Robert Johnson – King Of The Delta Blues Guitar
For many people, Robert Johnson was the blues, at least the Delta blues! You get the impression that Clapton wanted to be RJ, but I don’t really agree that he was the greatest blues man ever to have played guitar, and I definitely don’t think he sold his soul to the Devil to gain his formidable fingerpicking skill. Nevertheless, Robert Johnson songs have influenced countless blues musicians.
Like many legends, he had the good fortune to have died at a young age, meaning that his status was assured! That’s not to say that he was very good, but there were some blues men equally good and several that also motivated many modern guitar players. For one thing, he wasn’t really original. Some say that his recordings should be played slower, and when you slow them down, you can hear Son House in almost everything that he does.
By all accounts, the young Johnson would follow House around, but was ignored because he just wasn’t a very good player. After going away fro some months, he re-appeared and his guitar skill had improved dramatically, hence the ‘Devil’ legend was born – basically, he had traveled and absorbed many ideas from other blues guitarists, also ‘woodshedding’ for many hours a day IMO.
Curated article extracts – Delta Blues Men:
Mississippi Delta Blues: American Cornerstone
The blues recordings that came out of the Mississippi Delta from the late 1920s through the late ’30s have had an enormous impact on American music, influencing everyone from The Rolling Stones to Cassandra Wilson. It’s powerful music that is also, by turns, stark, poetic, eerie, humorous, topical and beautiful.
Most Delta blues recordings were solo performances by singer-guitarists, though several notable recordings also feature some sort of minimal accompaniment — generally a second guitarist.
It’s not too reductive to say that Mississippi Delta blues as we know it begins with Charley Patton. There were certainly other delta blues musicians before (and concurrent with) Patton, but he was one of the first to be recorded. He was also immensely gifted, amazingly prolific and served as a major influence for other musicians in the delta, including Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. The breadth of topics in Patton’s songs is also notable. While most musicians might be quite content to sing about love or the lack thereof, Patton would sing about whatever caught his interest, from social issues to insects. In this 1929 recording, Patton gives us what might be the first piece of music ever devoted to the boll weevil, an insect with a voracious and devastating appetite for cotton.
Tommy Johnson was a contemporary of Charlie Patton’s; they were virtually neighbors. Like Patton, Johnson was a gifted writer, singer and guitarist. Unlike Patton, Tommy Johnson recorded very little. After recording 16 songs in three sessions between 1928 and 1929, he stopped recording forever, mistakenly believing that he had signed away his right to record. However, among those 16 songs there are three certified blues classics: “Canned Heat Blues,” “Big Road Blues” and the song included here, “Cool Drink Of Water Blues.” Unlike most delta blues recordings, this song features two guitarists: Johnson accompanied by Charlie McCoy. The rhythmic tension they create between their instruments, combined with Tommy’s inimitable falsetto vocal performance make this song a uniquely beautiful moment in American music history. (Click here for more information from Tommy Johnson’s label.)
Charlie Patton might have been the first important delta blues musician, but Robert Johnson (no relation to Tommy Johnson) is almost certainly the most famous. He’s also one of the most intriguing and enduring mysteries in blues music. Very little is known about Johnson’s life and there is much conjecture about his death. What we know for certain is that when he died, in his late twenties, he left behind a body of work which, though relatively small, has maintained an amazing presence in American music. From Cream’s famous 1968 electric arrangement of “Cross Roads Blues” to Cassandra Wilson’s hypnotic interpretation of “Come On In My Kitchen,” Robert Johnson’s music continues to inspire and nourish a broad spectrum of musicians. In this 1937 recording of “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” we get a great sample of his incredible singing and guitar playing. The song also features one of the earliest recordings of a guitar lick that would become one of the most famous in blues history, when it later became the signature phrase in Muddy Water’s classic recording of “Rollin’ And Tumblin.'”
One of the most amazing things about Son House is that he lived long enough to be re-discovered. Many of the original delta blues musicians either died at a relatively early age or drifted into obscurity. House beat the odds. He began recording in 1930, after serving time in prison for killing a man, allegedly in self-defense. In the early 1940s, he retired from music and went to work for a railroad company in upstate New York, until he was re-discovered by folk/blues enthusiasts in 1964. He then began the successful second phase of his musical career, recording and playing around the world. “Preachin’ Blues” is House’s 1965 version of a song that he’d originally recorded in 1930. It reminds us that the blues can be light-hearted and humorous and still be “the blues.”
Robert Johnson Songs
Johnson recorded some 26 sides during his career, which wasn’t too long as he was poisoned to death when he was 27 years old, an there is no Robert Johnson obituary, except for the writing on his tombstone. Not all the 26 songs were classics, but some have elevated the lesser quality ones such as Red Hot, simply because it was one of the songs recorded by him. Incidentally, Red Hot was typical of the hokem songs being played by itinerant musicians performing in medicine shows around the USA at that time.
Several Robert Johnson songs however, have achieved cult status, songs like Crossroads, Walkin’ Blues, 32-20 and Ramblin’ On My Mind.
Robert Johnson Crossroads Blues
Crossroads Robert Johnson style is basically a speeded up, more intense version of Walkin Blues Tab, which brings us to an interesting question – are his recordings played at the right speed? Here’s an extract from an article:
A few years ago, an article appeared on the Internet suggesting that the recordings by Robert Johnson that are known and loved the world over are not accurate, that what we hear is the result of speeding up the original tapes laid down at those brief long-ago sessions. This month, I stumbled on this article that revived my interest. The source of this idea is apparently that many of the lyrics and vocal asides sound rushed and unnaturally fast, as do many up-tempo guitar passages. The ability to take a digitized song and slow it down by increments until it sounds more natural became available to the general public several years ago, but it took some time for the technique to be applied to Johnson’s work. Now there are many examples on the Internet of the original and the slowed-down versions, and listened to side by side they make an impact. To ears that are not completely accustomed to the accepted and original versions of the recordings, they do indeed sound a bit more natural and comfortable. Scholars have admitted that it might have happened, that the 78 rpm recordings might have been made at a higher speed to sound brighter or have a more attractive presence on the radio or on primitive playback equipment. But there are many problems with this theory.
The fact is, if you slow down RJ’s recordings, he sounds uncannily like Son House, a one-time mentor in the Mississippi Delta before Johnson started to travel with Johnny Shines. This makes a lot of sense to me. Walkin Blues lyrics are also very similar to the Son House version, and also Muddy Waters, so there might be more than meets the eye here. Whatever is true, the recordings are of course outstanding.
If I compare Robert Johnson Walkin Blues with Muddy Waters Walkin Blues, I have to say that Muddy has it! He said on record that he was playing ‘Walkin’ before it was recorded by Johnson, so it’s pretty safe to assume that the format was traditional and probably played in a very similar form by most blues guitarists at that time.
Son House’s version was a bit different from the norm, because basically he had just one right hand technique which he used for just about everything! Muddy’s and Johnson’s versions were very similar, but the former gives a gravity that is not so evident in Johnson’s rendition – he leaves powerful spaces in his musical arrangements which give it enormous depth and a feeling of Truth. Checkout any Robert Johnson Walkin Blues tab, and basically you’ll be able to play it the same as Muddy as well.
Robert Johnson Love In Vain
A quick look at the Love In Vain chords Robert Johnson used and it will dawn on you that it’s almost identical to another of his songs played in the key of A, Me and The Devil Blues. This is a common thing among blues men of all persuasions, and it also reflects the fact that once our style is set, it’s really hard to disguise it and play differently, which is why the riffs in the two songs are very similar.
Johnson used a variety of tunings, and the list below was taken form an answer (by me) to a question asked on Quora:
There was some talk about RJ using a secret tuning for a couple of songs, but all of his output can be played using these tunings:
Drop D tuning
Drunken Hearted Man
Last Fair Deal,
If I had Possesion,
Stones in my Passway,
Stop Breakin’ Down,
Travelliing Riverside Blues,
Come on Into My Kitchen.
Rambling On My Mind
The rest were in standard tuning.