Graham Reid | | 8 min read
Those who were there say everything changed when he walked in the room and started to play. He’d been away a long time -- learning guitar was what they said -- but the last time anyone had seen him he was an uppity kid and not that good.
You can imagine how it must have been that Saturday night in a small run-down club in Banks, Mississippi. The old guys are hanging out and this slim kin comes in. He asks to play.
When the laughter stops he does -- and wipes them clean.
“He sat down and finally got started. And man! He was so go good! When he finished all our mouths were standing open . . .”
It was 1932 and Johnson was so good -- so possessed some said -- he was just plain scary. Muddy Waters, then a young man himself, saw Johnson play in the corner of a bar one afternoon.
“I got back into the car and left,” he said later. “He was a dangerous man .. . . And he was really using that git-tar, man. I crawled away and pulled out, it was too heavy for me.”
Naturally some people said Johnson had made a pact with the Devil. It made sense.
Until recently very little was known about Robert Johnson who was dead a little over five years later, poisoned by a jealous rival for a lady’s affections. Only two photographs of him exist and a mere 29 songs in 42 takes recorded.
The Johnson mystique has been enhanced by that lack of information but Peter Guralnick’s book Searching For Robert Johnson in the late Nineties allowed the man, still shady, to emerge a little. But the book was little more than an extended essay of only 83 pages of few facts, a smattering of opinion and much speculation.
Born in May 1911 in a small town in Mississippi, Robert Johnson spent his teenage years in Memphis but rambled off. By 16 he had been married but lost his wife and baby during childbirth. He played some harmonica and lousy guitar, but he watched and learned -- then disappeared for a while.
Then he came back -- and, by chance, recorded.
Over three days in November 1936 in San Antonio and two days in Dallas in June 1937 he recorded his 29 songs in 42 takes. In December the following year when John Hammond wanted to put together a jazz, blues and gospel show for Carnegie Hall he went to find Johnson.
A handful of songs and gone.
Dead at 27, the same age Jimi Hendrix would die at 30 years later.
Since then those Johnson songs have been much covered, rediscovered and poured over by musicians and musicologists. They are scary (Hellhound on My Trail, Me and the Devil Blues, Little Queen of Spades), raunchy (Traveling Riverside Blues) and dejected (Stones in My Passway).
So few songs, yet they formed the cornerstone of listening for a generation when, in 1961, the album King of the Delta Blues Singers was released. That generation included Bob Dylan ("from the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up") , Eric Clapton, the young Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page and many others -- all of whom frequently and at all stages of their long careers have covered Johnson’s songs.
Yet it wasn’t until 1990 that 41 of those extraordinary takes were compiled. They came in the CBS Roots and Blues Series box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings.
It was expected to sell a few thousand copies, it sold a million.
Now, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, those same recordings have been remastered and repackaged as an economic two-CD jewel-box set -- divided between the sessions in San Antonio and Dallas -- and with extra liner notes which reassess Johnson's life, given the new information which has come to light in the past 20 years.
Coming to these bare sounds in these increasingly hi-tech times isn’t easy.
Rawness in recording today is often a multi-million dollar business and even those bands who aim for lo-fi authenticity or an untutored delivery are more studied, mannered and produced than they would have us believe.
Johnson had none of that. One man, one microphone, one guitar and a cry for help.
The strained, throat-catching yell and r’n’b chord sequence on Stones in My Passway comes directly into rock via Chuck Berry and his followers.
But it is Johnson’s desperate lyrics which set him part.
Blues, almost by definition, goes straight for the gut. Johnson did that -- but his images come from a tangent.
Robert Plant in his Led Zeppelin days might have got a schoolboy snicker out of some raunchy images borrowed from old blues songs (“squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg”) but only once -- on Gallows Pole -- did he even get close to going down to the crossroads where impending death intersects with the pains of life.
The songs from Johnson’s second studio sessions -- Stones in My Passway and Hellhound on My Trail particularly -- reek with death and vengeance. If he did sign that pact with the Devil down at the crossroads at midnight near Clarksdale, Mississippi for the gift of music as some suggested, then his master is calling him out. He’s on his knees asking the Lord to please help him. Leaves tremble on trees and a spirit moves through Johnson’s world.
His voice snaps and yowls. It can be truly terrifying.
And parallel to the voice is his guitar playing, so full in places that Keith Richards thought there were two guitarists on the album Brian Jones played him in their cold-water flat in London in 1962.
Yet Johnson didn’t play solos. His guitar was the fractured, brittle undercurrent. It never rests easy with itself, it staggers and cries, suddenly cracks through the lyrics and twangs like it is possessed of something other than itself.
Or maybe it isn’t like that at all.
Too often it is easy to be overtaken by the mystique of Johnson and impose such things on his music. And in neither reissue has the whole Devil/crossroads legend been even mentioned. The music and the man are to the fore as it was the music which hit people with such immediacy.
Does Johnson's music need the legend? Absolutely not, but it is a damn fine legend and, as the character Maxwell Scott said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".
Time now though for the Devil/crossroads legend to be stripped back to fact, as the excellent and updated biographical essay included does.
And anyway, as Johnson sings on Stop Breakin' Down Blues, "The stuff I got'll bust your brains out baby, hoo hoo. It'll make you lose your mind".
Robert Johnson's transcendent music exists beyond the legend.
He was a natural genius -- unstudied only in the same way as Hendrix who also spent hours practicing to come up with a sound so “unstudied”. Johnson demands to be heard, there is no doubt about that, but he does need retrieving from the context he now finds himself in.
There have been a lot of claims he was the father of rock’n’roll. You certainly hear elements of his music in Chuck Berry, Clapton and Hendrix. But after that it is questionable how deep his influence has been. There’s no lineage in rock today.
Music writer Kent Simmerman said about the Johnson collection in 1990 that now the truth was out: “Robert Johnson flat out invented rock’n’roll.”
But to further suggest that vision “continues the fundamental foundation of rock/pop/soul culture as it enters the 90s” is patently nonsense. That’s the kind of wishful thinking middle-aged critics come up with from time to time because the musician-heroes they grew up with all credit Johnson.
It is not supported by facts.
Of course not.
And his influence is even more diluted today, although the likes of Jack White, Nick Cave and others certainly have listened to these recordings. And of course blues artists like Keb Mo, Eric Bibb and others will always use him for a reference point.
The people who mostly quote Johnson are Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton -- and they are all talking about their formative period three and four decades previous.
This doesn’t matter, of course. Just because Johnson’s eerie and spare music isn’t relevant to a new generation doesn’t mean it is entirely irrelevant.
It is the work of an untutored genius and The Complete Recordings are more than a historical document, they are essential to any understanding of how this music entered the consciousness of at least two generations of musicians and their audiences.
But pop/rock/soul/hip-hop and whatever has different reference points these days.
People like Johnson however don’t come often. He played with a visionary passion and sometimes up against all odds.
It has always been fascinating that Clapton, as a young white English boy from Surrey, should be Johnson’s most distinguished successor.
“His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice,” he said in the essay which accompanied the Nineties Johnson reissue. “I know when I first heard it, it called to me in my confusion, it seemed to echo something I had always felt.”
He has also commented, "Up until I was 25, if you didn't know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn't talk to you. Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived."
Clapton of course has his own story to tell.
Those who were there say everything changed when he walked into the room and started to play . . .
In 2004 while travelling around the South I went to Clarksdale in Mississippi. Nearby is the crossroads where Johnson allegedly made his pact with the Devil. The story of that journey -- and staying in a legendary old hotel (once the hospital where Bessie Smith died) is in my first travel book, Postcards From Elsewhere.
These Essential Elsewhere pages deliberately point to albums which you might not have thought of, or have even heard . . .
But they might just open a door into a new kind of music, or an artist you didn't know of. Or someone you may have thought was just plain boring.
But here is the way into a new/interesting/different music . . .
The deep end won't be out of your depth . . .