So what’s the deal with Robert Johnson?
No other blues musician, living or dead, has been written about more than Robert Johnson. Why write about him? Because his music played a major role in my life, (at one time)my lifestyle, the music I play and the way I listen to music.
Was he the greatest blues musician of all time? who knows, all time is a long time and it ain’t over yet. Besides, YMMV as they say. For me, he certainly was. That said, he wasn’t the best selling player of his time, or well known as players like Peetie Wheatstraw and Tommy(no relation) Johnson. So what’s the big deal?
I guess it started in 1938 with John Hammond(sr.) trying to book him for the Spirituals To Swing concerts and finding a bunch of strange conflicting stories with only one common thread, Robert Johnson was dead. After decades of being out of print, Columbia released the first King of The Delta Blues Singers LP. While a few collectors had Johnson 78’s, hardly anyone else had heard him. The album was strange. No photo, just a weird painting with an overhead view of a lone guitar player . On the back , the liner notes wove the tale of Hammond’s search, Robert’s strange death and legend. The record contained 16 songs (out of 29 songs that he recorded), 3 of which were previously unreleased. Blues and folk music were undergoing a ‘revival’ with primarily white audiences who were hungry for ‘authentic’ music. By the mid ‘60s folk had turned to rock and bands like Paul Butterfield’s band, The Blues Project, John Mayall and Alexis Koerner(to name a few) were mining the blues and recycling Robert Johnson (as had been Muddy Waters, Elmore James and others). This the context I discovered Robert Johnson in.
In 1966, at 14 years of age, I attended a boarding school in upstate NY where many of my fellow students were already in the folk/rock /blues bag, and I went from listening to The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean to hearing Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins and John Lee Hooker as well as getting exposed to the world of Chicago Blue via Vanguard’s Chicago/ The Blues/Today series and the Chess recordings of Muddy, Howling Wolf and Sonny BoyII). A lot of this music was pretty straight forward and not a big stretch musically for me. In those pre-Google/Youtube days, learning about music was all about liner notes and reading record labels for song credits. Then one would search the Schwann catalog and find the record label/number and order it. You sure weren’t going to find Robert Johnson or any Blues at the local record store in Larchmont, NY or at Frank’s Music in New Rochelle(Frank’s did have an old Nickel plated National guitar though). After finding the info on Robert Johnson’s album, I took a trip to New York and went to King Carol on 42nd st, and THEY HAD IT!! I probably read the liner notes on the train home and felt like I was the next Alan Lomax.
Upon listening to the music, I was at first confused. this wasn’t music that was easily digestible like Jimmy Reed. The tempo was much more driving than the typical loping country blues I listened to. The guitar playing was really complex, but there weren’t a lot of bent notes, the common licks and turnarounds or vocal phrasing. There was very little slide playing compared to Johnny Winter and Mike Bloomfield. A lot of the time signatures were weird-12/8 instead of the steady 4/4 I was used to. It was STRANGE. The lyrics were spooky, especially after reading all that stuff in the notes, and the music had that spooky vibe. Johnson’s version of Cross Road Blues was WAAY different than the Eric Clapton & The Powerhouse version. A lot more complicated, like so many others, I thought there were 2 guitar players. I couldn’t even imagine playing it. Neither could EC at the time(I found out later).
As with many teenagers in the ‘60s, I was undergoing the angst I thought that was unique to “My Generation” and this guy really connected with that feeling. Songs like “Me and the Devil” and “Hellhound On My Trail” hit home and resonated with my life of suburban suffering. I wanted to be like Robert Johnson. He made James Dean seem like a wuss. Over the years I have continued to listen to him, tried to learn to play his music, and never fail to find something new.
So what’s the big deal? Musically a lot. Most country blues players have a limited bag of tricks. One or two tunings or keys, a couple of song forms, lyrics that combine traditional lyrical motifs. Robert Johnson played in several tunings AND used a capo as well. The time is complex,as mentioned, with the melody playing triplets against a 4/4 bass line (often driving hard), with the vocals doing something else entirely. It is really complex and hard to play. Unlike so many of his peers, its in tune , tempo is like a rock and there are no clams. Lest we forget, he played all this stuff live, no overdubs. As it was cut direct to disc, there were no rewinds, or tolerance for false starts, etc., yet his entire recorded output of 29 songs plus various alternate takes occurred over 3 days time. Robert’s music didn’t exist in a vacuum, and some of it is certainly derivative. Yet his own creations are some of the starkest imagery ever and songs like Me and The Devil, Kindhearted Woman, Love in Vain, to mention a few are truly original and quite sophisticated lyrically. Even the sexual metaphor in Terraplane Blues rises way beyond songs with similar themes.
While the mystique may no longer hold me in its grasp (at 59 , being a dead blues guy is not very attractive anymore), the musicianship and the poetry holds up. Was he the king ? Who cares. He was one of those musicians you can listen to time and time again and enjoy every time. After 74 years, that’s pretty damn good. Good enough for me.