Robert Johnson is, according to Eric Clapton, the first and the mightiest bluesman. I can't find that particular quote, but here's another from God himself:
“At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say, or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard. After a few listenings I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man's example would be my life's work.” (link)No less an authority on what makes popular American music popular than Bob Dylan said this:
"When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor." (link)We all know the story of Robert Johnson, or most of us anyway: How he hung around those early bluesmen in the Mississippi delta before there really was popular music, in Clarksdale and Helena and East Monroe (I know), the true birthplace of The Blues, and tried to sit in on various gigs while making an infernal racket until they chased him away, laughing, and told him he couldn't play. How he disappeared for a year or two, or a while anyway, and then returned one day playing slide with the best of them, his high-pitched singing voice and astounding proficiency on his little Stella stealing hearts and winning minds all over the Delta. How he made a couple of records, or recorded sides or whatever, a little more than 30 tracks total, and mysteriously had no success with the broader record-buying public. But his lyrics and the pain they encompassed hinted at something darker, and there were whispers that Mr. Johnson had made an unholy deal, at the Crossroads - he even sings about the crossroads, right? And also that there was a hellhound on his trail. Well, that kind of reference is serious, the story goes, because Robert is from the Delta, where they do that kind of thing - make deals with the devil - and also no unsophisticated country-boy musician would make use of a blasphemous metaphor just to entertain people.
And then Johnson died, poisoned, some say, by a jealous husband, and some say it was all a bit mysterious, because no one ever went to prison for his death and the coroner ruled it natural causes.... But his talent went unacknowledged, except by his fellow musicians, until Eric Clapton and a few other white British bluesmen pointed out what the Delta already knew, what those quiet, stolid black bluesmen had known for years: That Robert Johnson was the King of the Delta Blues, the master who taught everyone and to whom everyone bowed a head in prayer. Stephen Lavere said this:
Robert Johnson is the most influential bluesman of all time and the person most responsible for the shape popular music has taken in the last five decades.And from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which acknowledged his genius in 1986:
Such classics as “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain” and “Sweet Home Chicago” are the bedrock upon which modern blues and rock and roll were built.Well, except this guy might disagree:
Faster slide attack, better voice, and effectively the same song. So perhaps Robert Johnson taught the older, more popular singer Sweet Home Chicago a few years earlier? And there's this, as well, that seems to be the basis for another of Mr. Johnson's masterpieces:
Here's Johnson's version:
I prefer Johnson's version, although that's unusual for me, but I often find Son House a little harsh on the ears. He seems so intense and unwilling to sugarcoat what he's trying to say; unlike Johnson, who's versions of Son House tunes are more gentle, relaxed and downright poppy. Son House seems more authentic, and anyway his slide work is far more proficient than Johnson's, but Robert polishes the song and makes it much less "folk," in our modern understanding of the musical style, than Son House.
Its not much of a surprise, that the Johnson version hues so closely to the work of the other two men. First, the flat-out copying of other people's work was very common in the pre-World War II era, before Disney invented modern copyright law to save its business model.
Second, Son House taught Robert Johnson slide guitar in the first place, before he kicked him out of the bar for having more enthusiasm than skill - a fact acknowledged by multiple sources.
Third, Robert Johnson's copied Kokomo Arnold slavishly - indeed it may very well be that after House kicked him out and told him to go learn something, Johnson listened to Kokomo Arnold records for a year - and while Johnson wasn't as good at slide as the older men, his style is pretty obviously a mixture of the two. And Arnold's "The Original Kokomo Blues" was actually a cover of an older song by Scrapper Blackwell, a ragtime-y guitar classic. (If you've listened to all three songs, you now know the classic line baby don't you want to go... doesn't have much Crossroads sulfur attached to it, unless Kokomo, Indiana is one of the gates of hell.)
And finally, while Son House is the very model of the modern Delta bluesman - tortured by internal demons, he moved back and forth between the ministry and music, famously singing "You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher, just so I won't have to work," spent some time in Parchman Farm for killing a man in a fight over a woman, and lived and died a raging alcoholic and pissed off his younger, more talented successors with both his alcoholism and his conceit - Kokomo Arnold was a popular Chicago blues musician in the 30s who was born in Georgia, learned guitar in Buffalo, and had enough of the blues when he quit his very successful collaborations to go work in a factory where, presumably, the hours were better and the money steadier.
Robert Johnson was one of many great musicians in the Delta at the time - and I don't want you to get the impression that I don't think he was great - but the Delta wasn't the only place where the blues were happening, and the music long predated the Great Depression. Scrapper Blackwell, who may very well have been the original singer of baby don't you want to go..., worked as a popular musician throughout the country through the first couple of decades of the last century and lived in the decidedly un-Delta city of Indianapolis. ("Popular" here means he recorded lots, made money, did live shows, and was generally well-remembered by his contemporaries, unlike Robert Johnson.) And if you listen to the music of the time, you come to realize that Robert Johnson wasn't the best guitarist in the Delta, never mind the country, and not the best singer, and not the best lyricist, and ... while "the Best" is obviously a matter of preference, its clear that Robert Johnson was a promising young talent who got killed far too early, and had he not been killed, would probably have gone to Chicago to work in a jump blues band. Where he still might have gotten himself killed far too early, but that's neither here nor there.
What started the legend was John Hammond's From Spirituals to Swing concert in New York in 1938, which began the adoption of The Blues by intellectual cafe society as the Ur-folk music of the African-American, with all its voodoo and dark hollers and burning crosses and stolid, brave people standing up to the violence of savage white hatred. Much of which is true, and none of which should be minimized, but as Muddy Waters once gently told a young white folk musician who played Hoochie Coochie Man with all the dark, scary reverb-and-delay he could muster, "you know, that song is meant to be funny." Muddy Waters made a list of his favorite musicians for Alan Lomax, who only recorded Muddy playing blues, and Lomax made similar lists from other musicians in the Delta who's blues he recorded, and one of their collective favorites - one of the guys Muddy and his band-mates really liked - and one of the most-requested singers at the various parties they played, was Jimmy Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, the founder of modern country music. (Imagine my surprise: the stuff my father and grandather like and the stuff Muddy liked were, in fact, identical.) Muddy and many of his contemporaries wanted to demonstrate their yodeling skill to Lomax, who demurred, because it just wasn't folky and primitive and black enough.
This whole history reminds me, in a trivial-but-funny-way, of something Taylor Hawkins once mentioned about Dave Grohl, of Nirvana, that Pat Smear and Kurt Cobain didn't even know Grohl could play guitar until one day they heard him fooling around and Smear (considered one of the best guitar players of the day) joked that he and Kurt weren't even the best guitar players in the band.
Only in this case we're talking about almost a century of music, for the first half performed primarily by women like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Alberta Hunter, who criss-crossed the country from LA to Montreal and Vancouver to Miami and everywhere in between, including Regina, Edmonton and Thunder Bay, with huge ensembles and painted sets and shimmery dresses and high production values, who may have hired Kokomo or Scrapper as accompanists for their more basic solos or ballads or even just as sideshows. Indeed even the great Louis Armstrong made most of his living in his early career as an accompanist to these women. But at some point this rich musical history gets minimized in favor of Robert Johnson, the lone itinerant male folk guitarist, who's really just a pretty good busker in comparison, copying the music he hears off the juke box so he can make train fare. Suddenly people who really were geniuses, playing sold-out crowds across the nation for years, are pushed aside in favor of a guy who even his contemporaries didn't remember all that well when he was alive.
I highly recommend Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta for a survey of this history, but you get inklings of Wald's thesis in, among other places, the biographies of Muddy Waters and in Ted Gioia's Delta Blues. The hagiography is astounding. Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the music of "the Delta" and I love it and spend a lot of my free time figuring out how to play it, although even the hagiographers take pains to point out that what we consider the Delta blues has to be separated, musically, from an equally vibrant and cross-influential branch of the music called Hill Country or Piedmont blues, which is also from Mississippi and which has an even stranger, more haunting, more primitive feel to it.
In the clip above you find three very revealing bits of information. First, you've got Robert Palmer explaining a bit about his theories of the origin of the blues and the strange counterexample of R.L. Burnside and associates, who aren't from the Delta - they live a whole 70 miles away! - and yet who seem capable of producing an astonishing cousin of the music everybody calls the "mother" of American music. But they don't even sound like Robert Johnson. Its like they're playing music because it has a good beat and you can dance to it.
Second, you've got Dave Stewart dancing. The same Dave Stewart who was in the Eurythmics, who wrote "Sweet Dreams", reveals himself as such a fey poser its difficult to believe he voluntarily went out into the Delta with a guy as geeky as Robert Palmer. Palmer's movie made me, personally, lose all respect for Stewart: He's got a permanent look of barely-concealed terror at the ick he's surrounded with, and when Palmer mentions about halfway through the documentary that just after they filmed the above Stewart flew back to England you not only understand why, but you can picture him landing and sweeping into some poofy London spa and demanding to be pampered.
And finally, you've got the Robert Johnson myth encapsulated for Robert Burnside: the primitive down-home country boy who's a demon on the guitar, and his family, who are clearly proud of him - the wife nodding along to the music, the girls tapping their toes - but unappreciative, being such primitive people, of the depth of his genius - witness the boys climbing the trees, apparently unaware that this is the real deal! And finally, the white gentlemen, who've journeyed far into the wilderness to find this guy, this giant, who's, oh my god, driving a tractor! But now they've documented this secret master, and Dave Stewart will no doubt take the lessons he's learned back to England where he can produce a lush electronic version that distills R.L.'s primitive chordal tonalities into a catchy three minute synthesizer jingle no one will remember in five years.
Because R.L. was not a primitive. He lived in Chicago for fifteen years as a working musician, the same way Kokomo Arnold and Scrapper Blackwell and even Robert Johnson did. He worked with Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker - the former because he was related to Water's wife, and the latter because they knew each other from Clarksdale. He left Chicago because his father, two brothers and an uncle were all murdered in the course of a year. When he did play, at Junior Kimbrough's joint, he had to make music that would keep drunk people dancing and buying more alcohol, and he and Junior play a two-chord groove that's perfect for that. There's a darwinian advantage that accrues to a bar that plays music that makes people dance and feel stoned and happy when they're drunk - they buy more booze and wear it off quicker when they're dancing, which is obviously just money in the till - and it also keeps people from getting angry and shooting at each other.
We're now beginning to discover that the assumptions we made about the history of music on this continent are wrong and based almost entirely on the same old problems African-American sociologists have been pointing out for years about our understanding of Black history. And we can see the impacts those decisions have made on the richness of our understanding. We will never know how Muddy Waters would have interpreted Jimmie Rodgers, and how much interesting music could have been made because we were too stupid to ask him to, just once, cover his favorite Elvis song. We took a smooth sophisticated urban artist like Big Bill Broonzy and allowed John Hammond to turn him into a poor sharecropper who stretched to buy shoes before his appearance at the big concert in front of the white folks in NYC in 1938. Its no wonder, in some ways, that Son House and those other bluesmen drank so much: of all the music they liked and knew how to play, it was the busker stuff the white people wanted to hear and pay for, and in the end all those hard-won musical skills were wasted in favor of spooky swamp minstrelsry.
And I like that stuff, by the way. I love it. But what if Muddy Waters did Jimmie Rodgers? What would that have sounded like? Or Son House had been able to get out a version of Fly Me To The Moon?
We've assumed otherness, primitivism, and an anachronistic level of ignorance that just wasn't there. Robert Johnson is not the master of the Delta Blues; any halfway diligent perusal of his contemporaries will prove that. And he was not the foundation for modern rock music: if anyone can claim that title, it would be Bessie Smith, although I incline to Alberta Hunter. But the basic fact is that these mysteries, some of which can only be cleared up now, were not mysteries to the people of the time and to many people alive today, who just weren't asked their opinion. We've built a whole series of misconceptions on the idea that Robert Johnson was The Master of the Delta Blues, instead of a master, and we've created a poverty of experience as a result.