Saturday, August 31, 2019

Robert Johnson - Up Jumped the Devil (Repost from May 2011)

This is a repost from May 2011, from the AYBCS's good old days. The collection is just the same as 2011 except for some general MP3 cleanup and the addition of The Devil Make Three's Drunken Hearted Man. 

Today's post is from Art Ducko who conceived of the idea to remember/celebrate Robert Johnson. As noted below, it is a collaborative post. I thank Art for writing a fitting tribute to RJ and to Farquhar Throckmoton III for designing the artwork. Check out his fine blog False Memory Foam All @ 320

The Man Who Left The Room

"He sold his soul to the Devil to get to play like that". - Son House

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". - 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

"Well, I got up this morning... all I had was gone". - Robert Johnson

May 8th, 2011, is the centennial of the birth of the man, Robert Johnson, known as the King of the Delta blues, the James Dean of the Crossroads, the one born to be gone. More people know his name & legend from a Ralph Macchio movie from the '80s which perpetuated the story of how Johnson met the Dark Dude one moonless night at a crossroads in Mississippi in order to learn how to play the guitar, all in exchange for his soul. This young upstart seemingly came out of nowhere although he was hanging around juke joints of the time - rural shotgun houses set back in the woods - that served as the main adult entertainment centers for the blacks of the Delta south. He pestered already established players like Son House to let him play between his & Willie Brown's sets on the weekends, only to have the patrons beseech them to stop his infernal racket.

Two years later, Johnson caught a set with Shines & Brown & requested another chance to sit in between breaks.  According to Shines, "And that boy got started off playing...and when he got through, all our mouths were standing open. All! He was gone!"

The truth is probably more prosaic & mundane. There are stories of young men of the time learning the guitar by playing in cemeteries late at night. Johnson was probably woodshedding for those two years while hoboing around the country by train. He earned his living while honing his chops by playing on street corners on market days in "head-cutting " duels with other street musicians. He was also a quick study, having already taught himself the diddley bow & harmonica before tackling the intricacies of slide guitar in the blues vernacular. He was talented enough by then to be recommended by H.C. Speir, a Jackson, MS record store owner who was also a sometimes talent scout for the American Record Corporation (ARC). They arranged for Johnson's first recordings to take place in San Antonio, Texas in 1936. He laid down the tracks for his first 16 numbers in his repertoire. The later 13 tracks would be recorded in the sweltering heat of a Dallas warehouse in the summer of 1937. He didn't make much for the recordings, 29 in all, plus outtakes, but he had enough left over for another fancy suit or two. He had a regional hit with "Terraplane Blues", but otherwise his records sold poorly.

He still continued with wandering ways. He was a skilled professional by this time as evidenced by his recorded tracks. Where he played on weekends required a loud attack & memorable tunes & lyrics to excite the weekend crowd. Johnson sometimes sounds like three people playing - his notes are that complex & complete. He always had an eye for the ladies, & some of his songs were songs of seduction ("Come On In My Kitchen") while many were songs of rambling & the open road. His latter half of songs show a darker, more resigned outlook on his fate. Songs such as "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day", "Me And The Devil" & "Stones In My Passway" showed the consequences of his sins, while still enjoying the fruits of his labor ("Travelling Riverside Blues"). His masterpiece is "Love In Vain", an ode to utter desolation & regret. His lines are written like Zen koans ("When the train left the station, it had two lights on behind...") to his utter undoing at the loss of his lover ( Well, the blue lights were my blues, & the red lights were my mind..."). It is a song of foreboding & longing. There is no redemption. There is no hope. 

His death in 1938 remains a mystery to most. The accepted wisdom is that he was poisoned by a jealous husband & died several days later, some saying his death resulting from pneumonia he developed from the poisoning.  The conventional wisdom is that likely he died in Greenwood, MS & was buried in the Little Zion Church cemetery. Eyewitness accounts have pinpointed where his grave should lie, although it's not considered the actual spot. Does it really matter? He wanted his body to be buried by the highway so his old evil spirit "could catch a Greyhound bus & ride". There are supposedly three gravesite markers in various locations, but they all mean the same thing. He's got rambling on his mind.

Johnson started the "27 Club". It's fairly exclusive & usually only admits fellow musicians as members. Brian Jones was the next member. It last admitted Kurt Cobain. Greil Marcus said of Johnson ( & unknowingly, of many others), "Like a good American, Johnson lived for the moment & died for the past". The blue lights were my blues. The red lights were my mind.

About this collection:

This all started a couple of months ago when I ran across the now more or less authenticated "third" photo of Robert Johnson as found a few years ago by Zeke Schein. It mentioned Johnson's 100th birthday coming up & made me think a good compilation set was in order. Thanks to the hard work & heavy lifting of Blank Frank & the heroic travails of "." in providing this magnificent album cover, we have this amazingly assembled collection of Robert Johnson's complete output as interpreted by a vast & varied lineup. Much of Johnson's music can sound dour & fatalistic, but it can also rock with a primitive boogie that was really the sound of rock and roll in its embryonic stages. These covers show how his songs could translate to today's music, sounding timeless, ancient & euphoric at the same time. Lucinda Williams takes "Ramblin' On My Mind" for a quick & sexy stroll. Patti Smith also surprises with a slinky & drunken take on "Come On In My Kitchen". The legendary Dion does a version of "Terraplane Blues" that shows why Robert caught the eye of the ladies ( & probably led to his doom). Eric Clapton is represented by several turns with Johnson's music. Cream's " Crossroads' was not only one of the best interpretations of Johnson's music, it showed what his prowess only hinted at in the mainly acoustic '30s. The Stones' version of " Love In Vain" is one of the cornerstones in their recording history. It's one of the few occasions where the student has learned a little too well from the master. It's a set of songs that flow like the Mississippi while there are whirlpools of danger. The hellhounds are there in the distance. The blues walk like a man.

A note about Robert Johnson:

It's been reported throughout the years that Robert Jonson's 78's were recorded at a faster speed than normal, up to 20% faster. Whatever the reason for that ( it's been said that it was done by Vocalion Records to "jazz" up the sound), there's a website: that has the original two albums of Johnson's material released by Columbia Records at the corrected speed. These are highly recommended to really appreciate his truer sound. It's like watching Chaplin's early silent movies at the corrected speed. It just makes more sense.

Up Jumped the Devil

1 Robert Jr. Lockwood -  Kind-Hearted Woman
2 Fleetwood Mac - Dust My Broom
3 The Steve Miller Band - Sweet Home Chicago
4 Lucinda Williams - Ramblin' On My Mind
5 Johnny Winter - When You Got A Good Friend
6 Patti Smith - Come On In My Kitchen
7 Dion - Terraplane Blues
8 Peter Green with Nigel Watson - Phonograph Blues
9 The Charlatans - 32-20
10 Red Hot Chili Peppers - They're Red Hot
11 Blind Will Dukes - Dead Shrimp Blues
12 Cream - Crossroads
13 Hindu Love Gods - Walkin' Blues
14 Keb' Mo' - Last Fair Deal Gone Down
15 Gun Club - Preaching the Blues
16 Eric Clapton - If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day 
17 Rory Block - Stones in My Passway
18 Blind Will Dukes - Steady Rollin' Man
19 Ken Hamm - From Four Until Late
20 The Mountain Goats - Hellhound on My Trail
21 John Mooney - Lil Queen O Spades
22 Eric Clapton - Malted Milk
23 The Devil Makes Three - Drunken Hearted Man ** Added 2019**
24 Cowboy Junkies - Me And The Devil
25 The White Stripes - Stop Breaking Down
26 Led Zeppelin - Travelling Riverside Blues
27 John Hammond - Honeymoon Blues
28 The Rolling Stones - Love In Vain
29 Pyeng Threadgill - Milkcow's Calf Blues
30 The Allman Brothers Band - Drunken Hearted Boy (Bonus)

New Zippy Dec 10


lemonflag said...

Thanks for this and the link.
I read about the speed issue years ago and at that time VLC had a way to play things at different speeds so i tried it and it made sense to me, more natural sounding to my ears not so "squealing" as in the published versions. So I vote for the slower versions.

Rhodb said...

Thanks Frank

What a great share so many talented artist

The Hindu love gods is a gem


Psychfan said...

Really nice. Thank you!

Bob Mac said...

Thank you very much.

Grant said...

This looks super cool! Thank you!

I too am anonymous. said...

Great! As Bob says, thank you very much.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for these gems!