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Sweet Home: May 2011

| April 29, 2011 | 0 Comments

A Century At The Crossroads

May 8th marks an extremely significant event in blues history. The date commemorates the 100th birthday of Robert Johnson, King Of The Delta Blues and Father Of Modern Rock. Although he lived a brief life and recorded only 29 songs, his legacy stretches way beyond his era and genre. Indeed, it was Johnson who penned the iconic “Sweet Home Chicago” that rings through every blues joint around the world and decorates this column. Fortunately, blues fans have a little more than his popular legend and limited discography to commemorate the occasion. The Complete Original Masters: Centennial Edition (Columbia/Legacy) supplies four CDs and one DVD to fill any possible holes or missing links in the Johnson story.

With a spotty personal history and an itinerant life that ended at 27, Johnson only really became visible to general music fans in 1990, when Columbia released The Complete Recordings. This definitive collection became a music sensation and pushed Johnson into the awareness of a broader audience than he had ever enjoyed during his life. It also made the portrait of a dandified Johnson posing with his guitar, one of only two known photos of the musician, famously recognizable by even non-blues fans. The Centennial Edition expands on the previous collection and offers the ultimate overview of the blues master’s influential career. (This year’s Blues Fest will be largely devoted to his birthday celebrations.)

To say this box set is expansive is an understatement. It includes a double CD with masters of the original 29 Johnson songs with alternate takes; a CD of rarely collected blues singles from 1928-32 featuring artists like Sleepy John Estes, Memphis Minnie, and Blind Willie McTell; another showcasing 10 tracks recorded by artists who shared the San Antonio and Dallas sessions with Johnson, covering folk, hillbilly, Mexican, and Texas swing genres; the DVD documentary ThTo say this box set is expansive is an understatement. It includes a double CD with masters of the original 29 Johnson songs with alternate takes; a CD of rarely collected blues singles from 1928-32 featuring artists like Sleepy John Estes, Memphis Minnie, and Blind Willie McTell; another showcasing 10 tracks recorded by artists who shared the San Antonio and Dallas sessions with Johnson, covering folk, hillbilly, Mexican, and Texas swing genres; the DVD documentary The Life & Music Of Robert Johnson: Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl?; as well as essays, a new biography, historic track annotation, photos, and a musical family tree.

It may sound like a whole lot of unrelated extras, but all the parts come together to create the most nuanced illustration of Johnson’s music and legacy. For seasoned fans, the inclusion of the San Antonio and Dallas sessions — where Johnson laid down his only recordings — may sound like old news, but it’s not. First of all, I don’t care how many times you’ve heard Johnson croon “Kindhearted Woman” or dazzle with searing riffs on “Terraplane Blues,” the evocative singing and otherworldly licks command attention. The sound quality is crisper than on the previous collection, and the track annotation provides more insight into how and when the tunes were recorded. For instance, “3-20 Blues” was the only song he recorded on November 26th, 1936 in San Antonio. Listening to the track, he sounds more introspective, more focused than on many of the other sides, which were cut seven or eight at a time over one day.

With the essays and liner notes, a broader narrative also develops about Johnson’s life. Besides the dubious, often repeated tale about him selling his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar with superior mastery, not much was clear about who he was. Another perspective is formed in listening to the tracks from his contemporaries. Johnson perfected not only blues, but country, swing, polka, pop, and whatever else was popular. He could also sing, dance, and play so that he rivaled many bands. Listening to the blues of his featured contemporaries like Frank Stokes and Samuel “Fat” Westmoreland, Johnson’s evocative wails and precise picking show how he had mastered his craft beyond singers with much more experience and finesse. The inclusion of the other artists from his recording sessions also opens a window to what was shaping music and history during the period. The country recordings sound cleaner and cover topics meant to glorify Southern living in the face of the Depression. Johnson’s songs dove deep into the pain and struggle of the times and with little gloss to make it more palatable.

In the documentary, Keb’ Mo‘ brings Johnson to life while Danny Glover narrates important details of Johnson’s life, like the fact that “he was a walking jukebox” and he had small hands, long fingers, and played the guitar like a piano. Fascinating insight from Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines, and Robert Lockwood Jr. color in more lines into the mysterious legend. According to Lockwood, Johnson wrote many songs that he never recorded but personally taught him. Although he was only a year older than Lockwood, Johnson dated his mother and showed him guitar licks that he hid from everyone else.

Absorbing the entire box set lends the most complete impression of Robert Johnson yet. It not only explores the depths of his music but also his life and how he lived it. After being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986 and earning a Grammy for the 1990 compilation, Johnson was transformed from a little-known blues artist to a mythical American music hero. With Centennial Edition, the man behind the myth is revealed and the genius is broken down into accessible facts. This is essential listening for blues fans and history buffs.

R.I.P.: On April 11th, local blues guitarist and vocalist Lacey Gibson, 74, passed away from a heart attack. Noted for his vibrant guitar style and soulful vocals, Gibson played with Son Seals, Willie Dixon, Sun Ra, and Otis Rush, among others. He recorded three solo albums and was a beloved West Side figure as co-owner of Ann’s Love Nest. His memorable sound and affable presence will be sorely missed.

— Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

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Category: Columns, Monthly, Sweet Home

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