Seeking The Greatest Bluesman

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Most of the houses were made out of boards cut from the same logs, and they had the same forlorn sense of weathered impermanence as the shacks in Commerce. The streets were still unpaved, but there were some grocery stores, most of them with Chinese owners, and the stores were in the same kind of run-down frame houses, with only dilapidated metal signs advertising cigarettes and soft drinks and overhanging roofs out to the street to make them look any different from the rest of the town. Today even the stores are gone, their buildings boarded up. It was in the black communities like West Helena, around the scattered mills or railroad yards and warehouses where there was some work, that Robert Johnson spent most of his time after he left the farm in the Delta.

 
In his first day of recording he gave one of the greatest performances of any blues artist.

Even in the worst of the Depression years, when Johnson was doing most of his wandering, the record companies that worked the blues market were trying to find new singers. They didn’t pay very much, and royalties were almost nonexistent, but most of the singers who were working in the juke joints or the small local clubs managed to get onto one of the major blues lines. The talent scout who sent Robert Johnson to ARC, the American Record Corporation, was a music-store owner in Jackson, Mississippi, named H. C. Speir. Johnson’s older sister Carrie, who had taken care of him when he was a baby, was living in Jackson, on Georgia Street, and he probably stayed with her when he was in town. He could have come into the store and auditioned for Speir, who held regular sessions at which musicians stood in line to play for him, or perhaps another talent scout heard him first and sent him to Jackson. The ARC liaison man was the young white record salesman Ernie Oertle.

Johnson did his first recordings, for ARC’s Vocalion label, in San Antonio, on Monday, November 23, 1936. The A&R man, or artist and repertory director, for all the ARC recording on this trip was Art Satherley, who had done the same job for Paramount Records in the 1920s and worked with blues artists like Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He had set up a studio on the mezzanine of the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio. The producer in the studio with Johnson for the sessions was another young white employee of ARC, Don Law.

After Johnson recorded “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” he continued, all in the same afternoon session, to do a series of songs that were among the greatest performances any blues artist ever was to record. One following another, he sang “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “When You’ve Got a Good Friend,” “Come On in My Kitchen,” and “Terraplane Blues” and then finished with a minor title, “Phonograph Blues,” a weak song that wasn’t issued until the 1960s.

In these songs was everything that the other musicians had talked about in Johnson’s blues: the startling instrumental technique, the moody imagery, the heavy, brooding emotions, and the feeling of a kind of possession as he sang. Three days later, on Thursday, November 26, he recorded a single blues. Then the next day he began a session with an inconsequential jump song, another weak blues, and then “Cross Road Blues,” “Walkin’ Blues,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” “Preachin’ Blues,” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” On “Preachin’ Blues” he delivered a performance that was almost incoherent in its intensity.

Oertle and Law were recording a number of other artists at the same time—almost every style of music that was popular in San Antonio, from Mexican guitarists to Western swing but they recognized Johnson’s uniqueness. Seven months later they brought him back to Texas to record again, this time to a studio they had set up in an upstairs room in a warehouse in Dallas. Again, ARC was recording a number of other artists. On the first day, Saturday, June 19, 1937, Johnson recorded only three titles, but one of them, “Stones in My Passway,” was one of his masterpieces, and the last song, “From Four Until Late,” was as quiet and understated as it was unforgettable.

The next day, Sunday, he began with one of the greatest of all his songs, “Hell Hound on My Trail.” Then the session drifted through a number of styles and derivative blues until the fifth song, “Me and the Devil Blues,” another of his disturbingly unique compositions. The next to last song was the haunting “Love in Vain,” which was to become known everywhere through a version performed by the Rolling Stones.

The legacy of Robert Johnson is this body of songs he recorded with only his guitar for accompaniment in ARC’s improvised studios. What he did in those studios was completely his own achievement. Don Law and the engineer did little more than turn on the recording machine and tell him when to start. It isn’t surprising that elements of the songs can be traced to other blues singers who were popular at the time or that parts of the guitar style or the use of falsetto or sometimes the songs themselves have more or less obvious sources. What is still startling after so many years is that the greatest of his songs fuse together into a stark, magnificent musical statement that is unlike anything anyone else the blues has created.