An Expat Life: Nicaragua Blues and Ruse
Monday, March 26, 2007
Monday Morning Blues #2
Tommy Johnson, Document Records, Orginial Recordings 1928-1929
Well, as promised, I have dedicated this time and space for a little discourse about the Blues. What better way to approach this segment than a little album review. From the vast archives of Casa Atkinson, I gave a listen to a classic recording from Tommy Johnson last night. It never fails to get my blood flowing.
Tommy Johnson, born in 1896, hailed from Terry, Mississippi, about 30 miles south of Jackson. It was Tommy, not Robert Johnson (no relation) that 'sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads'. With a haunting falsetto voice and an adequate supply of ad hoc shoe polish liquor (canned heat), Johnson was an influential practitioner of 'race records' of the 1920s. His 'Big Road Blues' was a massive hit, spawning many imitators, yet none matching his eerie voice heard on his old 78s. A tragic figure, Johnson battled alcoholism his whole life. Well....let's talk about the album a bit, since I've given you a little background.
Several songs really stick out on this one. If you were going to try and capture the misery of prohibition for all the thirsty folks, you needn't look any further than 'Canned Heat Blues' and 'Alcohol and Jake Blues'. Almost identical musically, both tell the story of how how alcohol is 'killin' me'. It brings to mind the Michael Keaton movie from the 1980s, Clean and Sober. They didn't need to make that movie. All they had to do was play 'Canned Heat Blues', and that would've sufficed. A notorious alcoholic and womanizer, Johnson sang candidly about drinking sterno to satisfy his cravings.
Perhaps the best song on the album, and one of the absolute classics of all of country blues has to be 'Big Road Blues'. Practically everyone that held a guitar in the Mississippi Delta during the Depression took a stab at this song. I implore you to seek this song out immediately. Stop what you are doing, and download it here.
Others that stick out are: 'Cool Drink of Water Blues', 'Bye Bye Blues', 'Maggie Campbell Blues' (about his first of many wives), and 'I Wonder to Myself'. The latter, an instrumental with accompanying kazoo, was my first tune that I learned to fingerpick (thanks to good friend and inspiration, blues guitarist Marcelo Ponce of Buenos Aires.
Ok, so some more interesting tidbits about Johnson. Like the famous St. Louis bluesman Peetie Wheatstraw, Johnson transformed himself into another persona.....the 'Devil's son-in-law', performing for crowds with flair and a flamboyant style. According to his brother LeDell, he mimicked the showboat style of Charley Patton, 'playing the guitar between his legs like he was riding a mule, playing it behind his head, tossing the guitar up in the air, and other acrobatic antics.' In addition to making a pact with 'Ol' Scratch' at the crossroads, Johnson had an aura of mysticism, carrying talismans and other behavior befitting a carnival performer.
Popular, even in death, Johnson's 'Canned Heat Blues' inspired a group of white kids from California to form a band by the same name. Canned Heat went on to re-record much of Johnson's music. Of note, lead guitarist Alan 'Blind Owl' Wilson actually re-taught Son House, one of Johnson's contemporaries, during the subsequent 'Blues Revival' of the 1960s. Such aficionados keep the music of such greats alive, well into the 21st century. If you want to learn more, check out Weenie Campbell Blues or Stefan Grossmans Guitar 'Woodshed'. There, you'll find everything you want to know about this important style of music. Or, stop back by next Monday for more....