Saturday, May 8, 2010

King of the Delta Blues Singers

It's Robert Johnson Day, what would have been the 99th birthday of one the most influential yet enigmatic blues musicians. He recorded only 29 unique songs in 1936-37 -- many of them very clearly based on pre-existing lyrics/tunes by Scrapper Blackwell and Kokomo Arnold. That's not to diminish their originality or impact (Sweet Home Chicago, anyone?), but to emphasize their place in the evolution of the blues, toward the end of the era that produced them.

King of the Delta Blues SingersThe recordings were only available as 78s until 1961, when the eponymous LP was released amidst the 60s folk revival. Seems a lot of the folksters passed over the otherwordly voice and guitar work, though of course it made a famously strong impact on a generation of (mostly British) guitarists that was about to supersede the gentility of the folk movement, notably Eric Clapton. As something of a bridge (with hindsight) between the folk revivalists and blues-rock crowds, Bob Dylan recorded his debut album shortly after the Robert Johnson LP was released (both were overseen by John Hammond), and though his album didn't contain any of Johnson's songs, Ramblin' On My Mind and Kindhearted Woman Blues were both part of his live set in 1962, and he did record several takes of Milkcow's Calf Blues at that year's sessions for his second album (not to mention a somewhat hybrid recording of 32-20 Blues in 1993). As little as we know about Robert Johnson today, it's even harder imagine hearing the recordings in the early 60s, when the only two known photos of him were still unknown, his life was mostly rumor, and the songs themselves had been buried under the urbanization and electrification of the blues.

The Complete RecordingsI fell under the spell when the box set was released in 1990, right about the time I was learning to play guitar. The combination of I Believe I'll Dust My Broom and Walkin' Blues (along with Muddy Waters' I Can't Be Satisfied and I Feel Like Going Home) certainly got me playing bottleneck pretty quickly, but I don't think I had quite the life-changing experience that others claimed. I've kind of come to regard Robert Johnson as I do the Beatles. Both were important, all-encompassing gateways that I have extreme affection for. But it seems like later apprciators don't always acknowledge just how much each of them was a product of their reception at a particular place and time.

Happy birthday, Mr. Johnson.

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