Robert Johnson

 

 

When Robert Johnson died in a friend’s home in Greenwood Mississippi on 16th Tuesday, August, 1938, he died as virtual unknown. A handful of songs recorded in 1936 and 1937 (only a few of which was released on 78 rpm vinyl at the time) was all that was left of him. In 1990, some 50 more year later, Columbia Records released entire recordings of Robert Johnson in CD format under the name Robert Johnson : The Complete Recordings. Within a year, the CD went platinum and Robert Johnson was hailed as the most important Bluesman of all times, his music became gospel to the Blues community. How did it all happen?

The mere mention of the name Robert Johnson conjures up imagery of the devil, dark passageways, the crossroads, hellhounds and selling one’s soul to the devil at mid-night at the crossroads. The legend of Robert Johnson is heavily associated with the voodoo culture of Black Americans. So many stories about Robert Johnson cropped up year after year from supposed eye-witnesses and so-called close friends, it is nearly impossible to tell between fact and fiction. Whatever the legend, whatever the stories, fact or fiction, Robert Johnson is undoubted the most important figure in the history of the Blues.

Right at the outset it must be pointed out that Robert Johnson was no innovator in the true sense of the word. All his music was rooted in the music he heard and learnt from older musicians of his times. If you want to be polite, you say he borrowed from Son House, Charlie Patton, Willie Brown. If you want to be blunt, you will say he stole all the great licks from them. No man is an island, we all draw from influences. But like all great musicians, Robert Johnson borrowed music from others and made it his own. He could be playing an exact copy a song he borrowed with some new words thrown in but when you listen to the original you could swear someone borrowed Robert Johnson’s song. Prior to Robert Johnson, Blues was pretty much free form music, there was no standard progression or form, the music often followed how the singer felt at the time. Robert Johnson imposed a shape to the music which became what is now known as the three line stanza 12 bar Blues. Although most of Robert Johnson’s songs are not strictly 12 bars in length as he tended to put extra beats in different bars, Robert Johnson in essence shaped 12 bar standard Blues format. Most of his songs have now become standards : Crossroads Blues, Terraplane Blues, Walking Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, 32-20 Blues, Come On Into My Kitchen. I have never across any Blues musician who has not at some stage or another played Robert Johnson songs.

When I first heard Robert Johnson, I was literally stunned. I did not know how to feel. His singing, his guitar were so eerie and had almost an unearthiness about it. The vocal and the guitar spun such an intricate web that at times it sounded as if there were two guitars playing at the same time. You cannot cease to wonder how anyone could play guitar and sing like that at the same time, it was almost unhuman. If you one day pick up the guitar and try to learn to play a few Robert Johnson tunes, you will find the way he played and sang was almost unnatural. The constant bass line, the echoing treble strings and unconventional timing would frustrate the most but the most dedicated. Even with Robert Johnson experts like John Hammond Jr. and Rory Block, they still cannot recreate the feel and touch of Robert Johnson. I don’t believe anyone can. And all this is not to mention Robert Johnson’s lyrics. The lyrics of Robert Johnson were simply poetry. Most of Robert Johnson’s lyrics were metaphorical, all about women and sex and the devil.

There is no way to describe Robert Johnson’s music. You really have to listen to it. If after listening to his music you still find yourself asking “What is so special about his music?”, I will say this to you “If you have to ask, you will never know.”

Until 1990, it was supposed that no picture of Robert Johnson existed. The cover you see above is the cover of the original cover of the vinyl release. All we had was is a painting of a lone figure sitting on a stool strumming the guitar. When I was in England, I spent so many nights wondering what Robert Johnson looked like in real life. When it was announced in early 1990 that Columbia was to release the complete recordings of Robert Johnson with his picture, I went berserk. When I saw his picture for the first time, I did not know how to feel. Apart from the promotional shot typical of the time, the is another picture of Robert Johnson know as the Dime-store photo. This is the photo I now always carry in my wallet.

One of the two known pictures of Robert Johnson

 

The Columbia release with Robert Johnson's picture

If you are interested Robert Johnson, I highly recommend the book Searching For Robert Johnson by Peter Gurnalick published by Dutton Belisk Book. This is an excellent book, the author had done a great deal of meticulous research and had interview eye-witness and friends alike. At to viewing materials, try The Search For Robert Johnson released by Columbia Music Video. This documentary is available in DVD format. In the film, John Hammond will take you on a journey you will never forget. They even found one of Robert Johnson’s old flames Wille Mae (a name you hear on Robert’s songs) to appear on the film. Incredible.

 

 

The Roots of Robert Johnson (Yazoo 1073) is an excellent compilation of the music that influenced Robert Johnson. When you listen to people like Skip James, Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr, Charlie Patton, The Mississippi Sheiks on the compilation, you cannot help but smile at the similarities and the cunningness with which Robert Johnson “borrowed” music from others. The Music of Charlie Patton King of the Delta Blues (Yazoo 2001) is also something you want to get if you are interested in Robert Johnson’s music. Be forewarned, the sound quality of the Charlie Patton recordings is not very good to say the least. Don’t expect any high fidelity sound.

 

The Roots of Robert Johnson

Charlie Patton : The King Of The Delta Blues

 

Charlie Patton

Son House