STANDIN’ AT THE CROSSROAD

“In folk as well as in fine art, there are especially gifted individuals who make great advances that preoccupy the less talented for generations afterward. Robert Johnson of Tunica County, Mississippi, was one of these exceptional men.”

So wrote legendary musicologist Alan Lomax in his engrossing American odyssey “The Land Where The Blues Began”. Engrossing is also a word we can apply to the story, or more accurately the mythology, surrounding Robert Johnson. Though it must be said that for all the obsessive research, remarkably little is known about the man whose modest recorded output built more of the foundation of blues rock than any other artist.

Poignantly, the key points in Mr Johnson’s history can be summarised in just a handful of dot points.

  • Born May 11, 1911 in Mississippi.
  • Lived a penniless itinerant lifestyle, playing throughout the Mississippi delta.
  • Recorded twice, the first session being in November 1936 and the second in 1937.
  • Died the following year (1938) of unknown causes (despite much lurid speculation).
  • Johnson was 27 years old. His burial site is unknown.
  • In 1990, Columbia Records contributed to the raising of a monument near Morgan City, Mississippi. Columbia have made very substantial profits from Johnson’s recordings.

Those are the bare facts, most of which have been disputed at one time or another and many of which have generated thousands upon thousands of words by blues scholars, Johnson fanatics, and lawyers.

The most famous story, one propagated by Son House (another blues legend) is the old Faustian legend that Robert Johnson’s surprisingly rapid escalation from mediocre musician to mesmerising performer and amazing slide guitarist was the result of an unholy deal made with that most untrustworthy dude, Mephistopheles himself. Yep, a deal with the devil. Either that, or he simply practiced like hell for two years and got really good as a result.

This is simple, powerful music. Often deceptively so. There’s a famous Keith Richard quote of him hearing Johnson play and asking who the second guitarist was. Yet as we listen now, hearing the background crackles and the thin vocal sound, it transports us to a time of poor sharecroppers, dusty roads, musicians scratching for a living like the disenfranchised folk they played for. Yet from the birth of rock, the songs of Robert Johnson have provided a cornerstone of blues-rock. Try this list of artists and the Johnson songs they’ve interpreted:

Cream—“Cross Road Blues” (1968)

Rolling Stones—“Love in Vain” (1969)

Cassandra Wilson—“Come On In My Kitchen” (1993)

Led Zeppelin—“Travelling Riverside Blues” (1969/1990)

R.L. Burnside—“Kindhearted Woman Blues” (1997)

The White Stripes—“Stop Breaking Down Blues” (1999)

That’s just a sample.

Add in The Doors, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top, John Mayer, the Blues Brothers, and a sizeable chunk of Eric Clapton’s catalogue (‘Slowhand’ has faithfully tended Robert Johnson’s grave for over five decades), and you have a truly staggering influence.

It seems the music industry is indebted to this powerful phantom of a man of whom we have but two verified portraits and who was buried in a pauper’s grave. Perhaps this is the irony of the blues—the sad music that makes us feel better—and beautifully encapsulated in a paradoxical couplet from “Kindhearted Woman Blues”:

She’s a kind hearted woman

Studies evil all the time

But here’s the thing. If you study the music of Robert Johnson, your appreciation of rock music will be enhanced—it really is as simple as that. In fact, you can bet your soul on it.

This piece was written for Discrepancy Records (retail/on-line) and published at their blog in March 2019

19 comments

  1. The classic blues song. Unfortunately, he brought Johnson no luck, two years after the recording, the jealous husband of one of his women probably poisoned him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much debate about that, isn’t there? But one thing is certain. He did not live to collect the old-age pension!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right! But Skip James got his payments from his song “I’m So Glad”, to pay mostly his hospital bills.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Inexcusably, I don’t have this in the collection yet. It is fascinating how little is known about someone who influenced so many

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Astonishing, isn’t it? We are so used to wading through endless tedious details of musician’s lives that it is sobering to contemplate that one century ago, a major influencer could live and die almost entirely unheralded.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Nice closer, Bruce…and great ode.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Bill. It’s good to touch into the roots now and then.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        We have a blues radio program out here I listen to every Sunday morning. Nice way to ease into the day.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Church of the Blues. I like that. Sometimes, if I come over all spiritual on a Sunday morning, I spin a Grant Green CD called ‘Feelin’ the Spirit’. It’s instrumental jazz, but even a radical atheist can sing along.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. pinklightsabre · ·

          I’m down with that Alice Coltrane album for my spiritual fix.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Which one, Bill? The recent ‘Ecstatic Music of’ one?

          Like

        4. pinklightsabre · ·

          Yes! My friend Anthony got it on vinyl with two copies of sides 3/4 (and they gave him another free copy) so he gave it to me a while ago. That one! The green one!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Your summation says it all, Bruce. John Lennon famously said that rock-n-roll could have easily been simply called “Chuck Berry.” But Robert Johnson made it more interesting. Great post. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marvellous quote Marty. 🙂
      Yes, Chuck is the energy force, but RJ added the darkness.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice one Bruce. My dad has this and I used to hear it when I was little. I’ve always loved the crossroads story, it’s such a great myth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sure is. ‘Dr Faustus gets the blues’.

      Like

  6. I have a recording by Peter Green Splinter Group ‘Me And The Devil’. I think Bruce would like it. CB does. You are really feeling the old stuff. It gets to us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Blues in troubled times, CB.
      Should listen to more of Peter Green’s later stuff; not really familiar at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a big fan of his. Just good solid music. No flame throwing. It’s not that other genre we both like, KC/Yes like. But born from that roots stuff you’re featuring. I like his playing and his vocals.

        Liked by 1 person

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