Sunday, May 08, 2011

Happy 100th Birthday, Mr. Johnson

Robert Johnson turned 100 today, may his soul rest in peace.  Everything about his life reads like a legend, whether it be his parentage, or his early years as a mediocre guitarist, his alleged selling of his soul to the devil in return of mastery of the blues, his 29-song oeuvre, or the strychnine poisoned whiskey that he died of.  It is interesting to note that he died at the age of 27, with 27 extant songs, and yet was able to establish himself across time as one of the founding fathers of the modern blues.  He was a man who lived the blues, in his music, his love life and his understanding of womanhood, his drinking, and in his death.  For the interested reader, long live Google and the Wiki.

I had almost no idea of Robert Johnson's work beyond the occasional reference to him in books about Delta blues that I came across.  It was after listening to Clapton's Me and Mr. Johnson, that I got myself to find the Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson.  That was when I discovered that a lot of stuff that I had loved and grown up with were actually his songs, such as Crossroad Blues, Love in Vain, They're Red Hot, Traveling Riverside Blues and many more.  It dawned on me with each new track that here was the roots of much of the guitar work and blues work that I lived by.

My appreciation for the life of this man was not gradual, it was instantaneous.  I was eight on the Richter as I figured out how this man, along with many other pioneers of the Memphis-Mississippi region, had laid the foundations of not just contemporary blues and R&B, but also modern serious rock.  As I continued to share my excitement and thankfulness with fellow lovers of music, the one thing that came across to me was that in spite of being such a seminal force, Robert Johnson as a songwriter and guitarist remained largely unknown to younger listeners.

On his 100th birthday, my invitation to all who are reading this with a "Robert who?" mind is to go and get a copy of his Complete Recordings, dim the lights and settle down with a warm malt or an icy green apple cosmopolitan, let the hiss of the 78 r.p.m. bathe the room with old time goodness, and let the glorious bottleneck slides, and the despair of the blues played by a man who has the blues, wash over you.

My favorite tracks, apart from the ones that have been covered by giants of later years, include Come on in My Kitchen, Hellhound on My Trail, Walking Blues and Drunken Hearted Man (first take).

If you liked this, you may also like my posts on the life and/or work of
Jimi Hendrix
Janis Joplin
John Lennon
Bob Dylan
Paul McCartney
Melody Gardot
Joan Baez 
Do leave your comments and suggestions.

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