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Author Topic: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson  (Read 10587 times)

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Online Johnm

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The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« on: January 04, 2006, 06:59:30 PM »
Hi all,
I've been thinking a lot lately about how influential a musician Lonnie Johnson was, and how his influence crossed regions in a way that probably would not have been possible before the recording era.  Henry Townsend talks in his autobiography about how Lonnie Johnson was a trailblazer and a great player.  One thing that is really striking is how soon after he started recording, people started imitating Lonnie and copping licks from him.  It's not so surprising, really; Lonnie had one of the most remarkable mechanisms in the history of the blues, a gorgeous tone on the guitar, terrific bends, and the ability to play equally well at fast or slow tempos.  He had a really good singing voice, too, though not particularly low-down.
I've made a little list of players who recorded songs that were obviously based on Lonnie's style.  It's by no means exhaustive, and I'm sure some of you will be able to come up with some more. 
   * Ramblin' Thomas--"Jig Head Blues", in D, and "Hard Dallas" in E, both show a strong Lonnie Johnson influence.  And as with Ramblin' Thomas's Lemon-influenced songs like "No Baby Blues", "Jig Head Blues" introduces elements and phrases that go beyond what the player the song was modeled on did on his recordings.  "Jig Head" is sensational guitar-playing, and in terms of ideas, sort of "out-Lonnies" Lonnie.
   * Willie Reed--"Leavin' Home, in C, shows a strong Lonnie influence, taking Lonnie's signature D lick and transposing it to C.  There's a lot of stuff here, too, that Lonnie never did that seems to be shared with Gene Campbell.
   * Jesse Thomas--"Down In Texas Blues"--Whew!  Like his older brother's song "Jig Head", this is terrifically good.  Jesse Thomas always seems on the verge of being discovered, but has never received the acclaim he deserved as a player.
   * Gene Campbell--"Wandering Blues" and many others in C.  There seems to have been a strain of sophisticated ways of playing in C and G, standard tuning, found among many of the early Texas players like Gene Campbell, Ramblin' and Babyface Thomas, and Willie Reed, that does not appear, on the sound of it, to have come from Lemon at all.  Lonnie Johnson contributed to the sound, but some of it had other origins--what were they?
   * Buddy Moss--"Someday Baby", in E, is influenced by Lonnie's playing behind Texas Alexander on "Levee Camp Moan", and transfers many of Lonnie's ideas to an East Coast context.
   * Robert Johnson--"Malted Milk" and "Drunken-Hearted Man", played in D, are among the best-known songs to derive from Lonnie's style.  These are a little under-characterized as compared to what Ramblin' and Babyface Thomas did with Lonnie Johnson's D blues template.
In addition to these guitar performances being influenced by Lonnie Johnson, I have for some time thought Josh White's singing might have been influenced by Lonnie's.  They both had a sort of careful tone production and very clear enunciation.  Does anybody else have some performances they can think of that were modeled on Lonnie's music?
All best,
Johnm

Offline onewent

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #1 on: January 04, 2006, 07:48:59 PM »
Thanks for putting in the legwork to compile this list, John M ... I'm reading/rereading Elija Wald's Escaping the Delta, which I didn't enjoy first time through, but am more into it second read,  and Wald goes to great lengths to make the point on the influence of Lonnie Johnson on other, less urbane, blues men ... I, too, hear a similar voice in Josh White's singing, and some in Tommy Johnson's, too... regards, Tom

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #2 on: January 04, 2006, 11:40:39 PM »
Hi all,
Does anybody else have some performances they can think of that were modeled on Lonnie's music?
This is an interesting topic, from memory both Steve Calt and Larry Cohn discussed some of these in their respective lengthy liner notes to the Mamlish and Origin compilations. I'm fairly certain that Dean Alger of St Paul, Minn. will be devoting a chapter on this subject in his forthcoming LJ biography.

Offline MTJ3

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #3 on: January 05, 2006, 04:01:05 PM »
Johnm,

Thanks for getting this going.? I have had this on my mind for a very long time, but I have never bothered to formalize it.? To be sure, all of those that you cited show some of Lonnie's influence in certain respects.? Henry Townsend, to whom you refer, states it as follows: "Lonnie Johnson was quite an influence on guitar players all over the world.  He hasn't been talked about as much as he deserves to be.  Lonnie was what you'd call the guy who paved the way.  He was one of these people.  An innovator of guitar pickin', especially the black blues style guitarist. He was to guitar what Sonny Boy was to harmonica in my opinion.  That's the way I feel about it.  The man was great at that time, and there wasn't anybody that exceeded him."  Townsend, A Blues Life, p. 18.  )Emphasis supplied.) (On the same page, Henry talks about when he was young sneaking into joints to watch Lonnie play and about Lonnie's playing around St. Louis generally.)

The problem that I had in formulating an approach to the issue was this--exactly how do you define his influence?? The signature lick (which I assume is the ubiquitous descending run or fill in D: f#1-e-d-c#-a-g#-g-f#-d)?? You can find that in a number of guitarists in addition to those listed. I'm inclined to think that is a key "marker" for Lonnie's influence. The vamp in D (b-f#/d-a1-a)?? You can find that in a few players (as well as in Lonnie's playing on other instruments). That's appears rarely enough in the work of the other players that I think it's not far off the mark as a "marker."? The use of diminished chords?? You can also find that in a number of players (ranging from Blake and Davis to Bracey, and including, somewhat surprisingly, Scrapper Blackwell, though I would be reluctant specifically to ascribe Lonnie's influence there).? I'm not so inclined to view that as a "marker." What about his extensive use of double stops?? Even harder to tag as a "marker." What about his use of minor chords?? Ditto.

Or was it just the idea of an approach to playing?? That would be my guess.  In that respect, Henry Townsend's comments on Lonnie and Scrapper are interesting.  "At one recording session we met Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell--I couldn't forget that because at that time both of these people were my choice in music; they were idols to me. I was beginning to try and branch away from Lonnie Johnson's style a little and do Scrapper's style--all that heavy bass work, picking guitar."  Townsend, A Blues Life, p. 71.  Without a further gloss, this is undoubtedly susceptible of multiple interpretations.? Although I did not attempt to verify my hypothesis by checking Henry's recordings before and after the meeting, but I took it to mean that he associated treble single string playing with Lonnie and associated an approach with more bass string and rhythmic features with Scrapper.


Re Jesse Thomas.? Just so!
« Last Edit: January 06, 2006, 11:05:00 AM by MTJ3 »

Online Johnm

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #4 on: January 05, 2006, 06:06:07 PM »
Hi all,
Thanks for your responses.? I know what you mean, MTJ3, about the difficulty in determining what constitutes a "marker" (I like that term) of Lonnie Johnson's influence.? Like you, I would be disinclined to consider the simple fact of use of diminished sevenths on the top four strings a "marker" of Lonnie's influence; it could just as easily be attributed to Blake's influence, and I don't think Blake got it from Lonnie.? Moreover, many of the guitarists used a partial diminished seventh on the top three strings, sort of a D7 shape moved up the neck, rather than a true four-note diminished seventh.? The partial makes for the more kind of rough-hewn sound that you remarked upon in Ishmon Bracey's playing ( I actually prefer it to the smoother sound of the true diminished seventh.). I would consider the use of Lonnie's signature lick descending fill as a marker of his influence, most particularly when it is played in a position other than D, where Lonnie played it--why play an exact copy of a run habitually played by a popular player unless you particularly admire it and want to add it to your own bag of tricks?? In addition, any playing based on Lonnie's playing in E in his melodic accompaniments of Texas Alexander can be spotted a mile away, because Lonnie's approach was so original and so his own.? It's sort of like Joseph Spence--the only people who sound like Spence are those who are copying him.
In a way, I think the most telling marker, apart from particular licks obviously drawn from Lonnie, is a sense that a musician is taking special care in the making of his notes and tone production.? I sense this most strongly in the Ramblin' Thomas and Willie Reed cuts I cited, for Thomas and Reed were not always (especially Reed) notably clean players.? All of a sudden, though, on "Jig Head", Ramblin' Thomas's tone is sumptuous, and he voices each single string line or chord with a beautiful clarity.? Similarly, on "Leavin' Home", Willie Reed's sound has a control and focus it lacks on the funkier "Dreaming Blues" or "Texas Blues" (both great, but very different).? I suspect that what musicians of his era admired most about Lonnie's playing is the same thing most non-musicians would admire most:? his tone.? It really was spectacular, and even in "hard" musics like Jazz and blues, a beautiful tone is much-admired.? I think Lonnie made people aware that the guitar could function as something other than a simple rhythm instrument or chord box.?
As an afterthought, I think Clifford Gibson was very influenced by Lonnie Johnson, both in his singing and in his playing.? And coming up in St. Louis when he did,? he must have heard Lonnie quite a lot.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: January 06, 2006, 11:49:40 AM by Johnm »

Offline MTJ3

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #5 on: January 23, 2006, 03:21:27 PM »
This is a very impressionistic judgment, but it strikes me that the instrumental introduction to Lowell Fulson's "River Blues, Pt.2," recorded in 1946, exhibits a very strong Lonnie Johnson influence. This influence is made more evident by the contrast with Fulson's other solos, which tended to have a "deeper" sound relying very heavily on a minor pentatonic approach.
« Last Edit: January 23, 2006, 09:38:38 PM by MTJ3 »

Online Johnm

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #6 on: January 24, 2006, 12:39:27 PM »
Hi MTJ3,
Is the Lowell Fulson "River Blues, Part 2" you cite included on the new JSP Lowell Fulson set?  I was wondering where to find it.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #7 on: January 24, 2006, 12:59:36 PM »
it strikes me that the instrumental introduction to Lowell Fulson's "River Blues, Pt.2," recorded in 1946, exhibits a very strong Lonnie Johnson influence.
I've just given a listen and it does indeed. I have been hunting high and low to find an interview conducted with LF in July 1969 (first visit to UK) in which he was asked about River Blues and I'm sure he said he took his inspiration from Texas Alexander's Penitentiary Moan which, of course, has Lonnie in arttendance. Wasn't the Fulson later copied by both Smokey Hogg and Lightnin' Hopkins as Penitentiary Blues? The memory ain't what it was.

Offline MTJ3

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #8 on: January 24, 2006, 06:08:54 PM »
Johnm, I don't know about the contents of the JSP set.  You should be able to find "River Blues, Pt. 2" on at least Arhoolie "My First Recordings" and the Proper "Introduction to Lowell Fulson."  (I would post an mp3 of the song, but I'm neither clever enough nor young enough to know how.)

Bunker Hill, LF was evidently TA's accompanist for some time before the war, so the LJ influence could have been a direct byproduct of that, if not a necessity (assuming that TA may have expected that a certain song have a certain type of accompaniment). I haven't heard Lightnin's "Penitentiary Blues" (which I am familiar with only from the Charters recording) for quite a while, but his Buddy Russell reference and reference to being on the river (Brazos for LH, as I recall) in 1910 also appear in LF's lyrics.

Offline Stuart

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #9 on: January 24, 2006, 08:44:35 PM »
John:

Here's the track list to the Lowell Fulson JSP set:

DISC 1:
1. Crying Blues (Crying Won't Make Me Stay)
2. You're Gonna Miss Me (When I'm Gone)
3. Miss Katy Lee Blues
4. Rambling Blues
5. Fulson Blues
6. San Francisco Blues
7. Crying Blues
8. You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone
9. Miss Katie Lee Blues
10. Rambling Blues
11. Fulson's Blue
12. San Francisco Blues
13. Trouble Blues
14. I Want To See My Baby
15. Black Widow Spider Blues
16. Don't Be So Evil
17. I Want To See My Bbay - (alternate take)
18. Don't Be So Evil - (alternate take)
19. Scotty's Blues
20. Train Is Leaving, The
21. Jelly, Jelly
22. Mean Woman Blues
23. 9.30 Shuffle
24. Thinkin' Blues
25. Fulson Boogie
26. Mean Woman Blues
27. Thinkin' Blues
28. Tryin' To Find My Baby
DISC 2:
1. Let's Throw A Boogie Woogie
2. Highway 99
3. Whiskey Blues
4. Tell Me Baby
5. Fulson Boogie
6. Highway '99'
7. Trying To Find My Baby
8. Midnight Showers Of Rain
9. So Long, So Long
10. Wee Hours In The Morning
11. My Gal At Eight
12. Blues Got Me Down, The
13. Black Cat Blues
14. Just A Poor Boy
15. Sweet Jenny Lee
16. My Baby
17. Television Blues
18. Don't You Hear Me Calling You
19. Demon Woman(= I Had A Little Woman 7110 Also= Hear Me Calling You (Angel Smile 7007)
20. Tears At Sunrise
21. Jam That Boogie
22. Blues And Misery
23. My Woman Can't Be Found
24. Three O'Clock Blues
25. Wild About You Baby
26. Prison Bound
27. My Baby Left Me
DISC 3:
1. Night And Day
2. Double Troubl Blues
3. Stormin' And Rainin'
4. Good Woman Blues
5. Western Union Blues
6. Lazy Woman Blues
7. River Blues Part 1
8. River Blues Part 2
9. I Walked All Night
10. Between Midnight And Day
11. Blues Is Killing Me, The
12. Did You Ever Feel Lucky
13. Ain't Nobody's Business
14. Jimmy's Blues (I've Got A Mind To Ramble)
15. Every Day I Have The Blues
16. Rocking After Midnight
17. Rock This House - (alternate take)
18. Cold Hearted Mama
19. Mama Bring Your Clothes Back Home
20. Low Society Blues
21. Blue Shadows
22. Back Home Blues
23. Baby Won't You Jump With Me
24. Come Back Baby
25. Country Boy
26. Rainy Day Blues
27. Miss Lillie Brown
28. Sinner's Prayer - (+ 7001 Alt)
DISC 4:
1. Sinner's Prayer - (alternate take)
2. Blues With A Feelin'
3. Why Can't You Cry For Me
4. Let Me Ride In Your Little Automobile
5. Lonesome Christmas Part 1
6. Lonesome Christmas Part 2
7. I'm A Night Owl Part 1
8. I'm A Night Owl Part 2
9. Fillmore Mess Around (= Fulson's Guitar Boogie)
10. Let's Live Right
11. Guitar Shuffle (= The Day Is Passing On)
12. Mean Old Lonesome Song
13. Day Is Slowly Passing, The - (alternate take)
14. Highway Is My Home, The (= Why Can't You Cry For Me)
15. Upstairs
16. I Love My Baby
17. I've Been Mistreated
18. You're Going To Miss Me When I'm Gone - (alternate take)
19. I've Been Mistreated (Diff Song)
20. It's Hard To Believe - (alternate take)
21. Ride Until The Sun Goes Down
22. Christmas Party Shuffle
23. Blues Come Rolling In, The
24. My Daily Prayer
25. Juke Box Shuffle (= 9:30 Shuffle)
26. Is Your Friend Really Your Friend
27. Let Me Love You Baby
28. Cash Box Boogie (Aka Lowell Jumps One)
29. Market Street Blues
30. Best Wishes

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #10 on: January 24, 2006, 11:49:02 PM »

Bunker Hill, LF was evidently TA's accompanist for some time before the war, so the LJ influence could have been a direct byproduct of that, if not a necessity (assuming that TA may have expected that a certain song have a certain type of accompaniment).

Here's how he remembered Alexander for Max Jones of the Melody Maker in 1969. In later interviews he stated his period with TA was 1939-40:

Fulson spent part of his youth travelling in Texas, serving an apprenticeship in the group which accompanied the then popular blues singer, Texas Alexander. He told me that this was a decisive point in his career.

"If it hadn?t been for him I guess I wouldn't have ever sung the blues. I played country music before I learned blues. Well, my first experience was with Dan Wright's String Band, and that wasn't no blues band.

"It was a ten-piece band and really it played jazz and dance tunes. If they played a blues it would be a well known tune like 'St Louis Blues,' nothing like I heard with Texas Alexander.

"You know, I just admired that man. When I met him I called myself pretty polished by then on guitar. The year with him taught me how to really play the blues.

"He was a man who could walk into this bar and start singing, with no accompaniment whatever, and capture everyone's attention. You'd have to listen. He had a deep voice, kind of hoarse all the time. I never heard another quite like it.

"Lightnin' Hopkins reminds me quite a bit of him, they're cousins you know, but Alexander's voice was deeper better. And a funny thing was, he barely opened his mouth. Yet the tone he got, man, I never heard anything better."

And what was Texas Alexander like as a man.

"Same thing. He was a real soft, easy man. He was a little guy, you know, and he spoke real soft. I never saw him open his mouth wide. You had to get up real close to him to hear what he was saying. "We toured for about a year, Texas and me, and it was a good year for me. I learned about the blues from him. We'd wait for harvest and then go into the towns, you know, and play for the farm workers."

Online Johnm

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #11 on: January 25, 2006, 04:50:31 PM »
Thanks to MTJ3, Stuart and Bunker HIll for all the information.  It sounds like I will need to get at least the Arhoolie CD and maybe the JSP set.  One thing I certainly agree with Lowell Fulson on is that Texas Alexander was an amazingly gifted singer.  What tone! 
All best,
Johnm

Offline MTJ3

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #12 on: February 03, 2006, 09:56:19 PM »
Try listening to Blind Boy Fuller's "You Can Never Tell," recorded in 1937.  Although the guitar accompaniment is played in C, I have always thought that I heard in it variations on or BBF's version of LJ's signature lick and vamp.

Offline frankie

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #13 on: February 04, 2006, 03:40:23 AM »
Try listening to Blind Boy Fuller's "You Can Never Tell," recorded in 1937.  Although the guitar accompaniment is played in C, I have always thought that I heard in it variations on or BBF's version of LJ's signature lick and vamp.

Agreed - it's got BBF's twist on it, but I think it's definitely an imitation of LJ, and like some many of BBF's imitations, kinda interesting in its own right.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Influence of Lonnie Johnson
« Reply #14 on: February 04, 2006, 05:45:51 AM »
This reminds me of the first time I ever saw the names Blind Boy Fuller and Lonnie Johnson being mentioned in the same sentence. It was in the opening words to the chapter on Fuller in The Country Blues:

"There was a sensual side to the 'thirties, and the strain of coarse 'party blues' was widened and carried to even greater excess than in the late 'twenties. The Vocalion lists, which included Big Bill and Robert Johnson, also included Blind Boy Fuller, and there was no other major blues singer, except perhaps Lonnie Johnson, who sang as much coarse material as Fuller. He seemed to have a taste for vulgarity that gave his recordings a kind of leering fascination. It was like listening to dirty stories told with style and imagination. Between July, 1935, and June, 1940, Fuller recorded 123 blues for the American Recording Corporation's Vocalion, Melotone, Conqueror and Perfect labels, many of them crudely suggestive. Fuller was a good blues singer and an exciting guitarist, and he sang dozens of blues that were less vulgar, but he was for Vocalion what Bo Carter was for Bluebird, a 'party blues' singer."

As a young blues neophyte Sam Charters certainly got my attention with that gambit.... :)

 


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