Wednesday, June 27, 2007

EDW (late edition): Robert Johnson

This is what music should be about – dapper, damned and innovative. One of the earliest and greatest of bluesmen. You probably know the myths about him: sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads down in Mississippi, no one knows where he was buried. If you don't, well you can find them online. There's no reason to believe them, of course, but since they're myths you may well believe they express something that ought to be a greater truth.

I'd be even more surprised if you didn't know some of his songs – Sweet Home Chicago, From 4 Till Late, All My Love in Vain, They're Red Hot, Me and The Devil Blues (and I said 'hello Satan, I believe it's time to go'). It's almost impossible not to lapse into hyperbole, such was his importance in the development of blues and, therefore, modern music. But, since this is something of a quickie, I'll be brief.

The mixture of the profane and profound sense of moral doom is something that has been imitated, but rarely equalled, the same applies prodigious skills and innovative style; all of which the more unimaginative attributed to diabolic influences (like Paginini?). And this is before we even get into such matters as chord structures, subsequent artists who begged, borrowed or stole from him – and the question as to whether he was the first to begin a blues song with the line "I woke up this morning". Even if he wasn't, such woes as the wife leaving you or the dog dying (or, worse, vice versa) are surely a mere bagatelle compared with Satan (surely an EDW candidate in waiting) appearing on your doorstep to escort you in person to Hell or Chicago.

Part of the myth comes from the fact that relatively little is known about him (even compared with his altogether more pious, and much unluckier, namesake Blind Willie Johnson). There are only two known pictures of him in existence. The one you see above, and this one here.

Do you notice a problem with the latter? If not, well consider yourself unsuited to a career in government or, indeed, the US Postal Service. You see, when the spiritual home of the US shooting rampage decided to honour Johnson, the selling the soul to Satan business wasn't really a bar to getting on the stamps (Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom still does the biz). The problem for the American authorities was that he was smoking, and that would never do. So the stamp was produced with the cigarette carefully airbrushed, lest a man who sang about sex, domestic violence, damnation and rebellion set a bad example.

Which reminds me, I should write about... but midnight approaches, I must make the EDW deadline and tomorrow I might hear a knock on my door and come face-to-face with the Health and Safety Inspectorate.

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Blogger Glamourpuss said...

And he looks so damned natty in that picture. There are some men who rise above their circumstances to sport with the gods; Johnson's prodigious talent may have come at the expense of his soul, but I think we all agree it was worth it.


10:58 am  

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