soundstreamsunday: “Traveling Riverside Blues” by Robert Johnson

Robert-Johnson-photoOn the heels of Benny Goodman’s concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1938, promoter/producer John Hammond (Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan…unbelievable) conceived of a concert that would further acknowledge the debt American music owed its roots, within the hallowed walls of the Hall. Race relations being what they were, so risky was Hammond’s venture that it took the American Communist Party to finance the show. “From Spirituals to Swing” showcased, along again with Goodman and Basie, blues and boogie artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Big Joe Turner, Helen Humes, James P. Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis. Absent, although invited by Hammond, was Robert Johnson, an obscure Delta blues guitarist and singer who had been getting some buzz via a minor regional hit called “Terraplane Blues.” Hammond came to learn that Johnson had been murdered that summer, and replaced Johnson with Broonzy, and for all of Broonzy’s subsequent influence on the blues revival of the 1960s, it would be Robert Johnson whose legend would grow (particularly after Hammond et al. produced the first compilation of Johnson’s work in 1960), a ubiquitous ghost, as the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for a phenomenal talent. This perception of Johnson may have actually originated with him, and songs like “Hellhound on My Trail, “Me and the Devil Blues,” and “Crossroads Blues,” don’t dispel the self-made myth; yet Johnson’s talent speaks to years of real work, occupying a liminal space in an environment hostile to almost everything he was, and equating this with a meeting with Satan at the crossroads isn’t a stretch: how much would you sacrifice to be the best at the thing you love the most? Johnson gave it his life; what might have appeared from the outside, by those who knew him, as supreme self-involvement that transcended any sustained relationships, and led to his poisoning at the hands of a lover’s jealous husband, was the ultimate tribute to his own self-made gift. He had more to get done on this earth than most, and that had to be a kind of hell as well as a kind of ecstasy. You can hear both in every one of his 42 existing recordings. And the “centennial edition” issued in 2011 offers the set with noise reduction deftly applied, so that the surface pops and scratches from the original master discs are scrubbed without loss or distortion of content. You can hear Johnson shifting in his chair, and, in the length of echoes, the subtle changes in his position relative to the corner that he faced while recording — he is made human, and what he produces in that corner, alone with his guitar, is all the more remarkable. Johnson’s technical ability allowed him to play a rhythm and a lead simultaneously, but while much has been made of his guitar playing, and his odd and varied tunings, he used his voice to equal effect, in service to his songs, here a vibrato, there a growl, here a moan or high-pitched yawp. He employed a handful of templates for many of his songs, but brought to them a loose approach and lyrical dexterity. There is also a strong sense of performance in the tunes. Where Charley Patton was screaming and hollering his blues, and Blind Willie Johnson may have been truly possessed, Robert Johnson was the first post-Delta blues singer, a polished showman using affectation in an almost punk-ish way. It is maybe this that caught the attention of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton — who had the nerve, in one form or another, to take on Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Dust My Broom,” “Four Until Late,” “Crossroads Blues,” “Love in Vain” — and what made it even conceivable that such songs could be covered or transformed or influential. Because in a sense Johnson was covering them himself, replaying that ride to the crossroads. Choosing the trip, feeling the night. It is the essence of all rock and roll.

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