Saturday, August 8, 2009

Robert Johnson - Godfather of Rock and Roll

By Greg Bahr

Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, in 1911. Legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil in order to gain his musical prowess. The truth is that Johnson practiced until he mastered the craft of blues singing, songwriting, and guitar playing.

Learning from Son House and Charlie Patton, among others, Johnson created rhythm patterns and turnarounds that defined the blues song form. With his groundbreaking fingerstyle and slide guitar technique, as well as a unique vocal and lyrical genius, he had the ability to sound like a complete band with just an acoustic guitar and his voice.

Johnson recorded only twenty nine songs in his career, over the course of three sessions in San Antonio in 1936, and two sessions in Dallas in 1937. These songs, plus twelve alternate takes, can be heard on the CD "Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings."

On the slow, haunting "Come on in My Kitchen," Johnson recreates the sound of wind howling with his slide. "Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)" and "Hellhound on My Trail" tell the story of a man chased by demons. The mood turns lighthearted with "They're Red Hot," the tale of a woman who sells tamales on the street corner.

"Terraplane Blues" was his only "hit," selling a few thousand copies. However, countless blues and rock artists have covered Robert Johnson's songs with great success.

Slide guitar master Elmore James made "Dust My Broom" his signature song. Muddy Waters copied the melody of "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day," changed the lyrics, and created the classic "Rollin' and Tumblin'."

The Rolling Stones remade "Love in Vain" and "Stop Breaking Down," exposing the delta blues to a younger generation of rock and roll fans. On "The Lemon Song," Led Zeppelin borrowed the line "squeeze my lemon, 'til the juice runs down my leg," from "Traveling Riverside Blues."

Robert Johnson's most fervent disciple, Eric Clapton, sang "Rambling on My Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, then "Four Until Late" and "Crossroads" as a member of Cream. Later in his career Clapton released "Me and Mr. Johnson," an entire album of songs written by his mentor.

"Sweet Home Chicago" is the ultimate blues standard, played by Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, and nearly every blues musician in history.

Although Johnson's life tragically ended on August 16th,1938, when he was killed by a jealous husband who poisoned his whiskey, he left a musical legacy that will live forever. Robert Johnson was not only the king of the delta blues singers, but the godfather of rock and roll.

Greg Bahr writes about the guitar and related topics. Read more at:

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