “Son” House ~

That’s it for his studio recordings, two set of sessions combined for 42 total takes of just 30 songs. 42 takes recorded in studio and dying at the young age of 27, not just joining but STARTING that “stupid club” (as Kurt Cobain’s mother put it) that would later claim the lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Cobain at age 27. You might say, “but Johnson wasn’t rock n roll!” Sure, go ahead and believe that. But don’t tell Robert Plant, Jack White, George Clinton, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dylan and countless others. Also, you might wanna let Rolling Stone know so they can take out the four songs of Johnson’s they included on their top 500 songs of all time list. You can also not only see Johnson’s important link in the chain of black music history but his heavy use of such themes as race, fear and violence as well as the overt-sexuality in his songs also can show him as an early precursor/influence to modern rap/hip-hop.

“I sent for my baby, man, and she don't come, All the doctors in Hot Springs sure can't help her none/ And if she gets unruly, thinks she don't want do, If she gets unruly, and thinks she don't wa' do/ Take my 32-20, and cut her half in two”
~ Robert Johnson, "32/20 Blues" ~

I didn’t want to do a complete history on Johnson, but I just wanted to take what would be his 100th birthday despite him getting nowhere near close to it, to remind people of one of music’s true myth’s, true legends, and true gems. In recent years, from 1999 all the way to here in 2011, such artists as the White Stripes, John Mayer, Bob Dylan, Johnny Winter, Todd Rundgren, Rory Block among others are still putting out Johnson covers on their albums and projects, 75 years on since he died. If that's not lasting influence, what is? With that, Hawk naps…

"Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door, and I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go,' "
~ Robert Johnson, "Me and the Devil Blues" ~


  1. I loved how you mentioned that we were howling to the music in the car...I was hoping you would. Though, I'm pretty sure we were singing Me and the devil blues. Robert Johnson reminds me of listening to the blues with my gramma on sunday mornings.

  2. we howled along to "Me and the Devil Blues" as well, yes. Good times!