Sunday, November 16, 2008

A lien on my soul

My family's musical traditions were a murky stew. My mother's family mostly sang and listened to Music Hall songs - I can still sing rather more of My Old Man Said Follow the Van or recite more of Stanley Holloway's The Lion and Albert that you might imagine - and my dad was solidly Matt Monro and Frank Sinatra. Skiffle, which had revolutionized Britain, had passed them by, with the possible exception of "Chewing Gum" (I think that got grandfathered into Music Hall), and Elvis was regarded as joke, one of those youngsters you can't tell if he's a boy or a girl, can't sing without heaps of reverb and is sure to sink into the mire from which he accidentally arose, like some quiffed vacuum fluctuation.

In the bumbling way kids do, or at least did pre-Wikipedia, I found rock and roll, learned it had blues roots and decided to dig around. BB King and John Lee Hooker and the hundreds of other major influences on rock seemed to go unsaid in those days. Too obvious to mention, perhaps, for the grown-ups who were actually playing music. The one man everyone mentioned was Robert Johnson.

So, I picked up King of the Delta Blues Singers volumes 1 and 2 at an early age, without actually having heard any other original American blues that I can recall. They were recorded in 1936. The songs of Robert Johnson's I'd heard by British artists were recorded from 1967 on. A thirty year period, in which those playing his stuff had also listened to Elvis, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and a host of other musicians forming a bridge. I hadn't, and Robert Johnson might as well have been a Martian for all the similarities a naive 13 year old could detect between say, his Malted Milk and Black Sabbath's Paranoid. Luckily I was an avid Science Fiction reader, so the problems of First Contact didn't throw me. It took a while to apply this discipline, and it took even longer to grow up enough to know what Robert Johnson was singing about, and why he sounded so hunted, even haunted, on every track. It took about ten years, then, to figure out why he was the one every rock musician mentioned first.

Led Zeppelin famously borrowed his lyric "squeeze my lemon" in The Lemon Song and a little less famously, because it was performed for a BBC session and not released until many years later, they covered his Traveling Riverside Blues. They doubled the "l", as British people do, and added in words from other Robert Johnson songs and even other blues songs, as Robert Plant is wont to do, and fundamentally changed the guitar part from compelling to absolutely sublime, as guitar gods do. I recorded it from a BBC broadcast and had it on cassette tape for many years before it was released, and it is still my favorite Led Zeppelin song. There's something about the structure, the way it fits together and seems sort of inevitable, like a beautifully designed roller coaster, the highs and lows scripted and set in motion to play out perfectly, the musical equivalent of one of the executive desk toys in spinning chrome.

Here it is. Led Zeppelin's Travelling Riverside Blues.

Now, Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge has been suggested as a singer for Jimmy Page's, John Paul Jones' and Jason Bonham's new band, the "To Be Decideds". Does he like Traveling Riverside Blues? Yes, he does!

Alter Bridge’s management offered a terse “no comment” to Classic Rock’s official enquiry regarding the rumours; the fact that the band included Robert Johnston’s ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’ (from whence Zep borrowed the immortal “Squeeze my lemon…” line) seems to imply the deal has already been done. And, so long as it was temporary, why the heck not?

He plays it straight, with just a little adjustment here and there to make it smooth.

Edit: replacement video. The Copenhagen link died.

Here's the original, in Martian. Robert Johnson in a hotel room in 1937. Second Contact, in this case, as he'd been recorded once previously. Imagine that meeting of cultures! Stanley G. Weinbaum's creatures were not separated by the gulf that's being bridged here by this flimsy magnetic tape - or was it still wire in those days?

I put the others first to build the (alter) bridge in case you haven't heard Robert Johnson before. Please feel free to decide it's infinitely superior to the modern interpretations. I'm used to people saying that.


Steve Sauer said...

This was very fun to read, Lyle. I don't know how old you are, but I turned 29 this past week. Similar story with my discovery of Robert Johnson. I was probably around 15 or 16 when I decided to buy the 2-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. I was probably into the liner notes more than I was into the recordings themselves. I knew these songs were inspirational to the artists I liked the best and recordings made, like you point out so well, pretty much 30-32 years after Johnson recorded them. But for me, I never really got what was so great about the recordings. I did appreciate the man's guitar work and the fluidity with which he could sing, but I preferred to hear "Sweet Home Chicago" by the Blues Brothers or "Train in Vain" by the Rolling Stones or "Crossroads" by Cream or "Travelling Riverside Blues" by Led Zeppelin (nice catch on the title's spelling, by the way) than listen to the originals I'd scoped out. But I like those recordings more now, probably ever since Clapton released his "Me and Mr. Johnson" album in 2004 with full-band renditions of 14 RJ compositions in their proper keys and tempos and sung almost faithfully like the man himself did. It was a renaissance and rediscovery for me, and I have to credit Mr. Clapton.

Oh, and thanks for the link in your post!

Peromyscus said...

Thanks, Steve! I think it was Cream's Crossroads that made me pick up the RJ discs. And when I got them, I couldn't figure out how Clapton had got from there to his. I still can't, but now I know that's why they used to write "Clapton is God" grafitti, and it doesn't bother me so much.

I haven't heard all of Me and Mr. Johnson, but I really should pick that up. (I still like the rockist versions of the sixties and seventies, though!)


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