My friend and colleague Tracy Power observes that today marks the 107th putative anniversary of Robert Johnson‘s birth. Johnson, of course, is considered “King of the Delta Blues”, and by extension, one of the fathers of rock and roll and a critical figure in the history of American music. Certainly we can trace his influence as a songwriter and guitarist through several generations of musicians, including folks like the Stones and Eric Clapton, among other Brits who adapted American music and sold it back at a substantial markup.
Furthermore, Johnson’s biography lends itself to legend-making, from his reported pact with Satan (trading his soul for guitar chops) to his early death (allegedly by poisoning, but with at least one official suggesting syphilis) and uncertain burial place (at least three different sites have markers for Johnson, and there’s a distinct possibility that none are accurate, and that he was buried in a potter’s field).
Unlike Tracy (and another colleague of mine, David Rachels), I’m not a blues buff — there’s some I like a lot, but a lot I can take or leave. And so I find myself with a question. As it happens, the longest track Johnson ever cut (“Terraplane Blues“) was exactly three minutes long. Yet if I see a blues band in a bar or at a festival or whatever (Hi, Michael Dearing!), it’s damned near impossible to hear a song that’s less than 8-10 minutes, with more noodling than a pasta factory. My question is, who persuaded all these folks that they have more to bring to the party than Mr. Johnson did?
Now that’s the devil at work.