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.