In The Dust #15: Tommy Johnson ‘Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order: 1928-1929’
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)
When it comes to the mythopoetic bluesman, Tommy Johnson was the archetype. A rambling, hard-drinking, hard-loving guitar picker with one of the most distinctive and celebrated voices in blues history, Johnson stands in company with Son House and Charlie Patton as one of the genre’s most important early artists, head-hunting and juke-jointing in Dockery and across the delta a full eight years before Robert Johnson ever picked on record.
He was born 1896, near the small town of Terry, Mississippi, on the George Miller plantation. Fourteen years later, Johnson’s family moved to Crystal Springs, Mississippi, where Johnson’s older brother, LeDell, began to teach him how to play guitar. Johnson was soon playing parties with his brothers, Major and LeDell, to supplement the family income, but he stayed only two years, running away at age 16 to become a professional musician. Johnson’s freewheeling, impulsive nature and, in particular, the vices it helped him acquire would come to haunt him for the rest of his life.
After leaving Crystal Springs, Johnson began his career as an itinerant musician, picking up with the likes of Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, Ishman Bracey and a host of other blues legends, but never for long. Johnson only played when money was tight, or he simply felt like it, and exhibited little or no desire for self-promotion or furthering his career. He was busy. Johnson occupied the majority of his time with dogged womanizing or his favorite past-time, and what seemed like his life’s true passion, drinking. When the whiskey river ran dry, Johnson had two ways of getting his fix: he would drink denatured alcohol from a Sterno can, the type used today for heating chafing dishes, or common shoe polish. Both would be heated and strained through bread or a sock, and both would provide Johnson his necessary kick.
As Johnson was still young, his alcoholism was yet a hindrance. He was playing out and playing often, and, despite his own aversion to dogged promotion, was busy cultivating a legendary persona. He was the finest blues vocalist of his day. His voice, a trademark of his music, was remarkably nimble and could modulate from a soft whisper to a great, Patton-esque growl and upwards to a ghostly falsetto, more delicately attenuated than would seem possible when compared to any of his thunderous, preceding barks. Also like Patton, he could play the guitar between his legs, behind his head, and in a number of other crowd pleasing positions, screaming and hollering and howling without a break, throwing his axe into the air and catching it mid-number, but perhaps the most powerful aspect of Johnson’s newly cultivated public face, and certainly the most lasting, was his encounter with the devil.
You’ve heard it a thousand times. The crossroads myth. Well, it began with Johnson, and not Robert. Tommy. He told it himself many times to reinforce his abilities to new, unfamiliar audiences. Many, out of interest, picked up and began telling the story themselves. So began the myth of Johnson’s journey from Dockery to the crossroads, waiting there for the man until his arrival at Midnight, the man nimbly and quickly tuning Johnson’s guitar, rifling off a tune, passing it back to Johnson and, along with it, a comprehensive mastery of blues guitar.
After eight years of playing in and out of combos but primarily alone, honing a distinguished and awe-inspiring reputation as a Satanically-acquainted guitar picker with a library of classical blues delineations, several original compositions, and a throat that summoned at-once gravel and honey, Victor Records, later RCA Victor and then BMG, approached Johnson to make his first recordings.
He travelled to Memphis with his sometime-accompanist, Papa Charlie McCoy. There, in two sessions, he cut his first seven sides: “Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, “Big Road Blues”, “Bye-Bye Blues”, “Maggie Campbell Blues”, “Canned Heat Blues”, “Lonesome Home Blues” and “Big Fat Mama Blues”.
“Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, while not Johnson’s most famous song, is perhaps his most recognizable and influential, serving as a metaphor, in a sense, for Johnson’s complicated relationship with addiction.
Over an ebbing and flowing, hypnotically propulsive finger-picked progression, we hear Johnson’s otherworldly howl issue for the first time. “I asked for water,” he bawls, “then she gave me gasoline.” His voice trembles with the vibrato of a violin playing in the upper register. It is immediately arresting, haunting and spectral. Maybe more than any other Faustian musician, there is the suggestion of devilment in Johnson’s tone. Whether it be the devilment of his demons- an addiction to alcohol -or true soulless lament it is impossible to define, but it is easy to indentify the profound level of sadness with which Johnson sings of his woman woes, her mistreatment of him, and his dependence on the availability of high-strength alcohol of any nature: “Lord, Good Lordy, Lord / Cried Lord, I wonder / Will I ever get back home?” He continues on, using the metaphor of a poor man begging to “ride the blinds” of a train car in the hopes of making it home, but the Conductor denies his request and says, “this train is none of mine”. Johnson’s woes, it seems, are his own to remedy and, thus, destined to remain dry despite his tearful, falsetto plea.
“Canned Heat Blues” is arguably Johnson’s most famous. The centerpiece of Johnson’s first recording session, “Canned Heat Blues” is an upbeat, strum-heavy number ready for peaking the floor of the local juke joint. Like many a Johnson song, it details Johnson’s lament of his affinity for alcohol, particularly canned heat, and, presumably, the awful hangover one acquires after a raucous night on it. He begs for some relief, for someone to physically remove all of his pain and the substance itself, saying women don’t want a man on the heat and that, if not for it, he “never would die”, but the joy with which he sings his regrets, suggests that his wish is only half-hearted, and to dispatch of his canned heat he would very soon regret:
I woked up a-this mo’nin / With canned heat on my mind / Woke just this mo’nin’ / Canned heat was on my mind / Woke up this mo’nin / With the canned heat, Lord / On my mind
Cried, Lord / Lord, I wonder / Canned heat, Lord, killing me / Think alcorub is / Tearing apart my soul / Because brown-skin woman / Don’t do the easy roll
I woke up, a-this mo’nin’
Cryin’, canned heat ’round my bed / Run in here, somebody / Take these canned heat blues / Run here, somebody / An take these canned heat blues.
Cryin’, mama, mama, mama / Cryin’, canned heat killin’ me / Plead to my soul, Lord / They gon’ kill me dead.
It is clear what is meant when reading about Johnson’s love for the craft of blues music when compared to his love of alcohol. They are, in many ways, intertwined, both a subject of great inspiration and dedication, both playing and feeding off each other, but one true love reigns supreme: alcohol, Johnson’s tumultuous relationship with it and his desperate need to acquire it by any means necessary.
A year and a half later, after the Victor sides began to circulate the delta, Johnson was tapped again to record, this time by Paramount Records. Through the channel of an urging Charlie Patton, drinking buddy, on-again, off-again playing partner, constant competitor and collaborative, mutually dependent imitator of Johnson’s, Paramount convinced Johnson to come to Grafton, Wisconsin, where Patton and fellow delta inner-circler, the semi-professional Son House, recently recorded, and cut sides. They would be his last.
In Grafton, Johnson recorded nine sides in total, “Button Up Shoes”, “I Want Someone To Love Me”, “I Wonder To Myself”, “Slidin’ Delta”, “Black Mare Blues”, “Morning Prayer Blues”, “Boogaloosa Woman”, “Alcohol and Jake Blues” and “Ridin’ Horse”, bringing his total oeuvre to just sixteen songs. The songs from Johnson’s Grafton sessions would not prove to be nearly as successful, nor as lasting and influential, as those from his two Memphis sessions with Victor, but they are nonetheless excellent, masterfully composed, beautifully executed and hauntingly penetrative.
In the words of Emily Dickenson, Johnson did not stop for death. Why Johnson’s recording career was cut short at just sixteen songs is a story that fits in remarkably tight with not only the lore of his personal life, but the troubles of his immortal songs as well.
The Mississippi Sheiks, a popular and extremely versatile “jug” band of the time, recorded a song known as “Stop And Listen”. The song was very successful, but a team at Victor records, where Johnson had recently recorded, believed that the Sheiks had stolen their melody for the song from Johnson’s very popular, and to this day one of his best, “Big Road Blues”. The Victor folks brought about a copyright suit, to which Johnson was party, but he was apparently so drunk that, upon signing the final settlement, a decision in his favor, he believed, not knowing exactly what the document was, that he had signed away his right to record in perpetuity. For this reason, this supremely drunken mistake, Johnson never recorded another song. He continued to play parties, juke joints, and all manner of venues until his death, during a performance at a local house party, of a heart attack in 1956. Bonnie Raitt paid for his tombstone.
His music continues to influence countless artists, from the band Canned Heat, to the equally immortal Howlin’ Wolf, a former resident of Dockery, and Otis Spann (a familiar name around In The Dust). The Coen Brothers included his purported likeness in their 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
It is hard to say what is the stronger of Johnson’s legacies, his music or his personal life. His dealings with the devil are, of course, the stuff of legend, but as is his torrid love affair with alcohol. The substance was a greater influence on Johnson’s life and music than any other. It inspired his greatest songs, kept him from a full, lush career as the iconic blues musician he was destined to be, and ultimately caused his death. He lived hard and surprisingly long, with his canned heat at his side, the life of the consummate bluesman: dark, shrouded in myth and mystery, a drunk carouser of the highest verve, a heartbreaking, soul-stirring guitar-picker whose small but significant oeuvre, and unforgettable, chilling voice, are beyond compare.
Written by Ben Brundage