Friday Night with Guitar George: Robert Johnson Edition, Part Two


No dope smoking, no beer sold after twelve o’clock
Rosedale Mississippi Magic City Juke Joint
Mr. Johnson sings over in the corner by the bar
Sold his soul to the devil so he can play guitar
Too cool to be forgotten
Hey hey, too cool to be forgotten

–Lucinda Williams
“2 Kool 2 B Forgotten”

Lucinda is correct: Robert Johnson is too cool to be forgotten. And too talented. And too important. Yet in spite of his incomparable talent and profound influence, Johnson might have been nothing more than an obscure footnote to music history had it not been for a 1961 re-issue of his recordings, aptly titled King of the Delta Blues Singers, which introduced Johnson’s work to a whole new audience of blues fans and musicians.

We took our first look at Robert Johnson in the August 14 edition of FNWGG, in which we heard Son House’s before-and-after description of Johnson’s transformation from fledgling to master guitarist. We also made a nod to the Faustian myth explanation of how this transformation took place, as does Lucinda Williams in the song quoted above. Do any of us truly believe that Johnson literally met Satan incarnate at a crossroads at midnight to negotiate an agreement? Of course not. Does that render the statement “Johnson sold his soul to the devil so he could play guitar” as false? Not necessarily. A close look at Johnson’s songs suggests that he was strongly influenced by the belief that dark spiritual forces were at work in his life. Johnson’s personal life was fraught with turmoil and despair, and his lyrics suggest that he had accepted that such was his fate.

As for the real story behind Johnson’s unparalleled guitar skills, it is most likely that during his several month absence from Robbinsville he sought the teaching of Ike Zinneman, a highly skilled guitarist from Alabama who happened to be visiting the area around Johnson’s birthplace of Hazelhurst, Mississippi where Johnson was spending his hiatus. Zinneman was rumored to have honed his guitar skills by practicing while sitting in graveyards late at night. Even if not true, that type of bravado would not have been lost on Zinneman’s impressionable young apprentice who seems to have embraced the idea of self-mythologizing as a means to augment his reputation. Of course, all of that would be moot if Johnson did not have the skills to support a reputation worthy of myth building, and Zinneman is partly to thank for the advancement of those skills.

Although he sang of “Sweet Home Chicago”, Johnson did not live long enough to make the move north as did his contemporaries Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, whose success in the Windy City helped lead to the spread of the Delta Blues throughout America and across the Atlantic as well. Fortunately, however, Johnson did manage to arrange some recording sessions before his life was tragically cut short at age twenty-seven. These sessions produced twenty-nine songs and twelve alternate takes—a total of forty-one tracks. It is simply staggering how much musical and lyrical ground Johnson covered in less than two hours of recorded material. He sang of restlessness, joy, despair, regret, betrayal, ambition, vengeance, self-loathing, self-pity, escapism and alcoholism. His songs about relationships could be alarmingly accusatory, condescending, or spiteful, yet could also be surprisingly confessional, conciliatory, or tender. He pointed to signs in nature that validated his restlessness and to other signs that presaged his distress. We hear Johnson pray to God for mercy, and we hear him invite Satan to go for a walk. He predicts that after his body is buried his spirit will continue to roam, and predicts that at judgment day all his deeds and misdeeds will be justified. All of this is conveyed by the vocals and lyrics alone, to which the music adds layers of emotive complexity. The incredible sounds Johnson produces on a simple acoustic guitar imbue each song with nuance and subtlety, conveying musical textures that resonate to the very core of the listener’s being.

Here is a link to the complete recordings of Robert Johnson, including the alternate takes. You can pick and choose or you can just start at track one and let it run. What I can go ahead and assure you is that it takes more than one or two listenings to fully absorb the depth of this man’s talents. As for cover versions, I offer the brief list below simply as a sampler. A thorough internet search for Johnson covers could keep you busy for hours.

“Stop Breaking Down”

Rolling StonesThis is the studio recording from Exile On Main Street. The Stones rarely perform this song live, but this track has a “live” feel to it, especially toward the end, when slide guitarist Mick Taylor and pianist Ian Stewart are going wide open.

Jeff HealyThe late great Jeff Healy was blind, so his unorthodox way of playing guitar makes this video interesting to watch, and the tonal quality of his guitar, especially later in the song, is like well aged bourbon.

White StripesNot as good as Jack White’s cover of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues”, but noteworthy nonetheless.

“Me and the Devil”

Nick Andrew StaverStaver has a nice vibrato voice and he slips easily into a sweet falsetto, as Johnson himself often did. Nick’s soft touch on the guitar is nice as well.

“Last Fair Deal Gone Down”

Matti NorlinIn this cover of one of Johnson’s lesser known songs Norlin’s voice is a little stiff, but he does some nifty slide work.

“Traveling Riverside Blues”

Led ZeppelinPlant takes some liberties with the lyrics, but mostly to sample other Robert Johnson songs, so it’s ok, and Page does Page things.

“If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”

Darren Watson: “If I Had Posssession” is Robert Johnson’s variation on a song more commonly known as “Rolling and Tumbling”, famously recorded by Muddy Waters. This performance is very true to the original, and I love Watson’s facial expressions.

“Crossroads Blues”

CreamNo conversation about Robert Johnson is complete without discussing “Crossroads Blues.” Eric Clapton, the most prolific purveyor of Johnson covers, nearly made a career out of performing this song, beginning with his late Sixties tenure with Cream. This video is faulty, but it still manages to capture the energy of a live Cream performance. But check out this funky alternate version that Clapton recorded in 2006 which demonstrates Clapton’s ability to transform a classic into something totally new while still respecting the original.

As for tonight’s featured video, I bring you Sadie Johnson (no relation), accompanied by Matt Brookshire on acoustic bass guitar, with a very spirited performance of “Crossroads Blues” mixed with Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor Blues.” I love the rapport between Sadie and Matt as they cue each other with looks and nods, and share a chuckle when Sadie misses a note. Don’t let her schoolgirl demeanor fool you, Miss Johnson is very serious about her guitar playing, as evidenced by the ease with which she makes numerous difficult transitions in this fast-paced performance. Sadie’s vocals are too low in the mix, but the passion with which she delivers them helps to compensate. I never get tired of watching this video, and I hope you enjoy it as well.

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