Not All Change Is for the Best…

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.


The birthday boy, in one of the two extant authenticated photos. (Via Wikipedia.)

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.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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4 Responses to Not All Change Is for the Best…

  1. Robert Johnson was recorded in the earliest days of mass-produced recordings, and there was a practical limit of about 3 minutes per recording. I’m sure Mr. Johnson would have loved to play for over 10 minutes per song, if he could.

  2. nightfly says:

    I guess the pleasure in noodling along depends quite a lot on one’s taste in sauce, so to speak. For prog rock, 3 minutes is a brisk intro before the first verse (if any). And there was a great joke in the Onion about the Grateful Dead starting a live jam that they expected to last for several months, with planned switches in meter and chord progression mapped out weeks in advance.

    To cycle it back to the blues, however, I’ve heard interviews where the players themselves will often say that they enjoy going on longer in concert, extending the song and swapping solos back and forth for a while. One can’t imagine the Ramones taking an approach like that, however.

  3. ScottO says:

    Perhaps every performer has a bit of the ham in him—I’ll let you decide whether to confirm or deny for yourself—and the musicians simply love to (hear themselves) play!

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