Big Head Blues Club celebrates 100 Years of Robert Johnson
When it comes to the life and music of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson there’s not much that can be said that hasn’t been said many times over. But…being that May 8th of 2011 marks the 100-year anniversary of Johnson’s birth, there are those who would not let it pass unacknowledged. Coming to the conclusion that the event should indeed be acknowledged is the easy part, however. The difficult part, clearly, is how to properly celebrate the musical contributions of such an important historical figure as Johnson, who has been one of the most influential blues artists of all time.
For a specific group of musicians and singer/songwriters it wasn’t quite as difficult as it might have been for some to mark the occasion, since they simply decided to do what they do best – play music. And what better way to celebrate Johnson’s than through song, his songs…or at least a selection of the twenty-nine songs he had recorded during his short lifetime? So for the Big Head Blues Club, a loose association of notable roots artists of varying style and renown, it was time to assemble and record a worthwhile and meaningful tribute album to celebrate 100 Years of Robert Johnson. And in that regard they have certainly succeeded.
Big Head Blues Club features Big Head Todd & The Monsters and a host of special guests including B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards, Charlie Musselwhite, Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside, and Lightnin’ Malcolm. Now, with that kind of lineup one cannot help but have rather high expectations for such a tribute, as mine admittedly were. And though the songs on the tribute lack the raw, dirty and old-timey feel of Johnson’s versions, the players did an impressive job of reworking the material as their own interpretations.
It has been a blues tradition since the dawn of the movement itself for artists to swap their songs back and forth. An artist often chose a song for which he had some appreciation from another artist, and then played it at live performances or on his recordings, only with his own individual stamp on it. Not only was it a sign of admiration and respect to do this, it also tended to reveal the possibilities and potential of the song. Sometimes the borrowing artist used the song in its entirety, while at other times just used bits and pieces. “Dust My Broom,” for example, is a blues standard that has been performed and recorded by several artists throughout the years. In fact, there is an ongoing dispute as to whether Robert Johnson or Elmore James actually wrote the song. Johnson’s version, titled “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” was first to be recorded in 1936, while Elmore didn’t record his “Dust My Broom” version until 1951. For obvious reasons many people side with Johnson. But for the old time blues players, such disputes over the ownership of a song were very uncommon. Such were times, such were the blues, and such were their ways.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding the life of Robert Johnson, mainly because he was an itinerant musician and singer/songwriter, more often than not performing on street corners and at dance halls and juke joints, and didn’t manage to achieve the full measure of his success until some time after his death. Most of the mystery surrounding Johnson’s life results from his untimely death, which is said to have been from the hands of a jealous husband whose wife Johnson flirted with. It is reported that he was poisoned. There is also a Faustian myth attached to Johnson’s life, which states that he met the Devil at a crossroads, where he sold his soul to be a great blues musician. To be fair, Johnson’s life is poorly documented. What significant bits of him remain are alive and well on his recordings. The rest, I dare say, is the stuff of legend.
Now, when I first heard that Big Head Todd & The Monsters were involved in the undertaking of this particular tribute to Robert Johnson, I confessedly had my doubts. After all, they are known primarily as a rock band, and while they are not a bad rock band, their sound doesn’t come across as very blues-influenced. Of course, once I learned of the other artists accompanying them on the tribute album, my thoughts on the subject began to take new shape. And listening to the newly released 100 Years of Robert Johnson by the Big Head Blues Club has even further corrected such errors in my thinking. The truth is, I applaud their efforts. And it is an album that I will be listening to for some time to come.
The tracklisting on Big Head Blues Club’s 100 Years of Robert Johnson is as follows:
1. Come on in My Kitchen
2. Ramblin’ on My Mind
3. When You Gotta Good Friend
4. Crossroads Blues
5. Preachin’ Blues
6. Kind Hearted Woman
7. If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day
8. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
9. All My Love’s in Vain
10. Sweet Home Chicago
Big Head Blues Club’s 100 Years of Robert Johnson was released on March 1, 2011. So all of you blues enthusiasts and album collectors have the chance to get your hands on it before the 100th anniversary of Robert Johnson’s birthday passes. I mean, think about it, what better way to celebrate the man than to play not only his records but those of the artists who have paid tribute to him since?