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
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.
It begins with a man named Henry Sloan. Shrouded in myth, little of Sloan’s life has been uncovered by historians, but many believe that he is the key to early blues, and possibly the genre’s father altogether. In 1903 W.C. Handy, who, with his band, went down in history nine years later for recording the first blues, “St. Louis Blues”, wrote of a mysterious vagrant he encountered while waiting for a train at Tutwiler Station, in Tallahatchie County Mississippi:
…A lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar. … The effect was unforgettable… The singer repeated the line (“Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog”) three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.
Many believe this man to be Sloan.
Then, there came a bluesman known as Robert Johnson. According to legend, Johnson, overcome with the desire to become a guitar player, heard of a place where one could acquire all the skills necessary to become the greatest living bluesman. Johnson was “instructed” to take his guitar to a crossroads near The Dockery Plantation, off the Sunflower River in Mississippi, and wait. At midnight Johnson met a large black man who offered to tune his guitar for him. The man played a few songs and handed it back to Johnson. In this exchange, Johnson acquired a comprehensive understanding of the guitar.
Johnson’s legend circulated amongst the blues community and small towns of rural Mississippi. Pete Welding, a writer for Down Beat Magazine, once asked Son House about Johnson’s seemingly overnight mastery of the guitar. House recounted the legend. It was then featured in a 1966 issue of Down Beat and effectively what we know as the Crossroads Myth began.
Many believe this man of this legend to be The Devil, and this exchange a Faustian agreement in which Johnson sold his soul to be a great guitar picker.
Many believe this man to be Sloan.
While there are many rumors of Sloan’s tutelage and impact on the blues, one detail of Sloan’s life we know for certain. He taught Charlie Patton, one of the most important men to ever pick up a guitar, how to play.
When Patton was nearing nine or ten years of age, his family moved to The Dockery Plantation, the same plantation where, later, Johnson would learn the instrument. At Dockery, Patton met Henry Sloan. He would prove to be a mentor to Patton and his single greatest influence. Patton followed him everywhere. Son House and Tommy Johnson, who played with Patton, remarked that Patton “dogged every step” of Sloan’s. It is through this close relationship, and several years as Sloan’s accompanist, that Patton became one of the greatest guitar pickers to ever live, and to some “the Father of the blues”.
Patton later taught the guitar to Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker and played with such greats as Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson and Son House.
In 1929, Paramount Records approaches Patton, offering to take him to Richmond, Indiana to make a recording. He makes fourteen, one of which, “Pony Blues” he composed at the age of 19 and is now a part of the National Recording Preservation Board of The Library of Congress. Paramount releases “Pony Blues” as his first recording. It sells well. Later that year, Paramount approaches Patton again, this time offering to take him to Grafton, Wisconsin. He records 28 sides, some of his most famous to date. Early the next year, Paramount taps Patton again to come to Grafton. Patton only has a few sides left, four to be exact, so he brings with him Louise Johnson, Willie Brown and Son House. Johnson records four sides, Brown two, and Son House nine.
Of the nine sides House recorded for Paramount, only eight were released. All were commercial failures. House would not record again commercially for 35 years, but despite the dismal sales figures of House’s Paramount sides, they would come to ensure his legacy as one of the best to have ever had the blues.
“Dry Spell Blues Pt. 1” and “Dry Spell Blues Pt. 2”, the first two sides House recorded for Paramount, illustrate the radiant finger-picking, thundering screech-and-bellow and dark, desperate imagery for which he is known. House coarsely screams, “The dry spell blues have fallen,” and then seamlessly wails with the force of a bus, “drive me from door to door.” He repeats the phrase, and follows it with a characteristically ominous prediction of demise: “The dry spell blues have put / everybody on the killing floor.” Beneath this farmer’s lament, a repetitive, low-end strum-and-hammering anchors the intense, piercing plucks that, as if super-heated, seem to spit from House’s steel strings onto the “Dry Spell” melody. House, never a large man but nonetheless as fearless and formidable as one would expect a man alleged to have killed in self-defense to be, sings and picks with the power of a giant. As if possessed, his timbre is penetrating, ghostly, terrifying. “Well, I stood in my backyard / wrung my hands and screamed,” he sings, and you see him. “Lord, I fold my arms and I walked away / Just like I tell you somebody’s got to pay” he sings, and you fear him.
The next two sides House recorded for Paramount, “Preachin’ The Blues Pt. 1” and “Preachin’ The Blues Pt. 2”, are performed with the same fervor as “Dry Spell,” but delivered less darkly, and with different energy, one of enjoyment, not of anger and despair. House strums again an up-and-down rhythm peppered with similarly striking plucks as in “Dry Spell”, but his fingerpicking resonates and shimmers. Unlike “Dry Spell”, it is light as air and floats above his words, ascending as far as it can until it must dip and dive back down into the deep, driving heart-beat thump of House’s thumb on the six string and his foot on the floor. This constant thump excites the sly ecstasy with which House sings, “Yes, I’m gonna get me religion / I’m gonna join the Baptist Church.” A knowing smile on House’s face seems to shape his words as he continues, “I’m gonna be a Baptist preacher / and I sure won’t have to work.” House proceeds to explain how security is the only value he sees in religion, and he’d rather find the Spirit in women and the blues. Of his preference for a good time, he sings, “Oh, I’d-a had religion / Lord, this every day / But the womens and whiskey / Well, they would not set me free,” and that doesn’t bother him. He doesn’t miss it, and sings of that fact with rapturous joy in Pt. 2, when he concludes that his religion is his own: “Whoa, I’m gonna preach these blues now / and choose my seat and sit down / When the spirit comes, / I want you to jump straight up and down.”
Son House’s signature song, “My Black Mama Pt.1” and “My Black Mama Pt.2”, he recorded next. Later reworked into “Death Letter” or “Death Letter Blues”, and famously covered by The White Stripes, it is House’s most well-known song, and for this author’s money, his best.
House sings of a classically tumultuous relationship. “Oh black mama / what’s the matter with you?” he asks. “Said if it ain’t satisfactory / don’t care what I do,” he complains, but despite her nagging and negativity he finds her so beautiful and knows in his bones he loves her more than he could any other woman. “Well my black mama’s face / shine like the sun / Oh lipstick and powder sure / won’t help her none.” He sings her praises until the housework suddenly seems to go undone and he hasn’t seen his mama in sometime. It is then he realizes she has gone. He is hurt and distraught, resolved to leave her, but in Pt. 2, he receives a letter: “I solemnly swear Lord / I raise my right hand / That I’m goin’ get me a woman / you get you another man / I got a letter this morning / how do you reckon it read? / Oh, hurry, hurry, / gal, you love is dead”. House must go to the Coroner’s to identify her body. He sees her upon the cooling board and returns home in a deep depression. Another up-and-down strumming pattern, seemingly more frantic than in his other blues, separates quick, choppy bursts of picking and sliding. The single chords House repeatedly strums during the chorus and refrain and the repetitive sound they create evoke the monotonous insanity often brought on by overwhelming grief. To ease his pain, he calls out a line that echoes through the songs of many, many bluesman before and after, a line that derives its power from the very soul of the blues: “Some people tell me the worried blues ain’t bad / Buddy, the worst old feelin’, Lord, I ever had.” His woman is gone from this earth, and it hurts, but nothing hurts quite like being left.
Often dubbed “the holy grail” of lost blues recordings, House next put to tape “Clarksdale Moan”, a tribute to Clarksdale, Mississippi, House’s birthplace. The recording was the only of House’s rumored to be lost. It was in this absence it held its importance. Previously unheard outside of House’s time, in 2005 an anonymous collector discovered the only copy currently known to exist. While lyrically insignificant, House’s blistering fingerpicking and soaring single-string slides make “Clarksdale Moan” an exhibition of some of the finest finger-work of his career.
Also lost, as it was the A-side to “Clarksdale Moan”, “Mississippi County Farm Blues” is thought to be House’s first-hand account of his convicted murder. Said to have shot a man in self-defense after said man had gone on a shooting spree, House sings of enduring an unwarranted fate, “They put me in jail, wouldn’t let me be / Put me in jail, would not let me be / They said I killed old Leroy Lee,” his guitar echoing his voice, rubbing his back, commiserating with him and soothing his soul. He laments his wrongful imprisonment and resents the police and court system for handing down a sentence not only to an undeserving man, but a sentence more severe than most cold-blooded murders: “Some got six months and some a year / Some got six months, lord, and some a year / Poor me, poor me got lifetime here.” In actuality, House received 15 years, and served two , but to a 25 or 26-year old, the age at which House was convicted, 15 years is nearly a lifetime. Being so young, House did not have the foresight to imagine a time beyond prison. Distressed by an impending decade and a half behind bars, he wishes more than anything to go back to his childhood, a time before crimes and before even punishment. Above the mournful arpeggio of House’s masterful finger-picking, he cries, “Wish I was a babe in my mama’s arms / Wish I was a baby in my mama’s arms / Wouldn’t-a been here working on the County Farm.” Of course, such a desire is impossible to fulfill. And so he must press-on and accept life in, and after, prison.
He does so with a wink and a nod to Robert Johnson and, in the process, himself.
For his last Paramount side, House chooses to record “Walkin’ Blues” a song that Johnson had composed as a reworking of House’s own “My Black Mama”. With “Walkin’ Blues” House concludes his first recording session ever with an homage to himself, a cocky gesture, a suggestion of perceived self-worth and perhaps things to come. Could House have known the impact he would have on the world of blues? Could House have known, after being virtually forgotten, of his own rediscovery by The Library of Congress ten years later, and 21 years after that by the world at-large? Could House have known that these songs would be responsible? He tells it best, in the last stanza of his brilliant, 1930, “Walkin’ Blues”:
You know I’m going away / I’ll stay a great long time / I ain’t coming back here / until you change your mind / Oh, I’m going away / I believe I’ll stay a great long time / I said I ain’t coming back, honey / until you change your mind.