Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Delta Blues, Reborn and Remastered (Rough Guide/Southbound)

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Hard Times Killin' Floor, by Skip James (1931)
Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Delta Blues, Reborn and Remastered (Rough Guide/Southbound)

Tommy Johnson is one of the more interesting figures in the shadowland of the Delta blues of the Twenties: he recorded fewer songs than the acclaimed Robert Johnson who was no relation (just 16 in '28 and '29) and recent research has suggested that Robert inherited the legend of his pact with the Devil at the Crossroads from Tommy who had made that claim.

Tommy Johnson was also quite some performer, a proto-Hendrix if you like, because he would play guitar behind his head and between his legs. He was also a gifted writer and an expressive singer, gave the name to the band Canned Heat (after his Canned Heat Blues about drinking ethanol!) and he was a hugely influential figure in the Southland.

Despite that small catalogue of recordings (he mistakenly believed he wasn't allowed to record any more) he continued to perform and teach up until his death in '56 at age 60.

Johnson is one of 25 seminal blues artists – alongside Bukka White, Skip James, Son House, Bo Carter, the Mississippi Sheiks, the Mississippi Moaner, Geeshie Wiley, Ruby Lacey, Memphis Minnie and Charlie Patton – on this useful collection which is an introduction to the acoustic blues out of Mississippi and Tennessee, much of which has the feel of pure country and rural life.

These are songs of pain, sex, faith, the Devil, fear, hard times, betrayal, jail time and much more which informed the lives of so many at that time.

And voices like those of Skip James, Son House, Ishman Bracey, Johnnie Templeand others are so powerful and distinctive they cut across the distant decades and channel pure emotions.

Liner notes are minimal but just bang this into your computer and start searching . . . the lives and stories will appear before your eyes and ears. 

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