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Deal with the Devil: Understanding Robert Johnson, His Music and His Impact
It seems inevitable that at some point in their lives, all blues and rock and roll fans encounter Robert Johnson in some form or another. His music has had more impact on the course of modern music that could have ever been predicted back in the '30s when he was playing. Most if not all of his songs are considered to be blues standards covered by thousands of blues artists and are often considered the pinnacle of the genre.
I came to Robert Johnson through other artists like I believe most people do who were not around back when he was alive. Although I had been hearing songs like "Sweet Home Chicago" all of my life, I didn't take the time to seek out the man himself till my interest in blues deepened in my early college days and I was increasingly interested in who had influenced some of my favorite artists, people like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. I simply don't think it is possible to really understand these artists and numerous others without at least acknowledging the impact Robert Johnson had upon them.
By understanding Robert Johnson as an mazing musician we can understand a bit of why blues and rock 'n' roll have taken the course it has throughout the years, what inspired some of the greatest artists of all times as well as a bit about why music speaks to us as human beings on such an emotional level.
Listening to Robert Johnson
Seeing that there are few people left who were alive to see Robert Johnson play, many of us can only go on a handful of recordings that are available. There are only 29 compositions of Johnson's ever recorded, although some have multiple takes, for a total of 41 total recordings. That isn't a whole lot of material to make someone a legend, but these compositions have a feel unlike anything else.
The songs were recorded in the '30s, long before advanced multi track recording techniques, and they definitely have a rough authentic feel to them that can be hard to get past on first listen. Composed of only Johnson's vocal and unique guitar playing that straddled the line between lead and rhythm, they have a sound that is airy minimal and sparse, but also deep and complex.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was quoted as saying that he asked "...who's that other guy playing with him?" upon first hearing a Robert Johnson record and it is obvious why on the first listen. Johnson's guitar work is based very much in instinct and not traditional techniques of guitar playing. His slide work and finger picking often move away from standard concepts of guitar rhythm and act more as a self accompaniment with rhythm and lead figures combined perfectly to emphasize his vocals. His guitar playing has spawned many a legend including the famous cross roads story. The tale goes that in order to become a great musician Johnson took his guitar to the cross road. There he met a man in black who took his guitar tuned it and returned it to him. From that point on Johnson could create the greatest blues ever heard having met the devil at the cross road and exchanged his soul for his talent. Although there is historical evidence that Johnson learned much of his blues style from hearing and studying earlier artists like Charlie Patton and Son House, the legend will always remain as part of the Robert Johnson mystique and the mystique of all blues artists.
Whether part of an unholy deal or not, Robert Johnson's skill on blues guitar and accompaniment is evident on all of his songs, but it is only part of what makes them great. Eric Clapton once wrote "...I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice, really..." That statement perfectly captures what Robert Johnson songs are all about: raw human emotion and expression. They aren't easy songs for everyone to listen to as the raw honesty and expression can be almost frightening. It is about as authentic as a person can possible get through music and not everyone is prepared to handle or can relate to that type of intensity. Listening to these songs you just know that this man has lived a bit, has been through a few things, both good and bad, during his lifetime and is more than willing to share it with you. It isn't polished, exact, precise or thought out, but instead improvised, raw and shown cracks and all, like a snapshot of honesty in musical form. That is what makes these songs so great.
Blues always represented a musical genre that was developed to be as honest and as real as possible. Robert Johnson's music is one of the pinnacles of not just blues, but all music because it is such a perfect representation of what flows out when you open up the human soul in all it's honesty. His influence can be heard in much of the greatest music throughout the years. Many different artists owe some debt to the legend of blues: Robert Johnson.
Influence on Music
Artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Freddie King, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy would be among the artists to translate the delta blues of Robert Johnson and other early blues artists into electric. B.B. King especially would make it his goal to convey as much emotion as possible in his music, something that surely was inspired by the amount of emotion in Johnson's work. Probably every one of the artists I mentioned covered Robert Johnson at some point during their career and these artists (along with others) would sow the first seeds of rock and roll with their electric blues styles. They would be the driving influence behind classic rock and in turn make those artists seek out Robert Johnson as well.
When Eric Clapton came onto the scene with the Yardbirds, he was already passionate about Robert Johnson's music and this would continue throughout his career even recording his own version of Johnson's "Cross Roads Blues" with Cream and performing of number of other Johnson covers like "Kind Hearted Woman" and "Ramblin' on My Mind" while on tour during his solo career. The Rolling Stones would cover "All My Love's in Vain" and "Stop Breaking Down" as tributes to Johnson on their albums. Led Zeppelin would take the music of Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson and Leadbelly as their starting point for many songs including their take on Johnson's "Travelin' Riverside Blues" and it is impossible to hear Robert Plant's soulful wail without thinking he owes some debt to the original blues man (especially when he would quote him directly).
Later with grunge, the raw intensity of the early blues artists can be heard in the vocals of Kurt Cobain and other grunge artists. They have something close to the honesty and intensity that Johnson had nearly 60 years earlier. The later punk blues movement generalized by the White Stripes, would take these artists to heart again with covers of Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down" and other early blues artists.
All the while blues artists would stay faithful, continually understanding what makes Robert Johnson an amazing artist and trying to capture that honesty and emotion in their own work. Along with other early blues artists, Robert Johnson's music is primarily what the entire blues genre is built upon, and it will probably remain that way forever.
As can be seen in these examples (a small portion of the artists influenced by his work) Robert Johnson's influence can certainly be felt throughout the years, and it has shaped some of history's most successful artists. Listening to artists like these just takes on a whole new context when you understand what inspired them and where they are coming from with their music. It adds a whole new dimension to their work that makes it stronger and easier to understand on new emotional levels.
Robert Johnson's original recordings are definitely not for everyone. I'll be the first to admit that when I first heard them I was a bit startled by their shockingly raw feel, but I also knew that was precisely what makes them great. This music has such emotional value that it inspires all sorts of musicians to continue to strive to be that real and authentic in their music. If you're a blues lover, a rock and roller, a soul singer or any type of musician where putting your entire soul out there is your primary concern, than you owe it to yourself to check out these recordings.
This article is a tribute to Robert Johnson and his music for not only helping me to understand a bit more about the classic rock artists I love, but to better relate to real world emotions, to understand that there is simplicity and power in honesty and that music is really not about musicianship, lyrics or technique, but about feel.
I think that to be this honest and this raw in one's music is really what it is all about. Music is about expressing emotions and conveying those emotions to your audience and making them feel them as well. Robert Johnson's music is a great example of music that can do just that: convey powerful emotions as openly and as honestly as possible and I think that is what continues to draw new musicians to his music. It provides a goal to shoot for and the masterstrokes to pay homage to in musical intensity.
I've listened to every one of the 29 original songs by Robert Johnson multiple times, and to this day these songs continue to speak to me and inspire me, just like they have for numerous musicians throughout the ages.
Maybe he made a deal with the devil, maybe not... Either way he created some of the most powerful, emotional, and honest music ever made and inspired thousands by doing so.
Robert Johnson will always remain a legend.
If you're interesting in listening to these great original recordings you can find a great collection in the King of the Delta Blues
Or if you're like me and want everything, you can get every recording of Robert Johnson on the The Complete Recordings
References Include AllMusic and the Liner Notes of Robert Johnson, the Complete Columbia Recordings (which includes essays by Keith Richards and Eric Clapton).