Sunday, May 08, 2011

Robert Johnson, 100 today

Today would have been Robert Johnson's 100th birthday, if he hadn't died in 1938, most likely poisoned by a jealous husband.

When I was growing up, in England in the 60s, his name was everywhere. Robert Plant mentioned him as incomparably superior to himself. Eric Clapton called him a genius. The Rolling Stones covered his songs.

R Crumb's famous drawing of Johnson

As a child with no money, it was virtually impossible to get hold of his records. Yes, in those days, if you didn't have any money, you didn't have any music. A lot of musicians look back on those days fondly, both because they got paid back then and because they think anticipation is good for people - you value something more if you are not immediately gratified. I don't really believe that in general, and I can tell you that in this specific instance it sucked.

I'm told Keith Richards met Mick Jagger when one of them saw the other standing around with a blues album under their arm, and that was actually a common way of meeting people. I remember in the 70s that you used to see a lot of men in greatcoats standing on street corners with an album under their arms, cover ostentatiously displayed, and they were waiting for like minded men to approach them. It all sounds rather strange now, but how else would you know if someone in your district was a fan of your sort of music and you could swap LPs with them? (Of course if you go back to someone's house to listen to his albums the musician didn't get paid for that either, but that has always been legal whereas swapping MP3s has always been illegal.)

I don't think I got hold of a copy of one of the King of the Delta Blues Singers LPs (I forget whether it was Volume I or Volume II) until 1974. By then my musical tastes had canalized down a rockist path. I was geeky enough to have a copy of Back Door's Walking Blues, for instance but I hadn't heard much original material at all. When I got my Robert Johnson, I could barely make out what he was saying, and couldn't get over the gulf between say, Cream's Crossroads versus Johnson's Crossroads or his Travelling Riverside Blues versus Led Zeppelin's Traveling Riverside Blues.

Through the agency of the Stones (Stop Breaking Down, Love In Vain) I eventually found a key, and through Greil Marcus' book Mystery Train - a description of Johnson's lyrics that was almost anguished enough to count as some woodpulp form of blues in itself - I learned to understand the lyrics.

By that time, I think, the CD had been invented (by Norio Ohga, who passed away recently, may he rest in peace) and reissued music was tumbling into the market like water through a broken levee. Even I could get hold of it. I got the Robert Johnson complete collection on CD among many, many other things, and could finally hear him, and the other Delta blues singers, and compare their lyrics and borrowings and commonalities and begin to understand the original blues.

It did take me until last year to learn what his line "she's got Elgin movement from her head down to her toes" meant, however. I'd seen the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum but I was sure Robert Johnson hadn't. And I'd noticed the thing they plainly didn't do was move. But the internet - now that information is free, as well as music - informed me recently that Elgin watch movements were the most prized watches of the era for a man like Robert Johnson. Mystery solved, and it's not as far out as I thought it was but I feel a little more relaxed for knowing it.

For me, it'll always be Robert Johnson. I guess for Americans it's usually Son House. A little cultural difference there. Now that music is easy to get, I've been able to catch up with House, and with the others, but it will always be Johnson. Maybe there's something in that thing about appreciating it more if you have to wait for it.


KaliDurga said...

"Greil Marcus' book Mystery Train" Thanks for the recommendation, it's been added to my list.

And, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, I think for most Americans it's actually B.B. King.

Peromyscus said...


Bruv said...

Hi Sis

I have 8 Son House albums and the full set of Robert Johnson recorded tracks and I have got to say that the "recent" (the last 30 years) interpretations of both their styles is far superior to the originals (ok studio mixing helps). They may have set the train moving, but the guys who jumped on the train soon overtook the old masters.

By the way I will be in New York, Charlotte and Jacksonville next week on business, Big Jack ain't playing anywhere near is he?


Peromyscus said...

Frank: Even more yikes.

I haven't seen any sign Jack is playing, but do watch out for the floods. It's scary out there

Bruv said...

Hi Sis and Kali

I also have about 10 BB King albums in my collection (I am up to 17,000 tracks on my ipod at the moment)and although I used to think of him as the King of the slow guitar style he has always played, I have listened again recntly and he isn't that good a technical guitarist. It is just that his style is unique (sort of) which has built up the image over the years. Pull out a couple of albums, old and new sit down and listen to them and his playing is only average. We can all name a dozen guitarists whose technique is far superior.


Bruv said...

Hi Sis

In 5 days did Newcastle (UK) / Heathrow / Newark, then Newark/Boston/Charleston, then Charleston/Atlanta/Jackson/Atlanta/Charleston, then Charleston / La Guardia / Newark / Heathrow / Newcastle. So 12 flights in 5 days, 10 very intimate body searches (knee replacement and hip replacement), luggage lost at Boston, but found 24 hours later. But hopefully a successful business trip. But no big Jack!! What a way to visit the USA!!!!!



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