The intent of this is to perhaps turn someone on to something they may not have the chance to hear. The film "Cadillac Records" got me to digging out my Etta James cd's to put on my iPod. But Muddy Waters was in the movie and I put some Muddy on as well. Which got me to thinking about Robert Johnson. There is a thread here about lifed riffs, and Robert Johnson has had all of his riffs lifted. Every one of them. If there hadn't have been Robert Johnson, the careers of James Burton, to Chuck Berry to Keith Richards to Angus Young and a thousand others would have been quite different. Listen to Crossroads Blues for a reasonably good introduction to Johnson's music and see what I mean. The following is from the 24kt gold CD "Robert Johnson : King Of The Delta Blues Singers" liner notes.
"Robert Johnson is little, very little more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists. A country blues singer from Mississippi Delta that brought forth Son House, Charlie Patton, Bukka White, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Robert Johnson appeared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark and windy midnight street. First, he was brought to a makeshift recording studio in a San Antonio hotel room. A year later, he was recording again, this time in the back of a Dallas office building. Then he was gone, dead before his twenty-first birthday, poisoned by a jealous girlfriend. *Ken's note, It is unclear as to who (whom?) actually poisoned Johnson, and all accounts say he was twenty-seven years old. Robert Johnson sang primitive blues about women. His references were earthy and only thinly disguised. He lived the life he sang about and which ultimately killed him. He was not unique in that respect. We can point to Sonny Boy Williamson, who was stabbed to death with an ice pick, or Charlie Christian or Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Blanton, Billie Holiday, Bunny Berigan Fats Waller and many other jazz immortals whose lives were snuffed out prematurely. They all died because they did not eat or sleep, because their systems couldn't weather physical adversities, and, often, because they were Negroes and unable to get proper medical care. Robert Johnson was already a legend in 1938, when John Hammon was planning his "Spirituals to Swing" concert for presentation in Carnegie Hall. Thoroughly convinced that Johnson was the greatest primitive blues singer of all time, Hammond had gone south to purchase hsi recordings of Terraplane Blues and Last Fair Deal Gone Down (such so-called "race" records were only sold in the South at the time.) Hammond also wanted Johnson to play in the concert. To locate him, Hammond enlisted the aid of the American Record Corporation's roving A&R man, Don Law, who had recorded Johnson for Vocalion in 1936 and 1937. Law searched throughout the deep South for Johnson only to learn of his death a few weeks before the concert was scheduled to take place. Johnson's recordings became collectors items almost as soon as they were released. Their distribution was limited and only one, Terraplane Blues, sold really well, almost exclusively in the deep South. Efforts on the part of the world's foremost blues research specialists to trace Johnson's career and substantiate details of his life have provided only meagre information. Sam Charters, in his book The Country Blues(Rhinehart, 1959) states that Johnson was about 30 when he recorded. Sources for this information are blues singer Muddy Waters, who never saw or knew Johnson, and the Memphis Jug Band's Will Shade who saw him in action for only a few moments in 1937. Don Law who actually recorded Johnson, remembers him being 17 or 18 years old at the time. Until his recoding debut, Johnson had seldom, if ever, been away from the Plantaion in Robinsville, Mississippi where he was born and raised. ARC salesman Ernie Oertle, who had heard about Johnson, brought him to Law, fresh from plantation. Don law remembers him as handsom, slender, of medium height with beautiful hands and a remarkable ability to project while he was singing or playing guitar. Law also recalls that Johnson was an extremely shy young man. He asked him to play guitar for a group of Mexican musicians gathered in a hotel room where the recording equipment had been set up. Embarassed and suffering from a bad case of stage fright, Johnson turned his back to the Mexican musicians. Eventually, he calmed down enough to play but he never did face his audience. Robert Johnson showed up at the ARC studios five times. At these five sessions, three in November 1936 and two in June 1937,he recorded a total of 29 sides. He earned several hundred dollars from his records which, in those depression times, was big money. Although little is known about Johnson, there is much circumstantial evidence that he liked wine and women as well as song. This was evident on his first recording trip to San Antonio. A country boy in a moderately big town, Johnson found trouble within hours after he arrived. Don law considered himself responsible for Johnson, found him a room in a boarding house and told him to get some sleep so he would be ready to begin recording at ten the following morning. Law then joined his wife and some friends for dinner at the Gunter Hotel. He had scarcely begun dinner when he was summoned to the phone. A policeman was calling from the city jail. Johnson had been picked up on a vagrancy charge. Law rushed down to the jail, found Johnson beeaten, his guitar smashed, the cops had not only picked him up, they had worked him over. With some difficulty, Law managed to get Johnson freed in his custody, whisked him back to the boarding house, gave him forty-five cents for breakfast, and told him to stay in the house and not go out for the rest of the evening. Law returned to the hotel only to be called to the phone again. Fearing the worst, Law asked "What's the matter now?" Johnson replied, "I'm lonesome." Puzzled, Law said "Your lonesome? What do you mean, your lonesome?" Johnson replied "I'm lonesome and there's a lady here. She wants fifty cents, and I lacks a nickle....." Another lady proved to be Johnson's undoing. Perhaps it was one of the girls he mentions in a blues refrain. In any event, Johnson died of poison, administered by an unknown woman, most likely in a drink. He left only his songs to tell about the anxieties that hounded him, the fears that gripped him, and a few of the things he wanted from life. He seemed constantly trapped.
I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees (repeat)
Ask the Lord above for mercy, say boy, if you please
Mmmm, standing at the crossroads, I tried to flag a ride (repeat)
Ain't nobody seem to know me, every-body pass me by. - "Crossroads Blues"
It was obvious he wanted to get away, but never could. He was tormented by phantoms and weird threatening monsters:
"Early this morning when you knocked upon my door (repeat) I said "Hello Satan, I believe it's time to go". Me and the Devil was walking side by side (repeat) I'm going to beat my woman until I get satisfied - "Me And The Devil Blues"
Symbolic beasts seemed to give him a great deal of trouble:
"I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving. Blues falling down like hail. I can't keep no money, Hellhound on my trail, Hellhound on my trail, Hellhound on my trail" - "Hellhound On My Trail"
His most aggravating problem was unrequited love:
"I got a kindhearted woman, do most anything in this world for me (repeat). But these evilhearted women, man, they will not let me be. I love my baby, my baby don't love me. (repeat)But I really love that woman, can't stand to let her be" - "Kindheared Woman Blues"
With a fairly large bank roll for that time and place, naive Johnson was probably fair game for smart connivers. More than one sank her claws into Johnson, only to ditch him when the money ran out:
"I woke up this morning, feeling around for my shoes (repeat) But you know about it, I've got these old walking blues. Lord, I feel like blowing my old lonesome home. Got up this morning to find it was gone (repeat) I got up this morning all I had was gone. Well, leaving this morning if I have to goin' to ride the blinds* (repeat) I been mistreated, I don't mind dying (repeat) - "Walking Blues"
* Riding the blinds - Hopping a freight, to hitch a ride, etc. on a railroad train.
Johnson was young and impressionable, he seemed to fall hard, compelled somehow to give his all to predatory women:
"Oh, Babe, my life feels all the same, you breaks my heart when you calls Mr. So-and-So's name." - "Kindhearted Woman Blues
"The woman I love took up with my best frien', some joker got lucky, stole her back again." - "Come On In My Kitchen"
"I'm going to stay around Jonesboro until my teeth is crowned with gold (repeat)
She's got a mortgage on my body, a lein on my soul" - "Travelling Riverside Blues"
There is no doubt that Johnson had women as well as trouble in mind
"She's got Elgin movements from her head down to her toes (repeat) She breaks in on a dollar most anywhere she goes" - "Walking Blues"
Women in his case meant only trouble "You may bury my body down by the highway side, Babe, I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side, so my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride." - "Me and the Devil Blues"
Robert Johnson - "Kindhearted Woman Blues"
The only two "known" photographs of Robert Johnson.
Robert Johnson's Wikipedia link.
Typing this post was a labor of love. Robert Johnson saved my soul.