Friday, September 21, 2007

Preaching Blues - Robert Johnson

Preaching Blues (1936) by Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938) is generally acknowledged to be one of the most influential, personal, and creative of the country blues singers. He has plenty of competition in this, including from Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White, Skip James, Son House, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

But still... Johnson is the true legendary bluesman of the Mississippi Delta, and there is a genuinely amazing quality to this record - to most of his recordings. It was recorded relatively late, considering that the first recordings of such blues artists as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton were made in the early to mid-twenties.

Robert Johnson died not long after this song was first released. It was only in the 90s that a couple of photographs of him surfaced. His life and death are obscured in the mists of time and blues legends, though recent scholarship has brought much to light. He died young, probably at the hands of a jealous lover who poisoned his drink. Someone said he died on his hands and knees, barking at the moon, but then there were always legends about his life. One of his songs (Crossroad Blues) led to the suspicion that he had sold his soul to the Devil at a country crossroads in exchange for the power he achieved as a musician. (This, of course, is a stupid lie. That was apparently somebody else. )

Robert Johnson’s collected output, finally released on CD, shot to the top of the charts in 1990.

There is good reason for legends to have accumulated around this astonishing singer and performer. There seems to be here all the authenticity, all the raw power, and all the emotion, of several lifetimes. Robert Johnson holds back nothing. When he sings of walking with the Devil he makes it real; that's a quality we appreciate in any recording, whether the performer talks of love and heartache or, as here, more existential matters. Francis Davis (History of the Blues) calls Johnson “the greatest of the Delta transcendentalists” (p. 124). In this song, the singer-songwriter Robert Johnson embodies the blues, taking this mysterious state of mind and compelling musical form and putting them together in the shape of a man walking. This occurs both in the music and, in some mythic way, in us, as we listen.

I don't dance, so I can't talk about dancing to this, but I do walk, and walking to this song makes good sense.

Now listen. Johnson’s work is clearly a forerunner of rock music - far more than of most other blues recordings - and several rock artists have covered his work, notably Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zepellin. However, unlike the work of these artists, there is nothing especially popular or very easy about this number. Robert Johnson here does not invite the listener in, but rather seems to challenge us, to confront us with a peculiar vision of a nightmarish world. My students are generally unimpressed, which is a shame. Clearly, they are not listening; many think its a woman named Robert. The challenge, I suppose, is too great for them, so they turn back to whatever they have on their ipods.

There are at least three major shifts in rhythm in the first 5 seconds of the song, and then a wailing, almost unearthly moan as if from some twisted soul to open the vocal.

Introduction Minutes/Seconds 0 – 2

First Chorus 6 - 48

A 6 – 25 Mmm mmmm—I’s up this mornin’, ah, blues walkin’ like a man.
A 25 – 37 I’s up this mornin’, ah, blues walkin’ like a man.
B 38 – 48 Worried blues, give me your right hand!

Second Chorus 49 - 1:17

A 49 - 58 And the blues grabbed mama’s child, tore him all upside down.
A 59 - 1:06 Blues grabbed mama’s child, and it tore me all upside down.
B 1:07 - 1:17 Travel on, poor Bob, just can’t turn you ‘round,

Third Chorus 1:18 -1:50

A 1:18 - 1:29 The blues, is a low-down shakin’ chill (Yes, preach ‘em now)
A 1:30 - 1:37 Mmmmm mmmmm Is a low-down shakin’ chill
B 1:38 - 1:50 You ain’t never had ‘em, I, hope you never will.

Fourth Chorus 1:52 - 2:23

A 1:51 - 2:07 Well, the blues , is a achin’ old heart disease (Do it now, you gon’ do it? Tell me all about it)
A 2:08 – 2:15 The blues, is a low-down achin’ heart disease
B 2:16 – 2:23 Like consumption, killing me by degrees

Fifth Chorus 2:24 - 2:52

A 2:24 – 2:34 I can study rain, oh oh drive, oh oh drive my blues
A 2:35 – 2:41 I been studyin’ the rain and, I’m ‘on drive my blues away
B 2:42 – 2:52 Goin’ to the ‘stil’ry, stay out there all day

The wailing voice and that extraordinarily percussive guitar are so compelling, so vivid, so dramatic, so expressive, that both - voice and guitar - seems to claim a kind of autonomy, each off doing its own thing as it were, almost spinning out of control, making their coming together in this recording all the more remarkable. Yet however independently voice and guitar seem to operate, each relies on the other, picks up from each other, challenges each other. This is typical in the blues, and in many other recordings, but here the challenges seem more confrontational, more edgy, and more dangerous. In this song the guitar does not so much accompany the singer as to compete with him for attention. They remind me of those stories of the ventriloquist's dummy taking over the show. There is something unearthly here—in a purely secular way. And it is a little scary.

Consider the second chorus in terms of its presentation of self - the self of the author and performer. First there is a “mamma’s child,” And the blues grabbed mama’s child, tore him all upside down. So we are in the third person here. (The good lyrics here say that the word at second #51 is me, as in the following verse, but I don't hear that at all.) We definitely hear me in the next verse, Blues grabbed mama’s child, and it tore me all upside down. He winds up the chorus talking directly about himself in the third person: Travel on, poor Bob, just can’t turn you ‘round. Johnson also refers to “poor Bob” in his Crossroads, begging the Lord to have mercy now, save poor Bob if You please.

The fear Johnson evokes in his songs, and which appears to be so real, derives in part, I think, from the creation of this persona, which he then proceeds to destruct, to tear apart. It is as if during this song he loses himself - literally - and never gets it back together, except of course that the control of the performer over the entire song itself belies our sense of someone out of control, and is testimony to the fact of an integral self, a paradox.

Nothing in his music dissembles, or goes half way. This is, of course, not always the case with his imitators and followers - even the very good ones.