Thursday, March 1, 2007

Everyone says they’ve listened to Robert Johnson

I’ve been itchin’ to write something interesting. This came out in about half hour. It’s my first real free-association blog. I know they all seem that way, but this one really is.

It’s a tough listen. Recorded in 1936 directly to acetate. The enigma of his life and the legend about the deal with the devil. There’s a pretty good 80’s flick that gets into it with Ralph Macchio called Crossroads.

That crap is all fluff. Listen to this man. The degree to which his soul is exposed transcends the technology used to record it. It transcends all of that myth. But fair warning: it may not reach you. Not that there’s a special skill involved; you know what I mean.

Sure, everyone has a beautiful soul, and everyone can express themselves in some way. But to get that kind of sub..sub..subdermal? communication must require a highly developed set of skills. And it was that kind of thinking that turned me away from the blues 12 years ago. How the hell was I going to find time to do that and figure out college, career and love? Well, short-sided maybe, but life is long. Life is short. I don’t know.

The blues has been a sliver for me. But lately I see it’s the common element in all the music I’ve studied. Seriously. Townes Van Zandt bummed around with Lightnin’ Hopkins to understand that music. Then Townes found a way to express himself that breaks the blues form using mostly, as Guy Clark says, “hard fuckin’ work.” Townes taps into the blues with carefully chosen words and music and I’m often left with that feeling of "what the hell did he just sing? I felt something." Bill Monroe weaves the blues so deeply into his mandolin playing that it became his style. But he toggled between blues and the bluegrass he invented. Actually, I think that’s what good bluegrass always does. Anyway, Bill and Townes really channel that lonesome quality. But Robert Johnson conveys nearly all the human qualities of music through his blues.

What I love about Robert Johnson is his staggeringly creative guitar playing, (rhythm, tunings, use of capo, altering slide/no slide), and the spectacular deftness of his voice. But that’s all technical. Unless you’re trying to understand that elusive element. Some musician friends of mine are far closer to understanding this element than I. But good lord, when I figure it out. . .

The thing about friends is that they remind you of who you are. And I’d forgotten how deeply Robert Johnson affects me. And I’m glad I’ve met so many new and wonderful folks over the last few years. And one of particular relevance here. It certainty tempers the sting of not getting what I came for. Perhaps I got something better.

At this point, the daunting challenge I had with a Stratocaster in my hands in 1992 (to play ’good,’ like Hendrix and Stevie) isn’t present. I just wasn’t listening closely enough. I only understood shallow things about music. But I’m just getting to that deeper level after a long time looking. Can I bring it out of me? I don’t have to answer that, but that Robert Johnson’s music makes me want to try is, well, mighty powerful. Especially to come from 71 year old recordings.

So, take comfort in yer blues. It may be the most sincere and universal thing we experience here on the good earth.

A few things here, out of the flow. I’ve had these CDs since 1993, along with a few other blues masters. Some of that I’ve alluded to in a couple of other blogs here and here. (Wow, look at that. It’s been 366 days since I wrote that big guitar player one.) I could see that playing blues guitar was technically achievable, but there was so much, much more going in those notes. I couldn’t fathom a way into that realm. Yet I’m no bluesman; I’m not seeking to copy those styles and forms, just the expression. Err, not even that. Just trying is enough.

PS, evidently the best sounding remasters are The King of the Delta Blues Singers, volumes one and two. Cool cover art too. Man, are those on vinyl somewhere?

Post script 1, about 20 hours later
I tried not to edit this one too much, but this just surfaced. Way back in ’93, I had worked up Love in Vain into a more standard blues version. It was the only song that seemed accessible. Also, of note here, is that I never really got into the Rolling Stones. I dunno, that whole ’Stones or Beatles?’ thing is just not appropriate if you’re listening. So, many years later in 2005, I was in the field with my friend Ken Adams (the guy who first learned of last year’s Monroe mandolin workshop). I’d gone retrospective about music, and told him about my version of Love In Vain. He said, "oh, yeah the Stones did that." I didn’t know. About a year ago, while checking out Gram Parsons, I found out about the Exile on Main Street connection with Gram and Keith Richards. So shortly after that, which is probably about 8 months ago now, Leroy let me borrow all of his Stones CDs. Love in Vain is on their 1969 album Let It Bleed.

Anyway, back in the early days, I bought CDs with credit cards, telling myself I was going to make lots of money later, so there’s no reason to suffer now. Yet I was budget conscious. And the Robert Johnson version I picked up was not a fancy box set, which was ~$40, but instead, a virtually identical double-disc set, Charly Blues Masterworks Volume 13, that sold for about $18. The drawback was that it didn’t contain the extended booklet. That always bugged me. In mid 1994 I was well past studying the blues, immersing myself appropriately in classes, and working in a clothing store. The evening’s floor manager Kim and I got into a conversation about the blues. It turned out she owned the boxed set, and I diligently photocopied but never read the liner notes.

Until now. And interestingly, Keith Richards writes a small bit near the end where he mentions that during the time he was hanging with Gram Parsons, the second album of Robert Johnson’s came out for the first time. And they had never heard Love in Vain, but really wanted to work it up. I’ve always thought it cool that Gram covered two songs I also learned at a time when I was entirely oblivious to him. Those songs are on the International Submarine Band album Safe At Home (now excellently remastered by Bob Irwin at Sundazed) and are Porter Wagoner’s A Satisfied Mind and Johnny Cash’s I Still Miss Someone. I learned A Satisfied Mind from Verlon Thompson in about 2002. One of the earliest fiddle tunes I learned on mandolin was Soldier’s Joy from a recording of Verlon’s mom on an album featuring her called Darwettia’s Mandolin. I know Verlon personally from creating Guy Clark’s fan website. Verlon’s version features Darrell Scott, who played with Guy when I wandered through Nashville in about 2001 at the Douglas Corner Cafe while on a trip to study the New Madrid seismic zone. So there you go, another one of my ‘spiderweb’ stories. These connections are seemingly endless for me. I’m beat. I’m sure you are too.

Post script 2, about 12 hours later Well, my new copies of the above mentioned The King of the Delta Blues Singers arrived this morning. While not complete, the listening experience is entirely different. Wow. What you get is a whole lot more surface noise and also a whole lot more of the performance. That’s the thing about analog noise; it’s not constant and at frequencies where the music exists also. So the older, more ’noise reduced’ version is cleaner, but also less musical.

After listening to all this morning, the King CDs are indeed far, far sonically superior. After all of these years, I can enjoy RJ entirely differently. Firstly, there are two ’new version‘ duplicates; volume two is newer and is thought to sound better. Thus, the deletable dups found on volume 1 are tracks 9, Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil), my favorite track, and 11, Ramblin’ On My Mind.

It looks like the 10 alternate takes missing from Complete Robert Johnson are:
Disk 1:
08. When You Got A Good friend (take 2)
10. Come On In My Kitchen (take 2)
13. Phonograph Blues (take 2)
17. Cross Road Blues (take 1)
Disk 2:
07. Little Queen Of Spades (take 1)
10. Drunken Hearted Man (take 1)
12. Me and the Devil Blues (take 1)
15. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues (take 2)
18. Love In Vain (take 1)
21. Milkcow’s Calf Blues (take 2)

What can I say? If you dig Robert, you’ll want both King CDs for the sound quality and the ’complete’ set for these 10 alternate takes.

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