Robert Johnson, The Would-be King of Delta Blues

Cover art for "King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2." San Antonio, Texas, November 1936: Robert Johnson records for the American Record Corporation in a hotel room converted into a makeshift studio. Contrary to accounts that he performed with his back to the recording engineers because he was "shy," Johnson was utilizing a recording technique known as "corner loading." In the confined space of a corner with hard plaster walls, sound waves are compressed, elminating the very top and bottom frequencies, boosting the midrange for a thicker, more solid overall sound. (see "Ry Cooder: Talking Country Blues," by Jas Obrecht, Guitar Player magazine, July 1990.

In 1984, a Polish-born immigrant named Anna Anderson died peacefully after years of controversy surrounding her claim that she was someone other than Anna Anderson, someone far more important to many people, someone who had attained mythic status, whose story was compelling, tragic, brutal, and politically dangerous to an “Evil Empire.”  Her real name, her true identity, she claimed, was Anastasia, daughter of the last monarch of Russia, Czar Nicholas Romanov.  And although DNA tests ten years after her death proved she was no one other than Anna Anderson, she went to her grave believing she was the Princess Anastasia.   Her friends and supporters, even some members of the Romanov family, believed she was who she claimed to be.

It is a fantastic story, in the true sense of the word:  the stuff of fantasy.  But it is no more than a story, an elaborate one with its basis in a true story, but not true in itself   It is the kind of story that takes on a mythic quality, becomes legend.  Legend without serious questioning, without challenge, becomes accepted truth.  But creation of myth, of legend, is not confined to political history, as in the case of the daughter of the last Czar.  It is part of our daily discourse and can affect many things we often accept without questioning as truth.

Particularly susceptible to myth-making are the arts.  The arts, particularly music, motion pictures and performing arts in general, are not typically held to the same standard of documentation — of proof — when it comes to their origins and evolution, i.e. their “history.”  This is due in part to their function as entertainment.  But all art must entertain and engage the senses at some level, or else its broader purpose — to share the experience and meaning of human existence — will fail.  Entertainment, thought of as temporal, ephemeral, “of-the-moment” and a basic element of pop culture, is often deemed too fragile for or not worthy of serious analysis.  Thus, myths go unchecked, and legends unexamined.

Robert Johnson is an important figure not only in the relatively narrow idiom of blues, but popular music generally.  Many people, themselves important figures in the popular music of the last half of the 20th century, discovered and were inspired by Robert Johnson at about the same time — the 1962 release of the first collection of Johnson’s 1930s recordings, the pretentiously titled, “King of the Delta Blues Singers,” on Columbia Records.  For Brian Jones, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, to name only three, Robert Johnson was a major influence on their own music.

Keith Richards, in a legendary 1972 interview with Robert Greenfield of Rolling Stone magazine, recalled coming home one afternoon in 1962 to the filthy flat he shared with Jones and Mick Jagger, and walked in on Jones sitting on the floor listening to blues records.  Keith, much impressed by what he was hearing asked, “Who is that?”  Jones replied that it was Robert Johnson, an obscure blues singer/guitarist.  Richards replied, “No, I mean who is that other cat playing guitar with him?” Jones told him that it was Johnson by himself.  There was no second guitar player.  Keith’s reaction upon being told this — “This cat (Johnson) must have TWO BRAINS!” —  is an apt description of Johnson’s abilities and his sound, particularly to those hearing it for the first time.

Having said that, Robert Johnson is a textbook example of over-compensation by his “discoverers” for the many years he had been obscure, unrecognized.  That is NOT to say that Robert Johnson is now “overrated,” but that the sincere effort by his admirers to give him the credit he was long denied has created a huge myth of someone with legendary talent, without serious questioning to discover the truth behind the legend.  Worse, it has relegated other figures — some equally important, talented and influential — to a lesser status.  As a result they are now overlooked or even forgotten — for a second time.  There are more than a few observers who feel that Clapton in particular has stressed and reiterated Johnson’s importance for so many years that he has done a great disservice to those blues artists equally deserving of recognition.

Imagine that the Rolling Stones had never risen above the level of a popular London club band of the early ’60s, but were “discovered” years later by a new generation of R&B/Rock and Roll enthusiasts who found the first demo recordings they made in 1963.  Then, with all the attention given this “new discovery,“ the musicians by whom the Rolling Stones were influenced — Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Little Richard, etc. –were subsequently forgotten, buried in an avalanche of enthusiasm for this previously unknown group of musicians who made these handful of recordings, then disappeared.

It‘s not a perfect analogy.  The Rolling Stones only recorded 7 tracks at the tiny IBC recording studio (engineered by Glyn Johns, a legend in his own right, these demo recordings actually sound better to my ears than their first album with Decca, recorded months later), and although Brian Jones and manager Andrew Oldham shopped their demo around all the record companies in London, no one thought them good enough to even grant the Stones an audition — “too primitive” was their verdict.  Not until Decca turned down the Beatles, who then exploded onto the pop scene after signing with EMI, did the Stones get a record deal — with Decca, one of the studios that had earlier turned them away. In the wake of their rejection of the Beatles, Decca had become the laughingstock of the British record business.  They were desperate to find their own fab four, or in this case five.

Like the Rolling Stones, Robert Johnson was not an innovator — this is not meant as a slight.  Most music — pop, jazz, classical art music, is created via the constant process of borrowing, sifting, adapting — a synthesis of what came before.  Complete originality is rare.   When it does occur, it is almost universally rejected, only to be adopted later by others who create their own music through this synthesis, a music that finds a larger audience than that of the original influence.

Among blues musicians of the first half of the 20th century, specifically the 1920’s and 1930’s, electrical amplification was unknown, particularly those playing in the rural American South.  In the mid-’30s guitarists began to amplify their sound.  Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker are the two musicians usually cited as pioneers of the electric guitar — as players, though not inventors — that would be Les Paul, Leo Fender, Adolph Rickenbacker, the unknown creator of the “Slingerland ‘Songster’,”or Lloyd Loar, depending on your definition of “guitar” and who you ask.  Christian and Walker played in large bands, and needed or desired to be better heard.  Though electricity was not an option for early blues players, their desire for a “bigger” sound was just as strong as players in big bands.  Many were solo performers who needed to expand their sound.  One method was to adapt the sound of the enormously popular Hawaiian musicians whose appearance at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis had entranced crowds of visitors, and spawned a craze for the ukulele and small lap guitars.

Unlike the lap-style playing of these musicians, blues artists played guitar upright, but began (like the Hawaiians) to fret the strings with metal or glass objects — “slides” made from old bottle necks, metal pipe or the back of a pen-knife, either separate from or in conjunction with their fingers on the fretboard.  The sound that resulted was louder, sharper (depending on choice of material for the slide), and rang out as a second “voice” for the solo singer/guitarist.  In the hands of a talented player, it could indeed sound like a second voice, second guitar or “two brains” playing at once.

The past two decades have rewarded fans of early blues as record companies began to scour their vaults beginning in the late 80s and CDs begcame the preferred medium for listeners. Among the thousands of hours of recordings by hundreds of artists, the 1990s saw "complete recordings" sets of many artists, including three of the most important blues practitioners of the 1920s and 30s, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. The introduction and convenience of digital downloading has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of blues aficionados for more material.

By the time Robert Johnson made his recordings in 1936-1937, he had perfected this style of play.  But so had many others before him, others whose playing was more facile, whose touch was lighter, yet still piercing, more complex, yet understated, and integrated into the vocals.   Johnson achieved this on some tracks, “Come on in My Kitchen,” being the best example.  But others did this before, and more frequently, as a key element of their music.  Blind Willie Johnson, “The Singing Preacher,” is an example of this subtler but technically brilliant style of play.

Click for larger picture: 1920s record advertisement for Blind Willie Johnson, "The Singing Preacher."

Though resurrected in the last decade or so, Blind Willie Johnson (no relation to Robert), had been forgotten except by devotees of his style of play, notably Ry Cooder, a brilliant player in his own right.  As part of the soundtrack of the 1998 film, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Blind Willie Johnson was given exposure to a wider and appreciative audience, and his “signature” recording, “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” is  now a classic and seems to inhabit the soundtrack of any film or documentary requiring a sound to complement a dusty, poverty-ridden tale set in a depression-like landscape.  But it is nowhere near his best recording.  More impressive are “God Moves on the Water,” — an allegory of God and the sinking of the Titanic — and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” a candid admission by the singer that should he fall short of expectations in the eyes of God, he has only himself to blame.  If most of his material seems to have a Christian bent, keep in mind that he was billed as “The Singing Preacher.”  And as a preacher, Blind Willie Johnson would have been insulted if not horrified at being called a “blues” singer.

(click to enlarge) Blind Willie McTell, Atlanta Georgia, 1940. McTell, the real king of twelve string guitar players, outlived many contemporaries, but died before the 1960's blues revival.

Then there’s twelve string virtuoso Blind Willie McTell.  Possibly the most eclectic of the great blues artists, he was every bit as fluent in folk, country, ragtime and pop as in blues, in fact it’s probably not accurate to refer to him solely as a representative blues artist.   Until I heard McTell, I never imagined that the bottleneck style could be as effective on the twelve string guitar as on the six string.  Best known for “Statesboro Blues,” covered in the early 1970s by Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers (usually to open their show), his “rags” —  very fast ragtime numbers such as “Georgia Rag,” played without slide — are a showcase for his technical abilities in genres outside of blues.

Unlike Blind Willie Johnson, McTell benefitted from never having been forgotten completely (and from outliving both the “Preacher” and Robert Johnson by two decades).  He was recorded in the late 1920s, the early 1930s and again in the 1940’s after he was “rediscovered” as a street singer in Atlanta.  He remained a popular local figure at public events, fairgrounds, even restaurants, until his death in 1959, at about the time he and other blues artists were being rediscovered yet again.  Unfortunately McTell died too soon to enjoy the booming blues revival of the 1960s that gave new careers and second lives to many old blues artists.

(click to englarge)Robert Johnson, c.1938. Johnson died from poisoning weeks before music impresario John Hammond tried to book him for a concert at Carnegie Hall.

What makes Robert Johnson such an impressive musician is his combined abilities as both singer and instrumentalist.  Others were as good as he was on guitar, maybe better; but no one sang blues as powerfully, as convincingly as he, and I don’t think you’ll find serious informed argument on that, certainly not from me.  His “Crossroads Blues,” is a harrowing description of what it is like to be a young, unemployed black man in rural 1930s Mississippi on a near-deserted stretch of road at sunset — a time when being black, male and walking alone down a rural highway after dark was as near a guarantee of arrest — or worse — as could be imagined at the time.  Johnson’s voice transports us to that time and place — an alien world to us if there ever was one —  and he shares with us the dark side of human existence the likes of which none of us would ever want to experience first hand.  Johnson makes that unnecessary, and makes his musical statement into art.  And truth.