On the crossroads

On the crossroads

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!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Greenwood, MS - Robert Johnson Blues

This is a short video I found on youtube concerning Robert Johnson and Greenwood Mississippi, the place in which he died... It has some interesting info about  his music and his final resting place...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Robert Johnson (first part)

As I 've wrote in the first post, my first contact with the Delta Blues came some years ago when I accidentally “discovered” Robert Johnson, this legendary figure of the Blues. Although I already had a contact with the genre, this “return to the roots” was something truly amazing. Robert Johnson was a musician who changed, in his 27 years of his life, the history of blues music. With that in mind the first subject that will occupy us in deltacrossroads naturally will have to do with the great grandfather of rock. This “tribute” to Robert Johnson has been divided in three parts. In the first part there will be a short bio of his life and the second will regard his music. Finally in the third and last part we will see his legend and how these survive until today. In the third part we shall also see the myth of his contract with the Devil.

The Life of Robert Johnson

   Robert Leroy Johnson was born in May the 8th of 1911 in Hazlehurst Mississippi. His parents were Julia Major Dodds and Noah Johnson. When Robert was seven years old his mother and him moved in Robinsonville. During that period his mother was married again with Dusty Willis who was twenty four years younger! Robert went to school in Robinsonville. An old classmate later stated he had already had a connection with music whilst he played the harmonica. Johnson almost right after school was married, according with the customs of his times. His wife was Virginia Travis. But Johnson wasn't meant to live a normal and quiet life...Shortly after his marriage he became a widower. His wife and child died in labor and Robert was left alone. This incident as naturally devastated him.

   Around this time in Robinsonville arrived one of the pioneers of the Delta blues; Son House and with his friend Willie Brown were playing the blues in the juck joints of Robinsonville and Johnson started playing with them, or better tried to play, since his skills were very limited at the time. Son House later remembered Johnson as “a child who followed him trying to copy his style. Some other sources report that he used to fill in when House and Brown took a break. In fact we have a source that says that one time a customer told him to stop because his was “intolerable”. However these reports are disputed because as we know from other sources he had already moved back in Hazlehurst where he was married for the second time. Then Johnson disappeared with his wife in the Delta for eight months and when he came back he had transformed in a tremendous bluesman. This fact had later fueled the legend that he sold his soul to the Devil in order to acquire his skills in the guitar. According with the myth Robert Johnson bittered from his wife death traded his soul, but the myth will concern us in the last part of this short tribute...

   After his return from the Delta he started playing in various places in Mississippi and other states, a fact that forced his wife to leave him. After this turn of events Johnson is transformed into a tireless traveling musician, a lifestyle that hold on to it until the end of his turbulent life. During his travels he recorded twenty nine songs which helped making him the legend he is today. These recording took place in hotel rooms in two sessions.  Meanwhile he continued his journeys in the American south but also reached places like New York and further north like Chicago and even Ontario Canada. When he first came to a town he played sometimes in the streets and other times in juck joints, whilst we used to stay in relatives, because his extended family was very large, or in some girlfriends house. Inside one of these joints his met his death under mysterious circumstances. Johnson renowned for his lust for women was flirting with the owners wife. The owner blinded by jealousy poisoned his liqueur with strychnine. Johnson in a matter of days was dead in terrible pains and agony in the age of twenty seven...

   Robert Johnson died young but he left behind something better than just the reputation of a great musician; he left behind him a legend that it continues until today. Robert Johnson may left this world young but his music will be around for many more years to come.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Something to start on...

In the past few years I 've started listening to the Blues music and especially the Delta Blues. The story of Robert Johnson and how he sold his soul to the Devil have been stuck in my head for a while... So I started listening to his recordings and in time the music of other significant blues artists such as Son House, Charlie Putton and Leadbelly...
In this blog I 'll try to write stories about their lives, their music and also about the times they lived in. I hope that other people will find them also interesting and fascinating as I do...

For starters I would like to post the first Delta song I 've ever heard...Robert Johnson and Hellhound on my trail...

ps: Sorry for any grammar mistakes and misspellings but English is not my native language!!!