On the crossroads

On the crossroads

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Robert Johnson Discography

As it was mentioned in a previous post, Robert Johnson recorded 29 songs in two recording sessions. The first took place in San Antonio, Texas and the second in Dallas in 1937.

These songs are:

Kind Hearted Woman Blues*
"32-20 Blues"
I Believe I ‘ll Dust my Room
Sweet Home Chicago
Rablin On my Mind*
When you Got a Good Friend*
Come on in my Kitchen*
Terraplane Blues
Phonogragh Blues*
32-20 Blues
They ‘re Red Hot
Dead Shrimp Blues
Crossroad Blues*
Walkin’ Blues
Last Fair Deal Gone Dwon
"Stop Breaking Down Blues"
Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)
If I Had Possesion Over Judgement Day
Stones in my Passway
I ‘m a steady Rollin’ Man
From Four Till Late
Hellhound on my Trail
Little Queen of Spades*
Malted Milk
Drunken Hearted Man*
Me and the Devil Blues*
Stop Breaking Down Blues*
Traveling Riverside Blues
Honeymoon Blues
Love in Vain*
Milkcows Calf Blues*

(note that the songs with an asterisk have alternate takes)

"King of the Delta Blues Singers"
Robert Johnson “came back” in the early sixties with the milestone record of 1961 titled “King of the Delta Blues Singers”. This LP didn't just revive the interest in Johnson but also brought him close to wider audiences. The record was released by Columbia Records and the producer was Frank Driggs. The LP was essentially a compilation album of sixteen of his songs. Its circulation revived Johnson and influenced many Rock musicians during that era. The second release of the album included a song which was previously unreleased; an alternate take of the “ Traveling Riverside Blues”.

Almost a decade late in 1971 another record was released, which was a “sequel” to the previous one and was titled “King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. II”. In 2004 it was released for the second time.

"The Complete Recordings"
1990 was an important year for the Johnson's fans because for the first time an album released with all of his recordings. The title was and it was also released from Columbia Records. In 1991 the album won the Grammy Award for “Best historical record” and the next year it was inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame from the Blues Foundation.

Beside these LPs many other compilations have been released. Some of these are “Robert Johnson, Contracted to the Devil” which is a good introduction to his work and it includes 24 songs. “The High Price of Soul”, which circulated in 2006 from “Primo” and finally “The Original Blues Legend” which includes nearly all his recordings.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Robert Johnson (Third Part)

The Devil Legend

In a few words the legend goes like this. Robert, as a poor young man, living in the discriminating Deep South, was growing with a burning desire; to become a blues musician. After he tried and failed, he was told to take his guitar and go on the crossroads near the Dockery Plantation at midnight. There after he performed a ritual, a big black man appeared. The mysterious man was the Devil. He took the guitar from Johnson's hands and tune it. After that he played some blues and returned it to him. According to the legend, the tuning gave young Robert the mastery of the guitar and the blues. But the catch for acquiring this master skills was his “everlasting soul”. After a few years the Devil came to collect and Robert died in agony from a mysterious cause at age 27.

Stories concerning deals with Satan and demonic entities are very common in Christian legacy. The concept is simple. A person with an ambition or in a state of dire need calls, with a certain ritual, the king of hell or one of his minions and trades his soul. Afterward he is granted his wish and the Devil comes and collect his dues after a certain time. In Western European folklore we have many examples of this kind of deal and the most renowned legend is the story of Faust. In this story an old man, Faust, is trading his soul in exchange of his youth and when the time comes he tries to cheat the Devil and he is punished for his attempt to outsmart him. But in Robert Johnson's case we have to keep in mind some considerations about the myth.

Statue of Papa Legba
First of all the legend of the “deals with the Devil” in the African American folklore differ in many points from the Western European Faustian myth. This is due to the connection of the African tradition with Christianity created a different myth. In western African tradition people were going to the crossroads in order to acquire knowledge from a deity called Papa Legba. This deity is an important figure on the Hoodoo. He is the intermediate between humans and the Loa and he is he first and last spirit which is invoked on every ceremony. In this context we can assume that when a bluesman told that he had sold his soul to the Devil, he meant something completely different from what he have in mind.

Another aspect he have to consider is that every blues musician regarded himself as a “Devils child”, because blues music was considered sinful by the African American community at the time. The bluesman thoughted to have special abilities over women and this contributed in the creation of this myth.

After all Johnson never mentioned any kind of deal. Johnny Shines, who knew Johnson well, confirmed that Johnson never told anyone that he sold his soul. On the contrary another Blues pioneer, Tommy Johnson, had repeatedly stated that he had a contract with the Devil.

Finally the almost complete lack of information about Johnson's life is another factor on which the Faustian myth grew long after his death. Furthermore there are some people who incline that Robert Johnson speaks of his deal with the devil in his songs especially in "crossroads". But the lyrics "I 've been to the crossroads, fell down on my knees..." can also been refered to a hitchhiker who is trying to "flag a ride". In any case this legend helped the circulation of Robert Johnsons true legend; his music. And the story of a man who changed music forever...

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Robert Johnson (second part)

When someone realize how popular still is today, Robert Johnson's music and how many artists have been influenced by him, he can't but wonder what is this which makes a musician, who was born and lived nearly a century ago, so important. Indeed Robert Johnson is one of the few Delta Blues musicians who is recognizable even from people who have very little connection with the genre. So, what makes his music so important and his figure so influential so an artist like Keith Richards states “you wanna know how much good the Blues can be? Well that's it” and a musician like Eric Clapton to add “he was the most important Blues musician”? In this second part of our small tribute to Robert Johnson we will be occupied with the music part; ie his songs, his recordings and his guitar technique’s as well. But in order to address all these we first have to mention some general information about the Blues.

So let's begin.

       The word Blues derives from the expression “Blues Devil's” which was used to describe the feeling of sorrow and depression. The first song that uses this word are the “Dallas Blues”of Harry A. Wand (1912).

Sheet music of "Dallas Blues"
Although the Blues first appeared in the beginning of the 20th century their origins are much older. A very important date for the development of the Blues and the American history in general is the 1st of January of 1863. A date in which President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Act, amidst the harsh years of the American Civil War (1861-65). But how a political act can influence the development of a music genre?

After the end of the war all the slaves in the American South were finally liberated and their labor was therefore paid. In this particular era places like the “Juke Joints” started to rise as recreational places for the African Americans. It's natural that they needed music to entertain their customers and so a new music genre was created. A genre which came to contradiction with the gospels which were the religious music of the African Americans. This “secular” music eventually evolved in what we know today as the Blues. But let's add some info about the African American music in general. African American music has it's roots on the fusion of African tradition of call and response shouts with the western European ecclesiastic music. During the 18th century the slaves were converted to Christianity and they adopted the western Christian music techniques. Indeed the Christian hymns such as those of Isaac Watts were very popular among the slave population.

As it was mentioned above the end of slavery during the 19th century had played a very important role in the development of the Blues. The Blues were evolved in contrast with the spirituals, which were the religious music.
Another aspect of the consequenses which brought the Emancipation Act was a turn towards individualism. The liberated slaves started to share the American national ideology which was always based on the individual. Furthermore the economical basis of African Americans change from slavery to small farming business, sharecroping etc. That means that they were adopted to the capitalist system of production than the old anachronistic slave system. If we use a classic marxian tool of understanding how societies work on which the basis is always the economical system· we can understand this shift from collective songs (work songs etc) to a more individualistic music such as the Blues. In this context the musicians started to speak to their songs for personal matters (the love for a woman etc). Inside this environment a new genre of music stared to rise; the Delta Blues. So let's see how this genre evolved.

First of all when we talk about the Delta we do not mean the Mississippi river Delta but the area between the Mississippi and the Yazoo river which is located in the northwestern part of the state. The people off this region, even though it's particular fertile were very poor and there the first form of Blues music was evolved. A basic feature of Delta Blues is the emphasis on the rhythm and the guitar technique of bottleneck slide which gave this very unique sound. We have to mention that the Delta Blues doesn't have a regional characterization and many artists were originated from areas outside the Delta· for instance Skip James and Elmore James were born in other areas of the American South. But allthough the history of the Delta Blues music evolution is very interesting it exceeds this tribute to Robert Johnson.

So let's move on to Johnson. Although Johnson was born and raise inside the Delta he had adopted a very unique style which is differentiates him from other Delta Blues musicians. In his songs we can find features which appear in later Blues styles, such as the Chicago and New Orleans Blues. Such features can be found on songs such as “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”. This came due to Johnson’s ability, or better the charisma to be able to play any kind of music he heard even if he heard it just once. This helped him adopt in his songs elements from other music genres such as the ragtime.

Another unique feature of Robert Johnson is the way he played the guitar. Johnson had the ability to play at the same time the rhythm and also play the notes of his voice, creating thus the sense that there were two guitars playing at same time. Indeed when Keith Richards first listen to his music he asked Brian Adams who introduce him to Johnson’s music “who is playing the other guitar”. This technique was later adopted and perfected by another great Blues musician, B.B. King. Beside his guitar skills, Johnson was is well known for his exceptional voice, which is characterized by microtonality, something that endows his songs with a unique passion. All these elements render Johnson as a truly pioneer of Delta Blues and of Blues in general and justifies his reputation as a musician who was way ahead of his time.

Johnson left us 29 songs which he recorded in two sessions. At the first session he recorded 13 songs. The most popular songs from this session are “Hellhound on my Trail” and “Love in Vain”. The second session took place during 1937 in Dallas and 16 more songs were recorded. 
Johnsons 78rpm disk 
" I believe I 'll dust my room"

 We have to note that these sessions were made inside primitive studios which were set up hastily inside hotel rooms. During that era there was a trend for “race music” and many recording companies were trying to catch the new sound which started to rise in the South. From these sessions there were released twelve 78s on the Vocalion label. The first eleven were released during his lifetime and another posthumously. After his death in August 1938 Johnson disappeared from the musical foreground and reappeared only in 1961 when Columbia released an album, titled “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, which was a compilation of his works. This album saw great success and introduced Johnson to wider audiences. This album influenced musicians such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and many others and finally gave Johnson the place which he holds as one off the greatest and most influential music artists of the 20th century.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Search for Robert Johnson

Today I want to post a very nice documentary concerning the life of Robert Johnson. The video which released on 1991 sheds some light in the Johnson's life. In that we can find very interesting interviews with people who knew him, people like his old girlfriend and like Johnny Shines who travelled with him in the 30s. Furthermore the documentary doesn't just provide us with information about his life but it is truly a search for him, and thus justifies its title.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

New Youtube Channel!

It's nice to read stories about your favourite Bluesmen, but it's even better to listen to their music!

With that in mind I 've started a Youtube channel on which I want to upload and concentrate music videos with our favourite music!!!
So. This is the link for my Youtube channel and I also cite the link for one of my music videos.

the link for the channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/deltacrossroads1905/videos?flow=grid&view=0

 and the video:

ps: Please keep in mind that this Blog and the videos are not made by a pro but on the contrary by an amateur with limited knowledge on the subject but also with unrestricted love for it...
And another think. Unfortunately I didn't start the Blog as I hoped, because I had some obligations which kept me away from writing. BUT from this week I hope that i will be able to post at least weekly... In the few next days I 'll post the second and third part of my small tribute to Robert Johnson. So stay tuned!