Robert Johnson

Of all the great blues musicians, this man was probably the most obscure. All that is known of him for certain is that he recorded 29 songs; he died young; and he was one of the greatest blues men of the Mississippi Delta…

Robert Johnson
(1911-1938)

November 1936 Recordings (San Antonio):

1. Kind Hearted Woman Blues – November 23, 1936

2. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom

3. Sweet Home Chicago **

4. Rambling on My Mind **

5. When You Got a Good Friend **

6. Come On In My Kitchen **

7. Terraplane Blues **

8. Phonograph Blues

9. 32-20 Blues

10. They’re Red Hot

11. Dead Shrimp Blues

12. Cross Road Blues – November 27, 1936

13. Walking Blues

14. Last Fair Deal Gone Down

15. Preaching the Blues (Up Jumped The Devil) **

16. If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day

June 1937 Recordings (Dallas):

17. Hellhound On My Trail

18. Little Queen of Spades

19. Malted Milk

20. Drunken Hearted Man

21. Me and the Devil Blues

22. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues

23. Traveling Riverside Blues

24. Honeymoon Blues

25. Milkcow’s Calf Blues **

26. Love in Vain – Take2 (1937) **

** Accuracy of pitch and speed of some extant recordings has been questioned. In The Guardian’s music blog from May 2010, Jon Wilde states that

“the common consensus among musicologists is that we’ve been listening to [Robert] Johnson at least 20% too fast;” i.e., that “the recordings were accidentally speeded up when first committed to 78 [rpm records], or else were deliberately speeded up to make them sound more exciting.”

Ed. Note: [I have adjusted pitch downward on some of these songs to the key of A, E or G, as seemed to be correct for Johnson’s normal voice register – RS]

Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues singer and musician. Robert was at school in 1924 and 1927 and the quality of his signature on his marriage certificate suggests that he studied continuously and was relatively well educated for a boy of his background. One school friend, Willie Coffee, has been discovered and filmed. He recalls that Robert was already noted for playing the harmonica and jaw harp.

Fellow musician Johnny Shines was 17 when he met Johnson in 1933. He estimated that Johnson was maybe a year older than himself. In Samuel Charters’ Robert Johnson, the author quotes Shines as saying:

“Robert was a very friendly person, even though he was sulky at times, you know. And I hung around Robert for quite a while. One evening he disappeared. He was kind of a peculiar fellow. Robert’d be standing up playing some place, playing like nobody’s business. At about that time it was a hustle with him as well as a pleasure. And money’d be coming from all directions. But Robert’d just pick up and walk off and leave you standing there playing. And you wouldn’t see Robert no more maybe in two or three weeks . . . So Robert and I, we began journeying off. I was just, matter of fact, tagging along.”

When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. Musical associates stated that in live performances Johnson often did not focus on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead pleased audiences by performing more well-known pop standards of the day — and not necessarily blues. With an ability to pick up tunes at first hearing, Johnson had no trouble giving his audiences what they wanted, and certain of his contemporaries later remarked on Johnson’s interest in jazz and country. Johnson also had an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with his audience — in every town in which he stopped, Johnson would establish ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.

Johnson mastered the guitar, being considered today one of the all-time greats on the instrument. His revolutionary guitar playing has led contemporary experts, assessing his talents through the handful of old recordings available, to rate him among the greatest guitar players of all time:

His approach was highly complex and extremely advanced musically. When Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was first introduced to Johnson’s music by his band mate Brian Jones, he replied, “Who is the other guy playing with him?”, not realizing it was Johnson playing on one guitar. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself,” said Richards. Johnson would sometimes sing over the triplets in his guitar playing, using them as an instrumental break; his chord progression not being quite a standard Twelve-bar blues.

His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians.

Around 1936, Johnson sought out H. C. Speir in Jackson, Mississippi, who ran a general store and doubled as a talent scout. Speir put Johnson in touch with Ernie Oertle, who offered to record the young musician in San Antonio, Texas.

At the recording session, held November 23, 1936 in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio which Brunswick Records had set up as a temporary studio, Johnson reportedly performed facing the wall. This has been cited as evidence he was a shy man and reserved performer, a conclusion played up in the inaccurate liner notes of the 1961 album King of the Delta Blues Singers. In the ensuing three-day session, Johnson played sixteen selections, and recorded alternate takes for most of these.

Among the songs Johnson recorded in San Antonio were “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Cross Road Blues“.

His first recorded song, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” in contrast to the prevailing Delta style of the time, more resembled the style of Chicago or St. Louis, with “a full-fledged, abundantly varied musical arrangement.” Unusual for a Delta player of the time, a recording exhibits what Johnson could do entirely outside of a blues style.

Kind Hearted Woman Blues (Take 1)

Kind Hearted Woman Blues  (Take 2)

They’re Red Hot,” from his first recording session, shows that he was also comfortable with an “uptown” swing or ragtime sound similar to the Harlem Hamfats.  Notably, it is one of very few songs that is not based around twelve bar blues.  It is based on a common ragtime chord progression. Unlike some other Johnson songs, only one recording of this song exists.

They’re Red Hot

An important aspect of Johnson’s singing was his use of microtonality. His subtle inflections of pitch help explain why his singing conveys such powerful emotion. Eric Clapton described Johnson’s music as “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”

In two takes of “Me And The Devil Blues” he shows a high degree of precision in the complex vocal delivery of the last verse: “The range of tone he can pack into a few lines is astonishing.”

Me And The Devil Blues

Johnson fused approaches specific to Delta blues to those from the broader music world. The slide guitar work on “Rambling On My Mind” is pure Delta and Johnson’s vocal there has a touch of “Son House rawness”, but the train imitation on the bridge is not at all typical of Delta blues, and is more like something out of minstrel show music or vaudeville.

Rambling On My Mind

In the first take of “Come On In My Kitchen,” the influence of Skip James is evident in James’s “Devil Got My Woman”, but the lyrics rise to the level of first-rate poetry, and Johnson sings with a strained voice found nowhere else in his recorded output.

Come On In My Kitchen

The sad, romantic “Love In Vain” successfully blends several of Johnson’s disparate influences. The form, including the wordless last verse, follows Leroy Carr’s last hit “When the Sun Goes Down”; the words of the last sung verse come directly from a song Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded in 1926.

Love In Vain

Johnson’s last-ever recording; “Milkcow’s Calf Blues“, is his most direct tribute to Kokomo Arnold, who wrote “Milkcow Blues” and who had a lot of influence on Johnson’s vocal style.

Milkcow’s Calf Blues

Musicians who proclaim his profound impact on them, i.e., Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, all rated in the top ten with him on each of these lists. Listen to the boogie bass line he fashioned for “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom“.  It has now become part of the standard repertoire of guitar technique. At the time it was completely new, a guitarist’s version of something people would only ever have heard on a piano.

I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom

When his records began appearing, Johnson made the rounds to his relatives and the various children he had fathered to bring them the records himself. The first songs to appear were “Terraplane Blues” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Down“, probably the only recordings of his that he would live to hear. “Terraplane Blues” became a moderate regional hit, selling 5,000 copies.

Terraplane Blues

Last Fair Deal Gone Down

Robert Johnson is today considered a master of the blues, particularly of the Delta blues style. As Keith Richards said in 1990 “You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.”.  According to Elijah Wald, in his book Escaping the Delta, Johnson in his own time was most respected for his ability to play in such a wide variety of styles—from raw country slide guitar to jazz and pop licks—and to pick up guitar parts almost instantly upon hearing a song.

Johnson’s songs, vocal phrasing and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians; Eric Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived”. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986. He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

–o–

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3 responses to “Robert Johnson

  1. Pingback: Elmore James! | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

  2. Pingback: Anatomy of a Song #3 | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

  3. Great to hear his tunes one after another. He still sounds like 2 or 3 guitarists at times. I did a blog post on RJ myself, with a link back to here. http://businesslessonsfromrock.com/notes/2015/03/business-lessons-from-robert-johnson

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