Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 10. 1971
Robert Johnson CBS
Robert Johnson CBS
Although the earliest recorded blues was dominated by female singers, the commercial focus shifted in the late 1920's to the basic hard-driving music associated with the Southern rural areas. Record companies were quick to recognize the trend and sent teams of mobile recording units into the deep South in the hope of uncovering new talent. Recordings of rural blues were made all over the South, sometimes under bizarre circumstances, by the mobile units, which did not include field equipment in the present-day sense, but rather involved just enough to set up sketchy but complete studios. "They usually relied on local musicians to find their singers," writes Samuel Charters in "The Country Blues", but they would make a test of anybody who wandered in, no matter what kind of music he played or how drunk he was."
Although the boundaries are understandably blurred, Southern rural blues tends to divide into three general geographic areas: Georgia and the Coastal regions, Mississippi and the Delta, and Texas and the Southwest. Assigning specific performers to specific styles is difficult. Blind Lemon Jefferson tended to play with the irregular rhythms and light textures of the Texas style. Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, and Peg Leg Howell favoured the bass ostinatos and standardised forms of the Georgia blues. Bukka White, Sun House, and the brilliant Robert Johnson were among the best interpreters of the unusual blues forms and speech-like vocal expressions of the Delta.
Robert Johnson recorded a total of twenty-nine sides in five recording sessions with the mobile studios in the late thirties. The sixteen tracks on this second volume of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers completes the release of the total recorded output of this incredibly talented young Negro blues singer and musician of the thirties. Although he died young, at 21, (poisoned by a jealous girlfriend), Johnson's effect on subsequent blues performances has been phenomenal. Consider the tracks on this album that are standard blues numbers: 'Dust My Broom', 'Sweet Home Chicago', 'Rambling on My Mind', 'From Four Until Late', 'Love in Vain'—recorded by such different (and significant) artists as Muddy Waters, Cream, and the Rolling Stones. It is even rumoured that Johnny Winter learned to play slide guitar off the first Robert Johnson album. Johnson's music manifests the essence of the blues—the expression of deeply personal emotions, disappointments, jealousy, anger, homesickness, desire, wanderlust. It is the effort to express these emotions that gives the music its uniqueness.
As implied before, Robert Johnson's strong point is his bottleneck work, ranging from standards like 'Dust My Broom' to the intricate rhythms of the well-known 'Preaching Blues'. There are other mannerisms, for example dropping from sung falsetto to spoken phrases in 'Kind Hearted Woman Blues' and the skilled use of harmonies in 'Sweet Home Chicago', 'Phonograph Blues' contains some classic double entendre'
"We played it on the sofa, played it by the wall,
My needle has got rusty, and it will not play at all."
While the eroticism of 'I'm a steady rollin' man' is more direct:page break
'I'm a steady rollin' man, I roil both night and day.
Don't have much sleep, woman, to be roiling this way.'
The original version of the early Cream number, 'From Four Until Lata' appears on the second side, in exactly the same form as it takes on the more modern LP. 'They're Red Hot' is an old-style rag, and obviously a concert number - up-tempo, a jug band style. The wanderlust of the itinerant blues singer comes out in 'Rambling on My Mind"
"Running down to the station,
catch the first mail train I see,
I got the blues running through me so,
and the stars got the blues about me."
The last track, 'Love in Vain', (used by The Rolling Stones on "Let it Bleed") has an obvious country flavour in its sentimentality;
"When the train rolled up to the station
I Iooked her in the eye.
Well, I felt so lonesome, I could not help but cry,
Oh, my love in vain."
Robert Johnson displays the rural blues singing and playing style specifically calculated for the most direct communication of gut emotion, though his music is somewhat sophisticated because of his contact with urban life (and probably his taste for the special joys and discontents of town life). This album is essential listening for all blues/rock aficionades with any interest in where their music began.