one day at a time…
Wednesday, 31 March 2004

Pix Of The Day: Revered Early Bluesman Revisited
CREDIT: © Stephen LaVere/DeltaHaze.com
WHERE: lower Mississippi basin. WHAT: blues music of Robert Johnson.
MAP: Mississippi blues. Thumbnail clicks pop-up source page for larger images.

Studio Portrait, Hooks Bros., Memphis, circa 1935 © Delta Haze Corp.Journeyman blues guitarist Eric Clapton released an album on 23 March 2004 , entitled 'Me And Mr. Johnson'. The 'Mr. Johnson' of the title is Robert Johnson, whose name often attracts the soubriquet 'King Of The Delta Blues', and he has even been accused of being the father of Rock 'n' Roll! Quite why Johnson has exerted such a wide influence is difficult for a non specialist to understand. There are only twenty nine surviving examples of Johnson singing and playing, recorded in two sessions in 1936 and 1937. On first encounter we found little about which we could become excited or deeply moved. Courtney Danforth and Adriana Rissetto have provided soundclips to eighteen songs, which are available in RealAudio format, many with accompanying notes.

Johnson's life was brief, cut short by what many think was murder, and it is recorded that his early playing elicited requests that he stop. He moved away from his usual haunts, and on his return his playing had taken on such fire that the story grew that he had sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.

Photo-booth Self-portrait, early 1930s © Delta Haze Corp.For a picture researcher Johnson is an easy assignment. It is claimed that only two pictures of him exist, both owned by Delta Haze Corporation, which were unearthed by Stephen LaVere. The best view that we could find of this pair of images, without disfiguring copyright notices, was on an under-construction web page with the captions wrongly placed. Normally we would not refer our visitors to such a source, but needs must when the hellhounds are in pursuit.

The album cover for Clapton's 'Me And Mr. Johnson' contains visual clues and echoes that lead neatly into this present feature.

Many have speculated about the outcome for the music if Johnson had lived into old age. Tucker Smallwood has recorded an album based on such conjecture. Our own view is that without the cachet of an early death reinforced by a presumption of failure and suffering, and had there been a larger oeuvre for appraisal, Johnson may have suffered the same fate as Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee in a later revival, dismissed as extensively mainstream therefore less windswept and interesting.

For a more reliable critical opinion we recommend AllMusic.com for both Johnson and Clapton. For detail the Delta Haze Johnson section is a good start, with some interesting material at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Notebooks for Robert Johnson, and Larry's DeltaBluesman.com web site. Johnson's birthplace was declared one of Mississippi's ten most threatened historical sites in 2003, though the assumed site of his first burial place seems safe enough. Background on Blues music from a Johnson perspective may be found on the 'Trail of the Hellhound' web site.

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Jules Laforgue (1860-1887)
"Ah! que la vie est quotidienne."
Oh, what a day-to-day business life is.
'Complainte sur certains ennuis' (1885)