Summer: Jazz and Robert Johnson Essay

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Deal with the Devil: Understanding Robert Johnson, His Music and His Impact
Submitted by D.A.N. on Fri, 04/06/2007 - 23:00 in • Content • Articles • Blues • Folk
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