Thursday, September 30, 2010

Listening in the car

Traveling Riverside Blues, Robert Johnson

I've been listening to Son House. I have mp3s in the car so as I ease out into the traffic into the 113 degree heat or the threatening rain (today) I can listen to the music of someone who recorded 80 years ago.

I was always a Robert Johnson fan myself. It was dee rigger, when I grew up in Britain in the seventies, to be an owner of a copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers volumes one and two, and although it took me a while to achieve it, I was eventually one of those. So I've lived with Robert Johnson for 35 years.

Son House, Clarksdale Blues. (I'm trying to avoid Death Letter and Grinnin' In Your Face, as I assume those are already known)

I'm reading a book, which I should have done before my recent trip to Clarksdale, about the blues. It was written in the nineties and bemoans a couple of times that no-one now records in the tradition of Son House. The book (which was written in the Robert Cray days) seemed a little bereft about it. They'd be glad to know, I'm sure, that the Son House tradition is being thoroughly followed up on by one outstanding blues guitarist and vocalist.

Later in that movie, It Might Get Loud, Jack White explains how all the gimmicks he employed in the White Stripes were to disguise the fact a couple of white Detroiters were playing blues music.

But people like what they like, and 35 years of listening to Robert Johnson has biased me. Son House's forte is his passion - and his lightly disguised struggle between carnal cravings and spirituality. But there's something about his music - for instance the fact that I heard most of those songs played by Lead Belly a long time ago, and I consider Lead Belly a folkie - that puts him behind Robert Johnson in my mind. And Robert Johnson's lyrics are a country mile ahead of any of his contemporaries.

I may have been unduly influenced by Nik Cohn's admiration of the line in If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, but you have to admit that Son House's line about whiskey and women wouldn't let him pray is overshadowed by Robert Johnson's line about how, if he had possession over judgment day, "the woman I've been loving wouldn't have no right to pray."

No right to pray! And Johnson comes out with these gems all the time. Even the iPod generation can surely feel the frustration of "Stones in my Passway".

When Johnson sings:

a woman I know
took from my best friend
some joker get lucky
steal her back again
he better come on
in my kitchen
it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors
well she's gone
I know she won't come back
I took the last nickel
out of her nation sack
you better come on
in my kitchen
well, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

...You know you're not listening to regular delta blues lyrics. And when it comes to Hellhound on My Trail,

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail

Or Dust My Broom, or Cross Road Blues. Or try Terraplane Blues, or the Stones-covered Love in Vain. People love Terraplane, because of the car/girl metaphor later explored by Led Zeppelin in Trampled Underfoot, or for that matter 'squeeze my lemon' from his Traveling Riverside Blues that ended up in a Zeppelin song.

Led Zeppelin's Traveling Riverside Blues, my favorite song in all the world.


Bruv said...

Hi Sis

Glad you are back in blues mode. As discussed in previous blogs Robert Johnson has been the influence behind so many of the Rock greats and doesn't get anywhere near enough air time. I suppose "crude" blues which is what he sang isn't to everyone taste and it isn't until you put it in a modern context and sound that you think Yeah that does sound good.

Just got Dylan's new Cd Folksingers Choice (recorded from a radio interview 1962) and Johnson gets a couple of mentions on that and Dylan even impressed me with some of his guitar playing, I had never rated most of his early playing. I think I have well over 40 Dylan albums now and still consider him the greatest lyricist and poet ever, even beats your choice of Johnson lyrics!!

I also had time this weekend to listen to Hendrix playing Red House, I have 5 different versions of it and although it could be classed as Rock it is definitely Blues in my opinion. The difference between the versions shows how versatile he was in manipulating such a simple song. I also listened and compared them with the John Lee Hooker version and give me the Hendrix versions anytime.


Mike said...

In honour of your recent field trip, I've uploaded some radio documentaries that accidentally fell onto my hard disk drive a while back. MP3 files here.
Robert Johnson (1 hour)
Sun Records (1 hour)
Million Dollar Quartet (who recorded at (one of the) Sun studios) (1 hour)
Toe Rag Studios (with your fella Jack White) (1 hour)
Chess Records (you mentioned Howling Wolf) (2 hours)
Led Zeppelin ('Fluff' Freeman from 1990) (2 hours)
Hope you don't mind. Link is temporary.

Peromyscus said...

Hey, thanks Mike. I had the Alan Freeman one (of course) but not the others. That's great.


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