Where it all started.

Well, Robert Johnson didn't really start the blues, and he certainly wasn't the most prolific singer or songwriter.  Yet, he probably had the greatest influence on this wonderful music through the years following his death in 1938 at the age of twenty-seven. He was reportedly poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he had flirted with.  Many of the twenty-nine songs that he recorded in two sessions have become blues and, later, rock standards.  Eric Clapton has called him "the most important blues singer who ever lived."   And Bob Dylan wrote that "when Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who had sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.  I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I'd ever heard."  Johnson had an impact on blues musicians from Muddy Waters and Elmore James to Robert Lockwood and Johnny Shines who not only covered his songs, but absorbed elements of his style.  His guitar playing was intricate and revolutionary in many ways, although he certainly owed a debt to the powerful slide style of his mentor, Son House.  Ultimately, he evolved an approach that was quite complex and musically advanced.  Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, when he first heard Johnson's playing, asked, "Who is the other guy playing with him?", not realizing that it was Johnson playing one guitar. "I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to realize he was doing it all by himself." His vocal style, while unique and haunting, owed a debt to contemporaries like Skip James and Leroy Carr. Like many of his contemporaries, he leaned on the lyrics and melodies of songs recorded earlier. For example, "Kind Hearted Woman" was part of cycle of songs originating with Leroy Carr's "Mean Mistreater Mama."  Yet, Johnson was able to make the songs his own, weaving a tapestry of volce, instrument and poetry that was and still is quite rare.

Leave a comment