Has played Robert Johnson at any concerts

The fist lie of the blues?

Robert Johnson's pact with the devil and other fairy tales

This year marks the 100th birthday of the most influential blues singer of all time, Robert Johnson. The German feuilleton missed the date. It would have been interesting to clarify the fundamental question. Did the "King of Delta Blues" even exist? Or was it just an elaborate invention?

The record, King of the Delta Blues Singers, was released in 1961, 50 years ago. At that time, no photos of Robert Johnson had been found, so a painting appeared on the cover of the record that shows a fantasy black man from above (from above), apparently completely absorbed in playing the guitar while the sun is out projected a hard shadow of him onto the ground.

In 1970 a second record with further recordings was released. Even now no photos had been found - and so there was another painting on the cover. It showed Johnson as a somewhat stereotypically drawn black man in 1970s bell-bottoms, who was sitting in front of a microphone in a hotel room while the white sound engineers were watching the recordings in the next room.

If you search Google for these record covers today, you will hardly find them at all. Instead, you scurry through countless variants, edits, colorizations, etc. of the three photos by Johnson that have surfaced since 1973. Lately a fourth has even been added:

And if you look for Robert Johnson on Youtube, you can even find videos with excellent re-enactment of Johnson songs and an actor who looks a lot like the man in the photos. Robert Johnson takes on mythical form. He becomes the Hendrix of the blues.

How did this unique posthumous career come about? And how do you manage to make around 40 classic recordings with five recording dates in 1936 and 1937 under primitive conditions, then to slouch them for decades and to find them again in an excellent state of preservation?

The explanation will revolve around the two terms "Columbia Records" and "John Hammond". Columbia was the record company that invented the folk genre in the 1950s, at least in its most successful, popular form, the Kingston Trio, which continues to achieve sales to this day. It was a tourist form of folk music, but after the Kingston Trio there was no more Eartha Kitt and no Nina Simone who didn’t also perform Hebrew, Turkish and any international folklore, whether at the Newport Folk Festival or in the "hungri i" nightclub.

Looking for folk artists who are the authentic black American blues the big names like Josh White, Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy or Jesse Fuller were soon used up. The electric blues artists who produced their ghetto music in some smoky bars in Chicago turned out to be unsuitable for the white audience. At best, a blues musician was allowed to perform with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, not with a whole band. So it came to Muddy Waters with guitar solo, John Lee Hooker (non-electric) and Lightning Hopkins (electric) - after all, you couldn't be called "Lightning" and then come along without electricity. And to Sonny Terry / Brownie McGhee, with harmonica and acoustic guitar. You looked for and found people who last recorded a record 30 years ago. They included Bukka White, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and Skip James, who just quickly made a few records with the sophisticated technology of the 1960s - and then stepped down.

Skip James is an example of what Robert Johnson's career would have been like if he hadn't been poisoned. James recorded a few blues and other songs in the early 1930s. Few of these plates survived. He was rediscovered in person in the early 1960s, and an avid white blues enthusiast who knew Skip's guitar technique taught him his own songs again. In the meantime, Skip James had forgotten not only his songs, but also how to play the guitar.

Today there are purists who consider his records from the "rediscovered" phase to be of inferior quality than his recordings from the 1930s. But from a recording point of view they are of course easier to digest. You don't have to fight your way aurally through thick layers of surface noise.

It's easy to imagine that someone like John Hammond at Columbia had the thought: If only there had been a blues artist who recorded authentic old blues in the 1930s with good recording quality. With all his skills intact, a blues genius. That would be ideal - and certainly also a commercial hit. But if you couldn't find such an artist - maybe you should to invent?

Meanwhile, in England

In the meantime the blues had "arrived" in England, especially in London - as well as several other types of black music, mostly at the same time as the corresponding ethnic groups from Nigeria, Jamaica or the USA. An interesting painting of morals from this period can be found in Colin MacInnes' City of Spades.

Towards the end of the 1950s, the American blues positioned itself in England, especially among white listeners, mostly younger ones, as a kind of secular substitute religion. You entered the world of the "blacks" as a transcendental audio experience.

In an interesting concert recording from 1958, Muddy Waters can be heard live in front of a British audience. When he began to elicit strange whimpering noises from his guitar with a kind of thimble, laughter broke out. The slide guitar was still unknown to the audience. The song, I can't be satisfied became a rhythmically applauded instant hit. The concert itself was horrible, of course. Above all, the drummer was pretty close to his shoes - and the recording quality also leaves a lot to be desired.

Not so in Germany. In 1962 the crème de la crème of the American blues scene had been imported here (all older men) and had them perform in unmoved rows of seats in black evening suits in front of a good theater audience. At the end of the tour, the contingent of blues greats, who had meanwhile warmed up and almost got one together, went tape formed, in Hamburg in a large-scale studio with stereophonic microphone equipment, where traditional symphony orchestras usually recorded dignified classical music. There they sat together, the blues brotherhood, who had been roaming half of Europe, without tails, in shirt sleeves, with enough alcohol and smoking fans to mimic a live audience, and they played the "real" blues: Memphis Slim, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Shakey Jake Harris and Jump Jackson, a jazz drummer who lifted the music out of the murky bumbling of so many blues records into the stratosphere. Helen Humes, who had attended the concerts, did not appear on the record that emerged from those sessions - for whatever reason.

The critics of that time - jazz purists or music experts who were important in some other way - could not get enough authenticity and authenticity from the concerts. But the album was simply the best blues record of all time and has remained so to this day. The sound quality was unmatched. There had never been a blues record in America that would have been produced with such effort. When Jump Jackson's drumsticks tumbled from his percussion and clicked across the room, the sound could be heard from left to right, as if someone had followed them with the microphone. And of course the quality of the music was amazing.

In the following years there were other such blues concerts with authentic seniors, but the quality of this first record was never reached again.

By the mid-1960s, England had developed its own blues scene. Groups like the Rolling Stones, Animals and Yardbirds, made up of young men in their twenties, played blues numbers from the old men and easily bought them off the hook. In 1964, the Rolling Stones recorded 20 classic blues tracks in the Original Chess Studios in Chicago within two recording dates, i.e. over two days - some in alternative versions, which not only marked the high point of their career up to this point, but are still among the best blues recordings to this day. They were copies from the repertoire of Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry, but also hits by other artists that they had heard at the time and immediately absorbed - such as It's All Over Now by Bobby Womack, a song that she wrote nine days before the recording date first heard of, or hi-heel sneakers from Tommy Tucker, which was a current hit at the time.

The Animals were celebrated almost admiringly as "white blacks" in America, and the Yardbirds (a precursor to Led Zeppelin, the most successful white blues group of all time) performed in New York in 1968 in front of mostly white audiences to whom they were rather snooty Blues of the black / American fellow citizens clapped around the ears. Some of the white blues boys from England have retained this missionary zeal to this day. (When it comes to Robert Johnson, like Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, with The Robert Johnson Songbook or Eric Clapton with Me and Mr. Johnson.)

The slower version

I myself came across Robert Johnson's music late. The guitarist I admired most was Carlos Montoya. He played flamenco. Django Reinhardt joined them later. I've had tons of blues records that I "loved" before I heard of Robert Johnson. In addition to the aforementioned '62 Folk Blues Festival disc, there were recordings by Georgia Tom and Tampa Red, Skip James, Joe Turner, Ray Charles and Clifton Chenier - to name just a few. Or the two Ike and Tina Turner records on the Blue Thumb label. And of course Nina Simone. I had seen T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters live, and even interviewed Muddy Waters.

I also had a turntable that offered different playback speeds, not only 33 and 45 rpm, but also 16 and 78 rpm. I later worked as a disk jockey. You had two turntables next to each other. Sometimes you played an LP with 33 revolutions on one plate and a single with 45 revolutions on the other. Then you forgot which speed you had set - and an LP ran at 45 instead of 33 revolutions. At least until the lever was thrown. In the late sixties, at the beginning of the seventies, when the music was also to be transported via drugs, "psychedelic" records were produced that should be equally audible at 33 or 45 rpm. I'm exaggerating. But the vanilla fudge plates, to take a specific example, really worked that way. Today, with the standardized playback speed of the CD, this can no longer be checked without further ado. The relevant aspect, however, is this: on a vinyl LP you could reduce or increase the playback speed of a record, if necessary by simply rotating the record with your finger in faster or slower turns.

These gimmicks with the recording and playback speed were part of normal everyday life back then. The Beatles provided a famous example when they did Strawberry Fields screwed together from two different parts, whereby one part was slowed down and thus simply mounted down from a different key. I did the same with Skip James in my own home. On his "rediscovered" records from the sixties, he sometimes sang with a rather annoying old man's falsified voice. So I often played his records a little slower and then thought it was okay. When I first heard about Robert Johnson, I had a similar reaction. The music felt like it was a recording from the Chipmunks, a record that was spinning too fast somehow. In other words, the voice sounded to me for a long time like that of a teen under extreme hormone build-up (especially in falsetto) and the accompaniment almost always gave the impression that Johnson had choked the capo so high around the guitar neck that he was just as good at it a ukulele could have played. I automatically turned the plate a few revolutions slower and found it much more bearable that way. The squeaking organ turned into the voice of a grown man with the typical timbre of a black voice. And the guitar playing sounded as if the instrument had been tuned in the normal range somehow.

Of course: not with every song. Sometimes the guitar sounded a bit out of tune, or in the slack key area. It felt like, systematically or not, (either very carefully or rather carelessly) each individual song had been changed a little differently.

I didn't think too deeply about it, though. The record was finally edited by John Hammond, the man who discovered Billie Holiday, who produced Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Aretha Franklin, George Benson and so on . After all, he had to know what he was doing. So it must have been some technical problem, bent sheet metal matrices that somehow had to be straightened and the like that had led to the irregularities.

In this respect, it is interesting that there has almost been a movement on the Internet in recent times. From fans who downgrade Robert Johnson's blues recordings, sometimes more, sometimes less. They intuitively try to bring the voice down from that of an eighteen year old to the timbre of a twenty-seven year old. At the same time, the capo disappears that you always had to think about up to now. The Robert Johnson, who was created in the imagination, had always stretched his extra long fingers from the guitar neck to the soundhole. He didn't have to do that now. He could let the guitar swing normally. In the meantime one can almost assume that the "slow versions" of the two Columbia records have established themselves as definitive varieties.

But how could it happen that for almost 50 years no one had noticed that these Robert Johnson records were rotating at the wrong pace? I suspected that this (unrecognized or hardly noticed by anyone) might have been a similar phenomenon to the early Chaplin films, which to this day often play a third too fast. It wasn't until years later, on the computer, that I was able to slow down the playback speed for these films a little, so that they could almost reach a normal pace.

Another explanation might sound more banal, but it can also be true. On the back of the first Robert Johnson record (see picture) there are many mythical details about him, including the information that Johnson died before he was 21 years old. For such a young man, the voice of the "slow version" sounds too old again. Maybe they just wanted to make him "younger" by correcting his record up a little. After all, it was clear who the buyers would be. Young, folk-loving middle class college kids. White. The black timbre of the voice should be bleached out.

Robert Johnson and his shadow

Keith Richards of the Stones asked his initial musical mentor, Brian Jones, when he first met him King of the Delta blues-Disk demonstrated: "Who is the other guy who's playing?" Richards thought he heard two guitarists. No, no, said Jones, there was only one. But the impression is not that absurd. When you hear Django Reinhardt, you know that his cousin is stomping the rhythm behind him, even if they both come along almost in unison. When Carlos Montoya the St. Louis Blues one could also believe that two people were involved, but there is only one. Perhaps, I thought, in Johnson's case, you had actually put two guitarists together into one, because you did that Double tracking (copying two recordings one on top of the other) back then, 1936/37. And maybe there were a few telltale spots here and there that you wanted to retouch, as it were, by speeding up the record a little.

Once you begin to think about it like this, you also start listening in another direction. I had had countless records with music from the twenties and thirties, all of which had a wide variety of surface noises, cracks, cracks or smudges, while the two Robert Johnson records - each song on the LPs had been copied from a separate single - practically all had the same "clean" surface. And something else. Every song that was recorded somewhere in America in one of the shabby little studios available to black artists at the time had a different tonal ambience. You could literally hear that five musicians had gathered around a single microphone in a phone booth.If Robert Johnson had recorded his songs in two different rooms, once in a hotel, then in some business space, one year apart, shouldn't these rooms also have two different reverberation rooms? Shouldn't you hear the pounding of boots from the room above, or the honking of a car outside in the street? I know countless recordings in which exactly such noises constantly interfere somewhere in the background. Here: none of that. A clear, clean studio sound.

Johnson sang with his face to the wall, it is said - not with the microphone in his back; the microphone was of course in front of him - but the wall behind the microphone also reflected and amplified his voice and the sound of the guitar. A kind of "wall of sound" that the studio-inexperienced hiking troubadour invented spontaneously in the face of the microphone. And the usual popping when the microphone is too close is completely absent here. They are professional recordings of a musical Professionals. Not bad for a performer who had never set foot in a studio before. Bob Dylan, for example, remained a notorious microphone popper even after 15 years in the studio.

A comparison between Johnson's recordings and the first recordings of Elvis Presley in the is also revealing (to my mind) Sun Studio. Elvis wasn't very good at playing the guitar, he concentrated on the singing while the musicians did the rest. Nevertheless, Sam Phillips, the owner of the label, had to invest an infinite amount of fiddling work as a producer in order to glue the individual tracks together from small tape sections of several takes, which are now known as those Sun sessions knows. The stroke of genius of the young Elvis was also a technical masterpiece of the producer.

Such refinements did not yet exist in 1936/37, but there was the possibility of positioning several musicians very nicely in a studio. So it would have been quite possible to plant Robert Johnson, the singer, together with a guitarist or two in front of a microphone or two and thus achieve exactly the effect that we hear today. I think it is at least possible that the recordings were made that way. On Crossroads At the very beginning, Johnson stumbles upon his own guitar playing - unusual for a singer who accompanies himself. Or he was just hyper-nervous. However, it is clear that Johnson was recorded in a real studio. As the Field recordingsRecordings that sounded in a shed or in the open air are known from Alex Lomaxen's collection of blues amateurs from that time - or from his recordings with Muddy Waters, which were made in 1941/42 (The Complete Plantation Recordings). Lomax also had the jazz classic Jelly Roll Morton fabulate and improvise for hours in the Library of Congress - available today in an 8-CD package. So there are numerous examples of how such Impromptu recordings sounded back then. The Robert Johnson pieces are clearly cleaner, more balanced, more clearly focused. And more. Someone must have invested time, money and effort in this project - which was obviously not "worth it", because in the following 24 years there was a break from broadcasting for Robert Johnson.

In America's black community, no one knew his records or his name - and no one was influenced by him. If one had known back then the discs that we admire so much today (for example in the war years or in the Fabulous Fifties), one would probably have had them as joyless and vicious disgusts (32-20)

put aside and put on a plate from Slim Gaillard instead, for example Cement Mixer Pu-ti Pu-ti - swinging nonsense that you can give yourself 100 times before it gradually becomes boring.

Robert Johnson - a fairy tale character?

The rest of this musician's story also seemed somehow unreal. A man who made more than a dozen sound recordings - actually more than afterwards three Dozen - survived somewhere for 24 years and all of excellent quality. But not a single photo. (Then, after another 12 years, the photos gradually appeared. A man with eerie long fingers on almost spider-shaped hands, but who played a shabby wooden guitar that was not believed to produce the rich tone that occasionally emanates from the speakers came.

And then the mythical pact with the devil at a crossroads. The until then average guitar player Robert Johnson is suddenly a gifted guitar virtuoso. But then you have to exhale your soul soon, because that's the way it is when you do business with the devil. Someone had put strychnine in his whiskey ... and he, Johnson, hadn't noticed anything unusual about the taste.

This is exactly how I would make the story up if it were to be a made up story. A blues fairy tale.

It also fits that Johnson was a gifted instrumentalist and songwriter, but also a kind of dumb bag from the country. On the back cover of the first record is the long story of how Don Law, the sound engineer who made the recordings (he thought Johnson was 17 or 18, by the way) dropped his protégé at the hotel and went home with the family to dine. The police called him already. Johnson had been arrested and beaten up, and his guitar had been broken to pieces. Law got him out (because Johnson was supposed to be shooting at 10 the next morning). He gave him 45 cents and told him not to leave the hotel room. Johnson was back on the phone shortly afterwards. "I'm lonely," he told Law. "Lonely? What does lonely mean?" Law asked back. "I have a lady here, but she wants 50 cents. I have 5 cents too little."

It is clear that such a pure hedonism had to appeal to Brian Jones.

But probably also a John Hammond. In the Wikipedia short bio you can read that he came from a wealthy family and, after initial attempts in music and college, switched to music production. Like an avid publisher or like a tennis mama, he developed the need to shine on behalf of himself, to share in the fame of his little sheep. When he began promoting Bob Dylan, who initially nobody else at Columbia was enthusiastic about, Dylan was nicknamed "Hammond's Folly" ("the guy Hammond ate a fool on"). There is a subliminally erotic bass tone. Hammond also felt a need to act as a substitute for blacks. In the then unrestrained racist USA, Hammond wanted to put the genius of the African American on a pedestal. Philo-Negrism had already turned out to be a disguise for his homoerotic tendencies with Colin MacInnes, where the black offered a projection surface for an often aggressively racist sexuality or (in MacInnes’s case) sex for money with black boys. I suspect Hammond used his influence on Columbia for similar motives in bringing out the Robert Johnson material. And I suppose, superimposed by all sorts of encrustations of the psychic apparatus, completely unconscious. Multiple husband, multiple father. And when you consider that up to the release of this LP in 1961 almost no one had heard or known about Robert Johnson, the title "King of the Blues from the Mississippi Delta" was probably chosen a little grandiose. But Hammond must have had reasons for choosing that title. The rest of the world soon followed suit, guessing his assessment. And Robert Johnson made no objection. Perfect.

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