Friday, May 08, 2009

Robert Leroy Johnson

From Wiki: Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938) was an American blues musician, among the most famous of Delta blues musicians. His landmark recordings from 1936–1937 display a remarkable combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that have influenced generations of musicians. Johnson's shadowy, poorly documented life and death at age 27 have given rise to much legend.

Considered by some to be the "Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll", his vocal phrasing, original songs, and guitar style have influenced a broad range of musicians, including Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, who called Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived".He was also ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

He is an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Johnson's fame among Blues aficionados is established by his guitar work and songwriting. However he is best known in the popular mind because of the legend that he gained his talent by selling his soul to the Devil one midnight at a Mississippi crossroads.

The legend gained some traction due to the recurrent "Devil" theme in Johnson's surviving works. Although only 29 recorded songs survive four of them (13%) feature a "devil" theme. Crossroad Blues, Me and the Devil Blues, Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) and Hellhound on My Trail all suggest a preoccupation with a Satanic theme.

Johnson is also reported to have fed the legend of the crossroads in personal conversations, however no direct witnesses have ever gone on the record. One other alleged confirmation of the "sold his soul" legend comes from noted bluesman Son House who knew Johnson as a child. House reports that Johnson would follow him around and try, with little success, to copy his guitar style. House then says that he lost contact with Johnson "for a brief time" and that when he next saw Johnson he had achieved an "unmatched technique" with the guitar.

However Johnson biographers have investigated this part of his life have established that the time in which Johnson and House were out of contact was at least two years; enough time for someone with Johnson's innate talent to have begun to develop a distinctive musical style.

Another way in which the "deal with the Devil" legend entered the popular culture was through the movie O' Brother Where Art Thou which featured a character named "Tommy Johnson" who testified that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar.

Finally the TV series Supernatural aired an episode titled Crossroads which began with Mr. Johnson playing in a Mississippi juke joint when the "hellhound" came to collect his soul. The episode developed the theme of a demon who shows up a crossroads to make deals for people's souls. The Crossroads Demon has become a recurring character/theme in Supernatural.

Johnson's Death, from Wiki:

In the last year of his life, Johnson is believed to have traveled to St. Louis and possibly Illinois, and then to some states in the East. He spent some time in Memphis and traveled through the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas. By the time he died, at least six of his records had been released in the South as race records.

His death occurred on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27 at a country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. He had been playing for a few weeks at a country dance in a town about 15 miles (24 km) from Greenwood.

There are a number of accounts and theories regarding the events preceding Johnson's death. One of these is that one evening Johnson began flirting with a woman at a dance. One version of this rumor says she was the wife of the juke joint owner who unknowingly provided Johnson with a bottle of poisoned whiskey from her husband, while another suggests she was a married woman he had been secretly seeing. Researcher Mack McCormick claims to have interviewed Johnson's alleged poisoner in the 1970s, and obtained a tacit admission of guilt from the man.

When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the bottle out of his hand, informing him that he should never drink from an offered bottle that has already been opened. Johnson allegedly said, "don't ever knock a bottle out of my hand." Soon after, he was offered another open bottle of whiskey and accepted it, and it was that bottle that was laced with strychnine.

Honey Boy Edwards, another blues musician was present, and essentially confirms this account. Johnson is reported to have started to feel ill into the evening after drinking from the bottle and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Strychnine was readily available at the time as it was a common pesticide and, although it is very bitter-tasting and extremely toxic, a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could possibly have gone unnoticed but still produced the symptoms (over a period of days due to the reduced dosage) and eventual death that Johnson experienced.

Other researchers have cast doubts upon this account, but what is beyond dispute is that Johnson died at a young age depriving the world of a major talent.

Here are four of Johnson's songs. The first two are Johnson himself. The first is Hellhound on my trail:

Next is Me and The Devil Blues:

Finally there are two covers of Johnson songs by modern musicians. The first is Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy performing Sweet Home Chicago. The next is Led Zeppelin performing Traveling Riverside Blues:

I love the way Zeppelin captures Johnson's guitar style.