Saturday, 27 August 2011

Robert Johnson

This May was the centenary of the birth of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Despite recording just 29 songs before dying at the age of 27 he became one of the most influential musicians in popular music. Many of those songs became blues standards including Love In Vain, Sweet Home Chicago, Cross Road Blues, and I Believe I'll Dust My Broom.

Due to his influence on the musicians who came after him it is easy to see the role he played in the creation of Rock and Roll and later Hard Rock. Giants of music who wear his influence on their sleeves include Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and Jimi Hendrix.

As well as his remarkable compositions, vocal delivery and untouchable guitar skills Johnson has the ultimate enigmatic personal story to make him a legend. Very little is known about him and fact and myth appear to have become so ingrained that no one can tell which is which.

The popular legend has it that Johnson transformed from a bad guitar player to something super human after selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. However he developed his skills the few recordings he made demonstrate an incredible ability. No one can play like him, although many have tried over the past 70 odd years. Most mere mortals can only get any where near by cheating and having two guitarists to recreate what Robert did on his own (whilst singing!)

Like many musicians of his era he was a travelling man moving from town to town, playing on street corners and in bars. From Wikipedia; "Johnson supposedly asked homely young women living in the country with their families whether he could go home with them, and in most cases the answer was 'yes'...until a boyfriend arrived or Johnson was ready to move on."

It seems likely that Johnson's reputation with ladies led to his early death. The popular story is that he was poisoned buy the jealous husband or boyfriend of a flirtatious audience member.

(This years Tenby Blues Festival is dedicated to Robert Johnson, and I've been asked to prepare some sort of tribute to him. I often play Love in Vain at gigs and at the moment I'm thinking about adding something extra for this event. It was whilst re-listening to his catalog that I decided a blog post about him was in order.)

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