Thursday, 22 August 2013

Robert Johnson- Me and The Devil

It's strange to me that over the journey I haven't written anything about one of the true inspirations of this blog, the king of the delta blues Robert Johnson. It's an epithet that rings true because his art continues to influence and capture a vast audience, he was to me the first poet of the blues. He had a very literary approach, his songs were stories that were mysterious and unclear, much like the man himself. He conjured up a world of tricksters and greyhound bus rides, the devil walking side by side and the mysteries of the delta crossroads. Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst Mississippi on May 8th 1911, it's believed that he started his career as an itinerant blues musician not long after the death of his first wife in 1929. Around this time Johnson who was living in Robinsonville at the time returned home to the area around Hazelhurst, at this point in time Johnson was a competent harp player but according to Son House he was not a great guitar player. The next time he returned to town his guitar playing was unlike anything other musicians heard, other worldly you might say.

It's at this juncture that the myth surrounding his new found talent emerges, many believe that Johnson acquired his talent by going to the crossroads. Some say this is where the highway bypassed the train line, others say it was a road on the Dockery Plantation, the story goes that Robert met the devil where he bargained his soul for the ability to express himself as a bluesman. It's one of the more powerful myths in popular music, it's such a visual image, it adds greater weight to his music and to his legend. It's a myth that has parallels with the German legend Faust who sold his soul to devil to understand the true essence of life.

Johnson's entire catalogue stretched to only 29 songs, his first recording session took place in a hotel room in San Antonio Texas in November 1936, this session was recorded for the Brunswick label, the following year he ventured to Dallas for what would be his last recording session. There is no better opening to his music than Crossroad Blues, dark and intense, Johnson's vocals are emphatic. It's a song with a desperate plea for redemption, but there is no hiding place,
I went to the crossroad fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, Have mercy, now save poor bob if you please.

Travelling Riverside Blues sums up the life that Robert Johnson led, he had women in Vicksburg and women clear through on to Tenneessee, he was also capable of wicked salaciousness,
Now you can squeeze my lemon, until the juice run down my leg
Hellhound on My Trail is apocalyptic in tone, Johnson sounds like a man cornered, his demons are closing in. It's an amazing song it sometimes makes you think whether Robert was cultivating this sense of mystery and darkness, he writes of it so well.
I got to keep movin, I got to keep movin
Blues fallin down like hell, blues fallin down like hell
Blues fallin down like hell, blues fallin down like hell
And the day keeps on reminding me, that there is a hellhound on my trail

In the final verse there is a resignation from Robert that other forces are close by,
I can tell the wind is rising, leaves trembling on the tree.
Love in Vain has to be one of the great love songs, it's a raw acknowledgement of the dissapointment of love,
I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand
And I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand
Well it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell
When your love's in vain.

Me and the Devil Blues for me captures the essence of Robert Johnson's music, the imagery of his lyrics, the darkness and despair. He creates this against the backdrop of the delta, with it's highways and greyhound buses, then  weaved through the narrative is this religious imagery and the sense of good versus evil.
Early this morning you knocked upon my door
Early this morning you knocked upon my door
Ooh you knocked upon my door
And I said Hello Satan I believe it's time to go
Me and the devil were walkin side by side.

Then comes that crucial lyric that ties it all together and in itself become immortal,
You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can catch a greyhound bus and ride.

Johnson died in August 1938 in Greenwood Mississippi, poisoned by a jealous husband, his voice and soul were not silenced and continued to be heard through the generations.

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