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Author Topic: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson  (Read 3216 times)

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Online Johnm

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #15 on: June 10, 2019, 06:08:30 PM »
Hi all,
One thing that I think would be really interesting, and I don't know if they get into it in the book, would be discussion of recorded renditions, obviously influenced by Robert Johnson, that were made by other musicians either prior to the first Columbia re-issue, or by musicians who almost certainly never heard and could not have been influenced by the Columbia re-issues.  I'm thinking of Johnny Shines' "Ramblin'", a couple of Calvin Frazier performances and a Smoky Babe piece or two.  Smoky Babe had some of Robert Johnson's sound in Spanish tuning DOWN, impressively, a la "Terraplane Blues".  I think these early indications of a musical influence coming from Robert Johnson are fascinating because they pre-date the hype that began after the first Columbia re-issue.  It may be that the book focuses more exclusively on Robert Johnson himself, though.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Rivers

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #16 on: June 11, 2019, 05:26:12 AM »
That's an interesting idea.

Offline waxwing

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #17 on: June 11, 2019, 07:21:28 AM »
Johnm-
I quibbled with Elijah Wald up at PT one summer because in his RJ book he rushed to claim Johnson had no influence in the day and never once mentioned Robert Lockwood, who went on to play the King Biscuit radio show and influence many players at the time just after RJ's death. He cited pressure from publishers to create a controversy.

I met Robert Junior at an SF Blues Fest shortly before his death. Carefully not mentioning Johnson once, I asked him what he felt his greatest contribution was and he stated that he brought jazz chords to the blues. I thought it ironic tho that we were on the west coast where post war blues pretty much was jazz at that time. None the less, I think Lockwood was undeniably a stream of Robert Johnson influence.

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Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #18 on: June 11, 2019, 07:47:25 AM »
There's nothing in the book about recordings after Johnson's death.

The only discussion I'm familiar with is in the liner notes by Neil Slaven  to the JSP box-set The Road to Robert Johnson And Beyond.

CDs C and D contain the Lomax recordings of Muddy Waters, which are only marginally relevant, and selected recordings of Robert Lockwood, Calvin Frazier, Robert Lee McCoy, Big Joe Williams, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Little Walter, Elmore James, Homesick James, Baby Boy Warren. Finally there are eleven tracks by the obscure Blind Willie Dukes who recorded in Detroit in 1975 ? with the dubious claim that he'd been taught by Johnson himself. It looks as if he'd learnt the songs from records ? quite possibly an LP or LPs.

I checked  Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta, but his historical interests after Johnson's death are firstly how Black musicians  moved in a different direction and secondly how White musicians latched on to him.

(Written before i saw waxwing's posting.)

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #19 on: June 11, 2019, 08:12:11 AM »
...he rushed to claim Johnson had no influence in the day and never once mentioned Robert Lockwood, who went on to play the King Biscuit radio show and influence many players at the time just after RJ's death.

Actually, he did mention Lockwood, but as an example of departure from the idiom of the solo singer-guitarist

Quote from: Elijah Wald
As Muddy Waters remembered it, "Several boys around there could use the slide and  I'd say that they were just as good as Robert Johnson, the only thing about it is they never had a chance to get a record out." When we listen to Johnson, we are hearing the cream of a large crop, and that particular crop was not playing that way even a decade after his death. By the 1940s, those young  men were joining jump combos, as Robert Lockwood did.

Offline jpeters609

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #20 on: June 11, 2019, 12:01:44 PM »
Calvin Frazier, who played with Robert Johnson and whose 1938 Library of Congress recordings (made in Detroit) are some of the closest examples of Johnson's playing style, likewise stopped playing in that fashion on his few postwar recordings from the 50s. On those later recordings, he has become a through-and-through T-Bone Walker emulator (and was advertised as such in contemporary newspaper ads). Much to our loss, as his '38 recordings, though very much in the Johnson style, were not slavish imitations. Rather, they felt original and fresh and more vital than his later commercial records, which indeed sound very much like recordings with commercial intentions.
« Last Edit: June 11, 2019, 12:05:23 PM by jpeters609 »
Jeff

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #21 on: June 12, 2019, 05:23:08 AM »
Calvin Frazier, who played with Robert Johnson...
What Up Jumped the Devil brings out is how little anybody played with him ? in performance anyway. Frazier, Lockwood and Shines travelled with him as companions ? 'disciples' may not be too strong a word ? and shared gigs. They performed when he wan't performing.

This chimes with another thing the book brings out ? that he developed his guitar technique to serve instead of an accompanying piano and/or second guitar. All the guitar couldn't supply was extra volume. This must partly explain his devotion to small country jukes when there must have been more money to be made in the cities

Online Johnm

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #22 on: June 12, 2019, 06:44:35 AM »

This chimes with another thing the book brings out ? that he developed his guitar technique to serve instead of an accompanying piano and/or second guitar. All the guitar couldn't supply was extra volume. This must partly explain his devotion to small country jukes when there must have been more money to be made in the cities

This observation presupposes that Robert Johnson's guitar technique was different in its design and particulars than the techniques of his contemporaries playing in the same style.  Particulars of technique always vary from player to player.  Conceptually, though, Robert Johnson's technique was not notably different from most other players in the style--it was designed to equip him to perform as a solo act, accompanying himself.  Such an approach is in no way remarkable.  One of the prime incentives for being able to perform as a soloist is not having to split the money from a gig with any other musicians.  And when one considers the extent to which Robert Johnson's playing in some instances was so heavily indebted to recorded performances by Lonnie Johnson and Scrapper Blackwell, it's hard to view his approach to playing as being exactly revolutionary or altogether new.
All best,
Johnm

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #23 on: June 12, 2019, 05:33:58 PM »
This observation presupposes that Robert Johnson's guitar technique was different in its design and particulars than the techniques of his contemporaries playing in the same style.

They don't presuppose, John. They do argue the case. Of course, they could be wrong, but the book is a seriously considered  piece of work.

Quote
One of the prime incentives for being able to perform as a soloist is not having to split the money from a gig with any other musicians. 

And yet he chose repeatedly to split the gig and the money ? with musicians who were perfectly equipped to play with him, except that he told them not to.

Offline jharris

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #24 on: June 13, 2019, 08:18:23 AM »
John makes some very good points, in particular the influence of Lonnie Johnson. So, I've read the book and here's a few thoughts:

Firstly this is a very well written book with impressive research that seems to draw on every important source written about Johnson. They also make the most of available official documentation, mining a wealth of information from marriage, land and census documents. No problems on this front but I do have a few quibbles.

This is being touted as the "definitive" Robert Johnson book but it can't be since, as far as I can tell, they never read Mack McCormick's unpublished Robert Johnson biography. Sure Mack was interviewed, but he was notorious for keeping his research under wraps so I'm sure there's plenty he didn't divulge. Along with this is the 3rd Robert Johnson photo that has never been published.

The authors do a good job deflating the myths around Johnson but also play into a bit. Going back to John's point, they write on a few occasions something to the effect that due to his guitar prowess it shouldn't be suprising that his peers might think there was something supernatural about his abilities. So why Robert Johnson and not someone like Lonnie Johnson who was virtually unmatched as a blues guitarist and also had devil imagery in his songs? More information about RJ's influences and the guitar players during this period would have provided better context.

Speaking of context, one thing that was lacking was the racial climate RJ operated in. This is mentioned in passing but considering RJ's constant ramblings, particularly in Mississippi in the 20's and 30's, I felt more context on the Jim Crow era should have been included. This is something of a trend in blues writing, a whitwashing of history that is far too common.

Lastly I would have liked more information on the development of RJ's songs. They talk about him playing mainly covers early on but not much on how he developed his impressive repertoire of songs by by time he got in the studio.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #25 on: June 13, 2019, 02:15:44 PM »

So why Robert Johnson and not someone like Lonnie Johnson who was virtually unmatched as a blues guitarist and also had devil imagery in his songs?

Sheer emotional intensity and drive, I suspect.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #26 on: June 13, 2019, 02:35:38 PM »
Thanks, Jeff. I'm waiting for my turn for the book at the library. I agree that John makes some excellent points about RJ's guitar playing. Those of us who figured out RJ's songs decades ago and have listened to recordings that pre-dated RJ's (now made easier with the "Roots of RJ" compilations and Woody Mann's book) understand that while his recordings demonstrate an accomplished self-contained style, he certainly had plenty of company and did not stand alone.

My favorite RJ recording is "They're Red Hot." It's almost against type and gives some insight into the fact that his repertoire wasn't limited to "straight Blues" (whatever that means). I wish he had recorded many more songs like "They're Red Hot." I'm sure what he recorded was filtered through the A&R people. One can only speculate...

Offline Stuart

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #27 on: June 13, 2019, 02:47:11 PM »

So why Robert Johnson and not someone like Lonnie Johnson who was virtually unmatched as a blues guitarist and also had devil imagery in his songs?

Sheer emotional intensity and drive, I suspect.

I think you have to look at the complete package--vocals and guitar. In some of the songs, the vocals seem to elevate his playing in a way that wouldn't be there if one could listen to them as pure instrumentals.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #28 on: June 13, 2019, 03:19:41 PM »
The best RJ impression I've ever seen was in a PT workshop with none other than Steve James. Pressured by the rowdies in the room, me included, he covered some RJ stuff and discussed the pitching of the recordings. I've seen Steve many times since then and he's never tried to get close to a Robert Johnson tune in public.

On that occasion he closed his eyes and made a hellacious racket capoed up high on his wood body reso and singing his head off. Sounded closer to the recordings than anything I'd heard before or since. When he finished he was slumped in his chair, sweating and clearly drained, said he didn't try to do that stuff very often!

As I remember it we all applauded long and loud. Or maybe we sat there in stunned silence. Either would have been appropriate. Anyone here remember that?
« Last Edit: June 13, 2019, 03:41:07 PM by Rivers »

Offline Stuart

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Re: Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson
« Reply #29 on: June 13, 2019, 03:58:45 PM »
I was at a workshop with Son House in the early 70s. I sat about three feet in front of him. Talk about intensity. When he was finished, I was sweating and emotionally drained. He was a little over 70 and it was apparent a life of alcoholism had definitely taken its toll. I can hardly imagine what he must have been like forty years earlier when he was in his prime.

 


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