Robert Johnson Free Essay

Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

American singer, guitarist and songwriter, Robert Leroy Johnson is one of the most celebrated and influential bluesmen of the 20th century. Having lived a short and badly documented life, Robert Johnson managed to make only several studio recordings of his songs and was supposedly poisoned at the age of 27 years. Yet, his name is now permanently inscribed in the history of modern music due to his innovative musical interpretations and advanced play talent.

Born in 1911, Robert Johnson started to show interest in music since early childhood. At the age of 8, he already played jaw harp and harmonica, and soon after school, decided pursue the career of a full-time blues musician, instead of becoming a farmer (Wald 106-8). This period of Johnson’s life is shrouded in legends, with one of them famously running that the musician sold his soul to the Devil to receive his incomparable art in return. However, the truth might be much more prosaic: Robert Johnson is known to work tirelessly learning from his first idol, guitarist Lonnie Johnson, and carefully listening and watching the play of Charlie Patton, Son House, and Willie Brown (Wald 115-17). A huge leap forward as a musician was further made by Johnson in the early 1930s, after he took a year of training from a local guitarist Ike Zimmerman (Wald 116). Developing his own style, Johnson soon became the renowned master of the Delta blues, as well as experimented with a wide range of other style, including country music, jazz, swing and ragtime (Wald 126; Russell 166).

Overall, as an innovative musician, Johnson is the author of at least four blues standards. In particular, he was one of the first to use such techniques as pause, return, repetition, and syncope common in modern guitar blues (Wald 187; Russell 134-35). Johnson also introduced boogie-bass riffs on the lower strings while simultaneously playing a harmony on the upper three strings (Wald 189), without which the blues is now impossible to imagine. The bass pieces played by Johnson factually resembled the skill of playing the piano and which required specific coordination of the fingers of one hand, but they provided harmonious fullness and at the same time created a characteristic, slightly swinging rhythm. Johnson was also an outstanding performer of slide and flageolet techniques. In his singing skill, Johnson largely relied on the use of microtonal pitches, adding powerful emotions to the performance, as well as often adjusted his guitar play to sound like the second voice (Wald 190; Russell 168).

After the death of his second wife, however, Robert Johnson eventually choses to live the life of an itinerant musician (Wald 120). From 1932 to 1938, the bluesman traveled around Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Indiana, Kentucky and even Canada to perform on street corners, in small clubs, juke joints, and night dances, often accompanied by a fellow blues musician Johnny Shines (Wald 120-21). The dramatism of Johnson’s performances were undoubtedly the reflection of the drama of his life and drew many listeners, but the musician still had little public recognition, with his commercial success occurring only after the reissue of his recordings 25 years after his death.

Indeed, Johnson gained his first chance to work for a label only in 1936, after acquaintance with H.C. Speir and Ernie Oertle, who introduced Johnson to Don Law and Brunswick Records (Wald 131). In total, during the 5 recording sessions, the first of which took place on November 23, 1936, and the last one on June 20, 1937, Johnson recorded 29 compositions and alternate takes for most of them (Wald 169). The first record Terraplane Blues had some regional commercial demand selling 5,000 copies, however even friends and relatives of the musician remained unaware of the fate of the majority of other recordings (Wald 143). Moreover, it was never established which of the compositions were learned specifically for studio recording, and which were performed regularly. In turn, the later eleven records from the 1937 Dallas session were released within 1938, already after Johnson’s death (Wald 172). In general, the discography of the bluesman is inestimable due to the fact that he did not record a single album during his lifetime, and after the death of the musician, the record companies started compiling his legacy at their own discretion (Russell 170). The most notable of such reissues was the 1961 LP King of the Delta Blues Singers, which helped Johnson’s art to finally reach wide audience (Russell 171).

Among Robert Johnson’s works, Love in Vain, Me and the Devil, 32-20 Blues, Stop Breaking Down, Steady Roiling Man and Honeymoon stand out for their particularly distinctive bass patterns, while Come On In My Kitchen, Kind Hearted Woman Blues, I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom and Cross Road Blues have become the most recognized pieces. Thus, in particular, the song Cross Road Blues represents the entire chapter of Johnson’s mythology on his alleged Devil deal. Through the hook “I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees”, Johnson is referring to his inability to flag a ride until the sunset, and yet, some deeper interpretations may vary from the musician’s fear to “sink down” and thus lose his soul to the Satan, doubts on the perspectives of his career (“nobody seem to know me”), loneliness (“I didn’t have no sweet woman”), and up to social protest to racial segregation (“sun going down”/sundown laws), as well as most of them combined. Performing the song in the Delta blues style with the acoustic slide guitar, Johnson employs harp-style playing with sharp percussive accents on the bass strings and avoids using full IV and V chords, facilitating his slide by applying open G tunіng with the guitar tuned up to the key of В. As the result, the created musical tension serves to emphasize the dark side of the lyrics.

This and other compositions clearly demonstrate that Robert Johnson was a unique artist, unparalleled among his contemporaries despite the degree of their influence on his music. In turn, Johnson’s songs have had the impact on such prominent musicians as Muddy Waters and Elmore James, as well as later generations of bluesmen, they have been and/or are still performed by the most famous musicians including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, John Mayall, Ry Cooder, Peter Green, Luther Allison, Red Hot Chili Peppers , Bonnie Raitt, The White Stripes, Patti Smith and many others (Wald 186-93).

 

Works Cited:

Russell, Tony. The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Schirmer Trade Books, 1998.

Wald, Elijah. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Amistad,

The terms offer and acceptance. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016.

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

freeessays.club (2016) The terms offer and acceptance [Online].
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[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]
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