Friday, June 02, 2006

Robert Johnson

"the blues the b l u e s blues

the blues ain jus what some people think it are
it ain no lot of foolishness and foolish things
it MEAN sumthn

b l u e s

it mean sumthn
it searches the heart
goes from one heart to the othern
male and female
when one is deceived by the othern
that hurts em
and sometime some kills one another bout it
and some go to the river and jump over and drownd eselv
and some do a lot of thing
when they really take the blues
", Son House
Sure you know robert johnson pretty baby smallfeatured brownskin man sold his soul to the devil at the four points of the road in a field on the bonnie blue plantation near clayton mississippi as some folk do say just so as he could play the blues was poisoned by marybeth thomas pa jonas at the three forks store outside greenwood close on seventy year ago

We’ve all heard the story but it’s not the story that counts. What counts is the music. The music tells you everything you need to know about Robert Johnson. His life is all laid out for you in his songs. There are 29 of them, 12 recorded twice. Cut in San Antonio and Dallas over five days in 1936 and 37. None more than three minutes long. An hour and threequarters in all. That’s the deal.
The things Robert Johnson sings about are the deepest things in the world: good and evil; life and death; love and lust; anger, betrayal, remorse. There’s fear there and there’s even terror – and being the blues it’s all shot through with pain and sorrow – but you’ll be hardpressed to find any malice. Just listen to love in vain: all you hear is tenderness, sadness, resignation.

Some music is smart but the blues is wise. That wisdom and that pathos are born out of slavery and suffering. If I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Crudup felt, Elvis said when he started out, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw. It’s hard to see how Elvis or any other white man could ever reach that place. Just compare his version of that’s all right with the original. Elvis is good and he’s got something but he just ain’t got the blues.

The blues is a lowdown achin’ heart disease. You ain never had ’em. I hope you never will.

"one day back when hoover was president i was driving my cart down beale street and i seen a rat sitting on top of a garbage can eating a onion crying" Furry Lewis

Robert Johnson sings about deep things with a touch as light as can be. That’s one of the things about him: the way he mixes delicacy and depth of feeling. It’s as much in what he doesn’t do and say as what he does: and that requires discipline and skill.
He’s a rhythmic master. At times his guitar pulses and throbs and at others it’s driving, urgent, insistent. He can switch between a heartbeat and a drumbeat in the same song. When Keith Richards first heard him he couldn’t believe there wasn’t someone else playing along. Who’s the other guy? he asked Brian Jones.
The way his voice works with his guitar is just incredible: its intensity will rock you. He moans and groans and mumbles as if caught in a whirlwind of anguish and desire; he whines and screams and whoops and hollers like a man possessed. One moment he’s muttering to himself, the next he’s whispering to his lover.
Baby you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.
He loves women: sings to them and about them. Sometimes they mistreat him, othertimes he’s the one who does the mistreating. He cries and complains, seduces and implores. Running through it all is this tremendous erotic charge. It’s the same fixation you find in the Elizabethan poets. Johnson can sexualise a handgun, a lemon, a shrimp, a Hudson Terraplane car, milk. His lover can be a cow, a playing card, a dresser. Her cunt is a phonograph, a fiddle, a fishpond.

Nothing in these songs is ever what it seems: telephones and kitchens, stations and trains take on a supernatural significance. The road is a metaphor for the journey through life: Johnson searches for his good girl, flees from a hellhound, walks with the devil. All the way he carries a heavy burden of guilt. What evil have I done? he asks, I been dogged and I been driven ev’ since I left my mother’s home. His conclusion is stark: sin was the cause of it all. The blues walks with him like a man; it falls down on him like hail. Evil floats in the air. He falls to his knees at the crossroads. The devil is coming and he begs God to save him.

The lightness and fluidity that mark Johnson’s life and work show a man that’s free, not tied to one particular place like a slave. And it’s because he needs to feel that freedom that he’s got to keep changing, moving: he’s a restless rambling man who prizes action above place.
I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone.
Whichever way you come at him you just can’t tie him down. He could be Robert Leroy Johnson: he could be Dodds: he could be Spencer: he could be Willis. One moment he’s playing with Son House and Willie Brown in Robinsonville, the next he’s gone the Lord knows where. Then before you know it he’s back, looking different somehow and playing the blues like he’s just made the deal. It’s not long before he’s gone again, and you hear word he’s out playing every jukejoint on the Mississippi from Friars Point to Vicksburg.

"you could wake robert up at two three oclock in the mornin
robert i hear a train man
yeah what about it
lets catch it
he never say what way it was going
he didnt CARE what way it was going
it could be going right back where it jus come from
it dun make him no difference

somebody come along in a car
if you come along in a car
an anna tell robert you wan him to come an go some place
they have the good time there
all the drink
and all you can eat
and theres plen of women there
robert didn say nuthn about no money hardly
he jus take right on off you know
and go"
Johnny Shines
no slave an no sharecropper neither a bluesman a steadyrolling rambling man getting up in the morning dusting my broom keeping moving rolling into friars point into rosedale into this strangemans town headcutting on streetcorners with johnny shines looking for the good time for the houseparty for the jukejoint for someplace you can barrelhouse all night long looking for liquor for womens for beatrice bernice idabelle bettymay williemay womens in vicksburg clean on into tennessee

If you’ve heard of Robert Johnson, you’ve probably heard of Son House and Charlie Patton and Leadbelly, of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker as well, but there are countless others you should check out: Memphis Minnie, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb, Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis – the list goes on and on. None of these musicians should ever just be judged against Johnson: no one man is bigger than the blues. Each is an artist who speaks out clearly in his own voice. We should cherish and respect them all for making music which has the power to defy time in moving us so profoundly.

Some people say the blues is simple but then so is the blank verse used by Shakespeare. The basic framework may be simple but it’s capable of infinite and complex variation. With Shakespeare they dress it up and call it iambic pentameters. Again some people say Johnson isn’t so great, he’s just the summation of a particular tradition. Once again you can say the exact same thing about Shakespeare. Those Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists were no different from delta bluesmen: sharp as pins, stealing from one another. When it comes down to it, it isn’t who does something first that matters, it’s who does it best. That’s not to say Johnson doesn’t nod sometimes: sometimes he leans too much on Son House, sometimes too much on Lonnie Johnson. One song at least – they’re red hot – is great fun but just plain hokum. If it all sounded like that you wouldn’t get many people listening to it now.
Robert Johnson isn’t Dido or Norah Jones or Coldplay or Eric Clapton: you won’t hear his music piped through shoppingcentres. When he sings hellhound on my trail he doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks: he’s playing for himself and no one else. Seventy years on and there isn’t anything in the charts as uncompromising. It’s music you either sit down and listen to or you don’t listen to at all. It’s not for talking over at dinnerparties: it’s far too important for that. Truth is it either moves you or it doesn’t, and if it does move you then boy are you moved. If you’re lucky enough to hear Robert Johnson’s music – really hear it – it has the power to change your life.

Stuff I got it gon bust your brains out baby whoohoo it’ll make you lose your mind.

Take Eric Clapton. From what he says Clapton has loved Robert Johnson for more than 40 years. And so he should. Johnson has helped to make him (and Keith Richards and Jimmy Page and a host of others) very rich indeed. Unfortunately he doesn’t love Johnson enough to leave him be.
But forget the man Clapton is now. He’s described how when he first heard Johnson’s music in the early 60s it called to him in his confusion. Everything he’d heard before had merely prepared him to receive Robert Johnson, almost like a religious experience. Up until the time I was 25, he says, if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn’t talk to you.

Clapton couldn’t be more successful but he lost sight of Robert Johnson long ago: he must have or he wouldn’t be where he is. In gaining the world he’s lost his soul. His success has killed him by degrees. As someone once said, the only way you can truly succeed in life is if you keep on burning with a gemlike flame, keep on feeling that ecstasy.
And that’s the point: you don’t sell your soul to the devil by playing the blues like an angel, you do it by forgetting how to feel. God only knows how many ways there are of dividing up humanity, but there do seem to me to be two kinds of people in this world: those for whom things really matter, and everyone else. It’s as simple as that. If you’re lucky enough to belong to the first group – if for example a work of art can touch you and move you like a religious experience – then you’ve been granted a very great gift indeed. But that’s no reason to be smug: just remember Eric Clapton and stay on your guard. One day through success or depression or just plain laziness you may find you’ve loosened your grip and sidled over to the devil’s side without even noticing.

If we know anything about Robert Johnson it’s that he never forgot how to feel. And we do know quite enough about him. We have enough songs, enough pictures, enough anecdotes, enough myths. We have enough to allow us to preserve forever the image – illusory no doubt – of the rambling bluesman, ladiesman, whiskeybottleman: a pure image of a man whose life and artistry are perfectly integrated, untarnished by success or compromise. Considering the changes it would have wrought in our view of him we’re lucky he didn’t live to play at Carnegie Hall – so lucky in fact that we can with a clear conscience join in Son House’s doublebourbon toast


I’m talking all out my head. You can think too much about things and that’s another way of forgetting how to feel. Best just to sit back, listen, enjoy and be grateful. Keith Richards is right: all you can do is tell people to check this cat out. Why? Because if you do you’re in for something extra in your life.

This is hip pretty baby.

I’m booked: I gotta go.
Mark Chivers

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