Perhaps the most influential blues musician ever, Robert Johnson, would have turned 100 years old this week--had not met up with that bad bottle of whiskey at age 27. Johnson recorded a mere 29 songs, and none of them were particularly big sellers during his own lifetime. In fact, as Bob George of the ARChive of Contemporary Music pointed out in a recent Afropop interview, "Until the 1960s, until the reissues came out on LP, there were not any Robert Johnson records pressed in America. That's 30 years.... It's almost impossible for us to understand now that such important material to the history of later music was completely abandoned and not kept in print for over 30 years." Of course, in the aftermath of that hiatus, folks like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton got their hands on the Robert Johnson legacy and the rest is history...
If you're looking for a good way to feel the RJ legacy--and you've already worn out the grooves or digits on your Best Of Robert Johnson collection--you might want to pick up a copy of a new CD called Big Head Blues Club, featuring Big Head Todd and the Monsters. In honor of Johnson's centenary, Todd and the gang dig into the Johnson repertoire in the company of living blues legends: David "Honeyboy" Edwards, B.B. King and Charlie Musselwhite, along with some of the best current revivalists Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside and Lightning Malcolm. There's even a chugging take on "When You Got a Good Friend," featuring some tasty riffs from 95-year-old Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, one of the last people left who actually knew Johnson.
These are high-spirited takes on Johnson classics, played with love, not ceremony. There's no gimmickry or reinvention going on here--just hard driving blues played by musicians young and old, black and white, who bask daily in the legacy of a blues giant--in short, music for the ages.
Johnson is certainly not alone as a musician under-recognized in his time. But it turns out the story of why Johnson's music didn't sell during his life, and vanished for awhile afterward, has as much to do with America and the music business as with the revolutionary nature of his sound. For more on that story, visit Afropop's Hip Deep section and listen back to the program Escaping the Delta with Elijah Wald and Ned Sublette. You will never hear Johnson's music in quite the same way.
And before the week is out, be sure to raise a glass (preferably of whiskey) to Johnson himself. Had he himself lived to see this day, can we even imagine how large he would loom? In the end, the music made the case for him, because without a doubt, Robert Johnson was one of the great guitar stylists and American songwriters of all time.
- Banning Eyre