Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Song of the Week: "Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)", Robert Johnson

Just behind baseball historians, musicologists hold the title of most likely to turn their subjects into superheroes. The ideal candidate for the musicologist is a ghost. A musician who quietly walks into a juke joint, sits down and starts plying his trade in front of a loud and hostile crowd. In a striking moment he quiets the sundry ne'er-do-wells (usually bringing tears to the eyes of the most hardened men and stealing the heart of the most faithful girl). Then the ghost mutates into the warm mist of the night with just his instrument and the satisfaction that he is the best ghost musician in these here parts. "Who was that masked musician?" one breathless woman asks with idolatry coloring her voice. A skittish little bug-eyed man in overalls responds, "That was no ord'nary muse-ishin'. Not like any other we know, at least. That there was the devil himself."

Welcome to the over-legend of one Mr. Robert Johnson. So little is known about the exceptionally talented itinerant musician that he becomes the perfect blank canvass for musicologist and folklorist who have been unable to control their urge to paint the canvass with their own skewed palette. The prevailing myth of Johnson is that he puppy-dogged Charlie Patton and Son House around the Mississippi delta trying to learn all he could from the two masters. But he was shun for his lack of talent and over eager ways and sent packing. Soon after, on a warm summer night in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the young man crossed paths with the devil (disguised as a man) who took the Gibson guitar, re-tuned it, played a beautiful song on the flat-top box, and asked if Johnson wanted it back. In his affirmative response, Johnson had sold his soul to the devil down at the Crossroads in exchange for becoming the greatest musician ever.

This, of course, is pure rubbish. The few known facts of Robert Johnson's life are quite ordinary. The musicianship, quite extraordinary. Robert Johnson was probably born in or near Tunica, Mississippi some time around May, 1912. He died on August 16, 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi. His death certificate, signed by a white plantation owner, lists syphilis as his cause of death. This is a little suspect as the person who signed this never met him and certainly didn't perform an autopsy on his body. In addition, assigning "syphillis" as a cause of death to young black men in that day was extremely common and not always accurate. Eye-witnesses (credible and incredible) and rumors suggest he was poisoned by a jealous boyfriend and died an agonizing death over a two-day period. We'll never know for sure. Twenty-six short years, 29 recordings, two recording sessions in Texas, two photographs. That's all we really know for sure. 

Our SOTW, this week, is Johnson's stellar Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil). One listen should be all you need to understand why so much legend has built up around the man. The open E (actually Eb) tune is a wonderful showcase for Johnson's precision slide work, his impressive right-hand percussive strumming technique and his ability to change tempos to add tension to certain moments in the song. The song should be entered into the records as Exhibit A when trying the case of Robert Johnson, guitarist v. the rest of the blues guitarist to ever perform. Johnson makes constant subtle changes to his main riff without ever changing the substance of it. For example, compare his playing of the main riff at :07 with the riff at 1:22 and his still different riff starting at 1:29. Or note how he breaks from the 12-bar normative structure of the song by adding or subtracting bars for affect. Such as when he adds ten seconds of turnarounds at 1:07 to cover his spoken word part. And again, he adds bars at 1:59 as he implores himself to "do it now" and sits back and lets us hear his wonderful percussive right hand slap a syncopated rhythm. Bottom line, the itinerant young man was a master of his instrument. A person who had an intuitive understanding of what was possible. A man who was not contained by the norms of his day. A man who pioneered new ground. A man who progressed so quickly and so much further than those around him that it led people to start rumors -- in his day -- that he had sold his soul to the devil to become the best guitarist in the land. A rumor he appeared to embrace as the subtitle of this song would suggest. 

Now stop and listen to the same song. But don't listen to the Robert Johnson, the master guitarist. Listen to Robert Johnson the singer. He was a singer with tremendous range and tremendous power in his voice. He sings a smooth melody, often breaking into spoken word in mid-sentence, over the staccato guitar riff. (No matter how hard I worked, I would never be able to sing that melody over that guitar riff. In my head, with my abilities, the two just can't be done together. But they obviously can.) The 25 year-old Johnson sings with a passion usually not associated with a man of youth. At the tail end of the 2nd verse, at around 1:16, Johnson lets out a one-syllable howl that lets you understand in no uncertain terms the honesty of his blues. No matter what language, no matter what year you heard this, you can comprehend his deep anguish. The anguish of a man who moans like he knows his death is just days away. Then a two-part spoken interlude that sounds like it comes from two different voices. "Yes. Preach 'em now".

"Yes the blues is a low down achin' disease. Like consumption, killing me by degrees. I can study rain, oh, ohhh drive, oh, oh drive my blues. I been studyin' the rain and I'm gonna drive my blues away. Going to the distillery, stay out there all day."

Take away the ghost, the spirit and the lore which ultimately diminishes Johnson's real skills by focusing attention elsewhere, and we are left with the single most important figure in the entire genre of blues. A man whose massive skills continues to cast a shadow over blues, jazz and rock to this day. Robert Johnson, the man. Not Robert Johnson the ghost. That's all you need.


  1. Excellent post. You are so right to focus on Johnson's singing which as you say is often overlooked because of his astonishing guitar skills.

    It's easy to forget how new the recording industry (if you could even call it that) was at the time. Had he lived and died just ten years earlier or so he would likely never have been recorded, and we wouldn't have any idea who he was.

  2. And we're lucky that Brunswick Records had such good record presses. The best in the biz in that day which allowed the discs to hold up over the years to allow people to make good masters. Unlike those scratchy and dull sounding discs of Son House and Patton.

    This song is really amazing and holds up to deep scrutiny. His level of detail is just amazing.

    Did you see the Blind Blake post I did a few months ago? If not, you may want to check it out. It's about a unique song he recorded in the 20's called Rope Stretching Blues.