The story of how an entirely obscure, itinerant black musician who in a recording career spanning eight months produced one minor regional hit, who died in 1938 at the age of twenty-seven and who languished in almost complete obscurity for twenty-three years before becoming one of most influential musicians of the 1960’s is a tale that can be viewed through many different lenses. Some may see it as a series of lucky accidents; others as support for the belief that the work of the true artist will eventually penetrate the collective consciousness when the time is right, as it did for William Blake and Emily Dickinson.
While there are many theories of history, the two that dominate modern consciousness are the largely Western view that history is a linear narrative of human progress, and the Eastern view that history is a series of cyclical patterns: what goes around comes around. In the narrative view, history is shaped to make sense, and as more facts become available through research, the more sense we can make of it . . . or so it is believed.
Neither theory is very helpful in understanding Robert Johnson’s rise to fame. Cyclical theory is a classic example of human beings trying to simplify chaos by attaching structure to happenstance. The narrative theory falls short because Robert Johnson’s narrative remains full of holes and contradictory evidence. The man himself appears to have been a walking contradiction, making it even more challenging to define his essence.
The truth is that we shape history through our perceptions, just like we shape our understanding of everything else. The brilliant musicologist Elijah Wald said it best in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: “There are no definitive histories because the past keeps looking different as the present changes.”
We do know that Robert Johnson had virtually no influence on the development of black music. As Wald wrote in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues, “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.” Son House met him when he was still learning how to play (and once after Johnson had allegedly made his legendary pact with the devil); Muddy Waters may have heard him play around Clarksville. The absence of Robert Johnson covers in the 1940’s and 1950’s speak volumes about his lack of influence.
Everything changed when in 1961 Columbia released King of the Delta Blues Singers, the first compilation of Robert Johnson’s meager recording output. That release coincided with two emerging movements: the folk revival in the United States and the nascent interest in American blues in the U. K. John Hammond gave a new kid on the Columbia block named Bob Dylan an advance copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers and Dylan was stunned by the sheer intensity of the music. Eric Clapton would come to recognize Robert Johnson as “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”
Musical influence is also subject to human perceptual biases and limitations, and many “influential” musicians and recordings often prove to be disappointing listening experiences—things we’re “supposed to like” because some expert said it was “influential.” I’ve listened to many “influential” albums that register a zero on my aesthetic pleasure meter, and after getting over the “what the hell is wrong with me” phase, I’m more pissed off than anything else—pissed off because I distrusted my own instincts and submitted to the power of the expert.
What separates Robert Johnson from the rest of the influential pack is his unusual ability to grab and hold the listener with just his guitar, his voice and his poetry. Robert Johnson is one of the few artists I can never play in the background, because he insists on leaping into the foreground. When I hear one of his guitar intros or the sound of his voice, I stop everything I’m doing and just listen.
Every year, usually in the darker winter months, I go into a blues jag, an annual ritual that helps me reconnect with both my real self and the things in life that really matter. I immerse myself in blues and listen to nothing but blues for a couple of weeks. When I sense the time has come, I turn off all phones, computers and lights, lock myself in my room and listen to The Complete Recordings straight through until the end. I immerse myself in Robert Johnson, shutting off the analytical side of the brain to experience the music on an emotional-intuitive level. I let go of the need to control the moment and, for two hours, I let his music fill my soul—music that consists only of a voice and a guitar, sparsely recorded with unimaginably primitive technology, but some of the most deeply engaging music I have ever heard.
The remainder of the jag is filled with the music of other great blues artists, from Memphis Minnie to Muddy Waters. When I feel my soul has been cleansed from the particles of bullshit I accumulate by living a life in a largely unreal, impersonal world, I end the jag in the same way I started it: The Complete Recordings.
There are two competing “complete collections.” The one I chose to review is Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, released in 1990. A more recent collection, The Complete Recordings (Centennial Collection), came out in 2011. The latter has been praised for its improved sound quality, most noticeable in the clarity of voice and guitar. Unfortunately, manipulating the frequencies to get that clarity sacrificed the lower frequencies, and I prefer music with a strong bottom. The content of the two collections is virtually the same right down to the alternate takes, so you may want to sample both to determine which is more compatible with your ears, headphones and speakers.
I should disclose one bias before I begin the review. Although his personal history remains sketchy, it is amply clear that Robert Johnson loved fucking, smoking and drinking. As readers of this blog know, I too love fucking, smoking and drinking. I will do my best to avoid allowing our sensual compatibility to interfere with my judgment.
“Kindhearted Woman Blues” was a fine selection for the opening track, as it demonstrates Robert Johnson’s willingness and ability to deviate from blues norms and structures in ways that enhance the drama of the tale he aims to tell. 6/4 time is the dominant time signature (though he varies that as well), and there are different but complementary melodies on the first and second verses. In the bridge—oh my fucking god the bridge—he changes not only the chord pattern but the timbre of his voice to reflect competing and contradictory emotions. In the opening lines, he sounds like a man attempting to remain emotionally distant, underscored by the narrative shift to third-person:
Ain’t but one thing
Makes Mr Johnson drink
It’s worried bout how you treat me baby
I begin to think
Then he breaks, emotionally and aurally, by shifting to falsetto, the cry of a humiliated, beaten man:
Oh my babe, my life don’t feel the same
You breaks my heart,
When you call me Mr So and So’s name
What follows the bridge is Robert Johnson’s only extended guitar solo, where he demonstrates the balanced attention to rhythm and melody that made Keith Richards think there were two guys playing instead of one. Even more impressive to me is how he’ll be singing a verse and for a line or two and then break the bass rhythm to accompany his singing with a harmonic counterpoint on the guitar. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that these recordings were single-track recordings with no overdubs.
“I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” will likely be one of the most accessible numbers for rockers due to its classic boogie rhythm and the triplet attack that forms the main riff; others may be familiar with Elmore James’ fiery “Dust My Broom.” Robert Johnson gives a stand-up performance, but like others, I’m even more fascinated by the geographical references at the end of the song. To any black person living in the Delta during the 30’s, China, Ethiopia and The Philippines were as distant as Pluto, and just as mysterious.
Colorful and confusing geographical references also dominate “Sweet Home Chicago,” a Johnson adaptation of a song about Kokomo that has been covered by a slew of blues and rock artists. The confusion about the lyrics is found in the chorus:
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
To my sweet home Chicago
I guarantee you that you won’t find anything like Chicago anywhere in the Golden State, so what was Robert Johnson thinking? Were the syllables of Chicago are a touch more mellifluous than those of Kokomo? As with everything having to do with Robert Johnson, there are several competing theories. One argues that Johnson may have been referring to Port Chicago, California, a town that ceased to exist in the late 1960’s and was famous for the massive explosion at the Naval Munitions Depot in July 1944 that killed over 300 people (many of them African-Americans) and the subsequent Port Chicago Mutiny. I can’t buy that theory because everything in Robert Johnson’s life indicated that he liked to be where the action was, and Port Chicago was buttfucksville in the middle of nowhere, far from the sin-infested environs of San Francisco. I’m more partial to the theory that the words are the deliberate expression of a man who loved to ramble, a rattling-off of places on his bucket list. As for the music . . . that “ohhhhh” that opens the early renditions of the chorus comes through loud and clear as a passionate longing for the open road, and the steady driving guitar mirrors his constitutional impatience to keep moving, moving, moving. And lo and behold, the next song is “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” where he feels the need to hightail it because “I got mean things on my mind,” a line he repeats several times and forms most of the last verse. The cause of those “mean things” is mistreatment by a woman, a common occurrence in Johnson’s songs, something I’ve always interpreted as psychological justification to dump a broad who no longer holds his interest.
While Robert Johnson was very likely the oats-sowing rogue, there was another side to his personality capable of empathy for the plight of women in a world dominated by cruel, heartless men like him. Johnson was a man of extremes, a man who beat women and loved them, a man who saw the opposite sex as potential enemies and possible friends. The contradiction is played out in the opening verses of “When You Got a Good Friend.”
When you got a good friend that will stay right by your side (2)
Give her all of your spare time
Love and treat her right
I mistreated my baby and I can’t see no reason why (2)
Every time I think about it
I just wring my hands and cry
Johnson sings this song with even more intensity than usual, and his expression of guilt comes across as deeply sincere.
The two takes of “Come On in My Kitchen” couldn’t be more different, and I have a strong preference for the original because the slower tempo allows the listener to savor both the performance and the poetry. The metaphors of winter and the howling wind reflect the cold, indifferent world of human affairs, and Johnson fully understood that the storms fall hardest on women:
When a woman gets in trouble
Everybody throws her down
Lookin’ for her good friend
None can be found
His performance of that verse seems suspended in time, an effect enhanced by the chord change on the third line. The use of monosyllables in the final line enhances the bleak finality of the fallen woman’s condition in society, and Johnson intensifies the effect by singing those words in a quiet, almost apologetic tone, the kind of tone you use to deliver bad news to a dear friend. While many listeners consider the song a seduction song—and sex was never far from Robert Johnson’s mind—the impact the song had on listeners, as described by traveling companion Johnny Shines in Jas Obrecht’s Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music, confirms the more empathetic interpretation:
One time in St, Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come On In My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying—both women and men.
The chorus is an invitation for the woman to come into his kitchen, a role-swapping offer that would have been practically unimaginable in an era where the woman’s place was in the kitchen. Here Johnson takes on the nurturing role usually assigned to the mother, an unusually empathetic and courageous shift for a man to take:
Winter time’s comin’
It’s gonna be slow
You can’t make the winter babe
That’s dry long so
You’d better come on in my kitchen
Babe it going to be rainin’ outdoors
The brief aside where he whispers, “Can’t you hear the wind howl?” then replicates the sound of the wind on his guitar is one of my most cherished moments in music. As on many of his songs, he is unafraid to depart from the standard 12-bar pattern when the moment requires it. “Come On in My Kitchen” is one of Robert Johnson’s essential works, a stunning display of artistry and human sensitivity.
“Terraplane Blues” was Robert Johnson’s biggest hit, an extremely modest hit at that. A Terraplane was a car built by Hudson in the 1930’s, and in penning this number, Robert Johnson added his name to the long list of American songsmiths who have used cars and driving as sexual metaphors. The story in the song is that Robert has come home after a long journey to find that his Terraplane (his squeeze) won’t start (get wet), a condition that can only mean that someone’s been driving his Terraplane (giving the babe the hard one) in his absence. He attempts to strut his stuff but he fails to get much of a reaction:
I even flash my lights mama
This horn won’t even blow
Got a short in this connection
Hoo-well, babe, its way down below
Refusing to concede defeat, Robert decides he’d better roll up his tongue, straighten his dick and get to work on the sweet spot just below the pubes:
I’m on get deep down in this connection
Hoo-well keep on tanglin with your wires
And when I mash down your little starter
Then your spark plug will give me a fire.
I would love to travel back in time and set up a face-off between Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie to see who could come up with the raunchiest song. That would be a hoot!
“Phonograph Blues” is a less obvious sex number, and with this piece, the alternate take is by far the more energetic and interesting. According to Songfacts, a gentleman named Alexander Baron discovered that Johnson used a “mysterious tuning” (E-B-E-A-C♯-E) that he also used on “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” The tuning makes it easier for him to play the triplets that drive the alternate take, but also demonstrates a drive to bend the guitar to his will.
“32-20 Blues” is modified from an earlier Skip James composition, and here Johnson goes to the same dark place that the moody Mr. James favored in much of his music. The lyrics express the “nobody fucks with me” attitude that characterizes many gun-loving American males, similar to Jimmie Rodgers’ threats against poor Thelma in “Blue Yodel T for Texas.”
And if she gets unruly
Thinks she don’t wan’ do
If she gets unruly
Thinks she don’t wan’ do
Take my 32-20 now and
Cut her half in two
While it’s hard for me not to be appalled by the casual acceptance of murder as a conflict resolution tool, I can try rationalize the violent instincts of both Johnson and Rodgers by chalking it up to the old excuse, “Well, they lived in a different era . . .” Unfortunately, the ethos of that era thrives in America today, as booming gun sales and NRA control of the political system demonstrate. Since I’ve given up believing that Americans will ever leave the Wild West, I have to recognize these songs for what they are: true folk songs in the American tradition, and leave it at that.
At this point in the record, I need a colossal mood shift and Robert Johnson delivers with “They’re Red Hot.” I’ve always found Robert Johnson’s impatience with traditional 12-bar blues an exciting aspect of his work, but here he abandons the blues altogether with a ragtime pattern that is an absolute delight. His vocal is an amazing combination of rough growl, spoken word and octave leaps, all delivered at a hundred miles an hour. There is no question that he’s having a great time, but what is most tantalizing about this song is to speculate on how he might have influenced the blues had he lived longer and achieved fame, given his willingness to challenge convention.
I don’t know too many men who will confess to situational impotence in a public forum, but Robert Johnson stands up—well, no, he doesn’t stand up, literally speaking—and confesses that his inability to put up a stiff one has cost him his girl. In “Dead Shrimp Blues,” Robert attributes the limp dick to stress (“I couldn’t do nothin, till I got myself unwound”), a relatively common cause for this debilitating condition and most likely the reason “Dead Shrimp Blues” hasn’t become the theme song for Viagra commercials. Since a droopy stick is something most males would be terrified to own up to, this is one courageous song . . . with absolutely no marketing potential whatsoever.
The iconic “Cross Road Blues” proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only person who can truly do Robert Johnson songs justice is Robert Johnson. Cream’s heavy rock version kills the spirit of the song; Elmore James transformed it into another lost-my-baby blues number. The experience of listening to “Cross Road Blues” is hearing a fellow human being crying out in deep distress about a choice he has to make—a significant life choice where none of the available options present a clear way out of his dilemma. More than anything else, the song communicates that distress—the existential anguish, the fear of making the wrong choice, the disaster scenarios imagined when facing the potential consequences of a bad decision. You hear it in Robert Johnson’s timbre, deeply colored by his anxiety; you hear it in the impossibly complex rhythm that responds more to his emotional state than to metrical requirements; you hear it in the inherent uncertainty communicated by a slide guitar; you hear it in the intensely picked chords and notes. “Cross Road Blues” is a stark portrait of the man facing existential crisis, knowing no one will lend him a helping hand:
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”
Ooh, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooh-ee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by
Advice: next time you’re at the crossroads in your life, listen to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” It won’t provide you with answers, but it is always comforting to know that you’re not the only one who has felt exactly what you’re feeling.
Next the restless Mr. Johnson covers the Son House number, “Walking Blues,” throwing in a little Blind Lemon Jefferson into the lyrical mix. Of greater interest is “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” where Johnson borrows snatches from other Delta songs to tell the story of the convict lease system operating in the South at the turn of the century. The site EarlyBlues.com features a penetrating historical analysis of the song by Max Haymes. Johnson sings “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” from the perspective of the black convict forced to work for the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad, described by Haymes as a “horrific and barbarous” experience. Mr. Haymes’ most insightful contribution is to clarify the content of one key verse that is only rendered phonetically (and inaccurately) on the website for the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.
That cal (sic) ain’t been an’ seen,
Gal ain’t been an’ seen,
That gal ain’t been an’ seen, good Lord,
On that Gulfport Island Road.
Haymes writes, “A sense of anger appears in Johnson’s voice in this verse, as well it might. The words allude to undetected murders of black prisoners in the Southern penal system; a theme which keeps cropping up in the Blues.” The insistent rhythm Johnson uses to accompany his vocal expresses both urgency and outrage. Robert Johnson’s music is not often linked with social protest, giving “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” a special place in his catalog—and giving the listener greater appreciation of his reach.
The guitar work on “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” is a tour de force. Played at a much quicker tempo, Johnson is all over that fretboard, bending notes with lightning speed, inserting contrasting riffs and intense strums that seem to come from nowhere but never cause him to break the rhythm. If there’s one song on the record that qualifies Robert Johnson as a guitar virtuoso, this is it . . . although the pizzicato on the next track, “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is pretty damned impressive as well.
Several of the other songs in the collection reinforces Johnson’s major themes. “Stones in My Passway” is somewhat similar to “Cross Road Blues,” focusing more on the lack of clarity in the situation than personal anguish. “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” curiously celebrates his sexual prowess while he’s stuck in a losing streak (“But I haven’t got no sweet woman . . . boys, to be rollin’ this way.”) “From Four Till Late,” most famously covered very badly by Cream, is almost a country song in terms of feel, featuring the use of the I-VI7-II7-V7 chord pattern to add some variation to the typical blues pattern.
“Hellhound on My Trail” takes the rambling theme and turns it upside-down. As Ted Gioia put it, “now the trip takes on darker tones, the traveler is pursued.” The song itself is a variation of several pre-existing works, but what makes Johnson’s version stand out is his performance. The tone in his voice is of a man consumed with fear who has lost his capability for rational thought—he repeats several phrases in each verse like a man neurotically muttering to himself about the dangers that surround him:
I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worryin’ me, the day keeps worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
In the final verse he uses his slide to express the deep sense of foreboding he finds mirrored in nature:
I can tell the wind is risin’
The leaves tremblin’ on the tree, tremblin’ on the tree
The mood Robert Johnson creates in “Hellhound on My Trail” is almost frightening in its intensity, for it calls up those experiences we would most like to forget: the times when life seems to be conspiring against us at every turn, when we can’t do anything right. Ironically, hearing someone go to the darkest reaches of the soul proves to be a liberating experience, as it teaches us how easily our perceptions can be distorted through fear.
Thankfully, the lighter “Little Queen of Spades” and “Malted Milk” follow, palpably lightening the mood, as hot women and booze often do. The downsides of malt liquor are explored in “Drunken-Hearted Man,” where we’re not sure if Robert is speaking for himself or playing a role. The narrator attributes his downfall to a combination of a tough childhood and “no-goods women,” concluding that sin was his downfall. That doesn’t sound like the Robert Johnson I know and love, so either he was in a very bad mood that day or he’s playing a part.
“Me and the Devil Blues” deals with the darkest regions of a man’s soul: the possessive, dominant, fearful side that often leads a man to believe that he has the inalienable right to beat the shit out of a woman:
Early this mornin’ when you knocked upon my door (2)
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.”
Me and the Devil was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman until I get satisfied
The narrator of the song has a “learned helplessness” common to batterers . . . it’s usually the woman who caused him to cross the line . . . or “I don’t know what came over me.” In the closing verse, Johnson captures the equally prevalent self-loathing that often follows abuse and connects it to the ever-present Johnsonian desire to keep moving, to escape both self and consequences:
You may bury my body down by the highway side
(Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone)
You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride
Having served as a volunteer in domestic violence shelters for many years, I have deeply mixed feelings about this song. On one hand, the story is too sickeningly familiar, and calls up images of bruises, contusions and faces swollen beyond recognition. What I appreciate about the song is its brutal honesty and the depth of self-disclosure. We’ll never know for certain that Robert Johnson abused women, but the tough guy persona he displays in songs like “32-20 Blues” points in that direction.
“Stop Breaking Down Blues” is a bit more ambiguous on the subject, though the fact that the broad pulls a pistol on him reminds us it takes two to tango. Still, you can’t deny the confidence in his vocal as he shifts from a trash-talking rant to sotto voce undertones in a wink of an eye. As he belts out the blue notes, you can understand why so many artists have covered this song—it’s a song that you just gotta fucking sing!
“Traveling Riverside Blues” is a song title that would likely call up images of Huck and Jim on their doomed trip to Cairo, mais en contraire! This sucker is about all the poontang Mr. Johnson finds on his travels up and down river. But while he’s dickin’ ‘em in Vicksburg and bonkin’ ‘em in Tennessee, Robert has one hot babe in Friars Point who he says “hops all over me.” You go, girl! The hottest part of the song is the last verse, just as a climax should be:
Now you can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my…
(spoken) ’Til the juice run down my leg, baby, you know what I’m talkin’ about
You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg
(spoken) That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, now
But I’m goin’ back to Friars Point, if I be rockin’ to my head
Having learned that our lady of Friars Point is the mistress of the hand job, our mind wanders back to the curious verse where he hints at her appearance:
I ain’t gon’ to state no color, but her front teeth crowned with gold
I ain’t gon’ to state no color, but her front teeth is crowned with gold
She got a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul
A black man sticking it to a white woman in the 1930’s South would have considered himself damned fortunate to live to the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It’s entirely possible that he was engaging in stud jive, but something tells me Robert Johnson was a guy who liked to test the limits.
He was also a man who jumped between extremes—in “Honeymoon Blues” he proposes marriage to a girl named Betty Mae. The tension of the opposites within Robert Johnson—begging the Lord for mercy one minute, making deals with the devil the next—is one of the things I find most appealing about him. He is Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the comedy and the tragedy, the brutal lout and the tender, compassionate lover.
But most of all, Robert Johnson was a musical artist of the highest order, a man who synthesized the work of the many great blues artists who preceded him and raised the genre to the highest level. “Love in Vain Blues” is one of his greatest accomplishments, a sad and beautiful song about the emptiness one feels when the power of the love we feel for another is not enough to move the other to respond in kind. With his voice and through his lyrics, Robert Johnson expresses the essence of the experience—not only the feeling of utter loss but also the heightened perception of symbolic meaning in the immediate environment common to those experiencing grief:
When the train rolled up to the station
I looked her in the eye (2)
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome
And I could not help but cry
All my love’s in vain
When the train, it left the station
With two lights on behind (2)
Well, the blue light was my blues
And the red light was my mind
The only cover of a Robert Johnson song that I approve and adore is The Stones’ version of “Love in Vain.” Keith Richards’ decision to change the arrangement and give it a country feel avoided any direct comparisons to the original while respecting the essence of the song.
“Love in Vain” should have ended this collection—nothing can follow that song—but instead the compilers closed with two takes of “Milkcow Calf Blues.” No Robert Johnson performance is a waste of time, but after “Love in Vain” I’m spent and I don’t want to hear anything else.
We live in a world where music creation and performance is dominated by technological advances and electronic wizardry. Having given positive reviews to several technology-driven albums, I’m hardly a natural instrument purist. What I do believe is very few of the recordings made since Robert Johnson’s etched his voice and guitar onto wax compare with the sheer power of the music that came out of those two sections. The experience of listening to The Complete Recordings is intensely intimate, for a man is allowing you to peer into his heart and soul, the light and the darkness, the good and the evil. No other record I own can bring me in touch with my own essence, the light and darkness, the good and the evil . . . and for that I will be eternally grateful to the handsome man from Mississippi who died too young but whose music will live forever.
With the publication of the biographical study Woman with Guitar in the early 90’s, Memphis Minnie became a feminist cause celèbre. The sheer strength of her character and her insistence on playing, drinking and gambling with the boys thrilled feminists desperately in search of strong-woman role models.
Before I go off on my typical review-opening rant, I want to say that Memphis Minnie would serve as a great role model in many ways, but I have to confess I’m not a big fan of role-modeling. Putting aside that proviso, I think the feminist movement has a pathetic track record when it comes to role models, because as far as I can tell, the women they hold up as paragons are just guys without penises. Broads like Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel have only proven that women can be just as obtuse, limited, conventional, power-hungry and unimaginative as men. None of the so-called feminist role models challenge the assumptions of the current system, none argue for tearing it down and starting from scratch, and none show an ounce of the emotional intelligence that science has proven a distinct advantage of our gender. And as much as feminists squawk whenever a woman is branded a slut because of her desire to avoid pregnancy through one means or another, the feminist movement is as dry and sexless as a 90-year old spinster living in a house permanently buried under twelve feet of snow and ice. Nobody considers Hillary or Angela their idea of a good time. The women’s movement has become a massive repackaging effort—a pathetic attempt to try to sell the public on the notion that women can be as tough, as rational, as phony and as full of shit as their male counterparts.
I am fucking ashamed of my wimp-ass gender. The feminist view of the struggle is identical to that of The Jeffersons—women should have their piece of the pie, too. Feminists want women to be equal to men; I want women to be better than men. Why work your ass off to achieve the status quo? Can’t we do better than that?
End of rant.
Paul and Beth Garon, authors of Woman with Guitar, are feminist-socialists who attempt to interpret Minnie through a combination of Marxism and modern surrealism. While at times their analyses are interesting, and Paul Garon’s knowledge of blues is unquestionably impressive, the duo’s obsession with the surrealist connection often feels like they’re trying way too hard to connect Minnie to Magritte. What is really irritating is that while they acknowledge Minnie’s tremendous sexual appetite, they write about sex like feminist-Marxist clinicians, a tendency common in feminist writings. In commenting on the intensely erotic song “Bumble Bee,” they write:
But male singers also use stinging sex imagery to describe their lovers. If the “pain” in sex can be a function of male domination, how can we explain the male singers’ description of their female lovers in the same terms? Is not the pain actually located within the racist and sexist structures of human relationships? It is, of course, but we do not interact with “structures” themselves, but rather through our interactions with others. While the pain of erotic relations is embedded in the social structure, for the woman it is located and manifest in male domination, in the male demand and act. For the male singer, the pain is located in the female partner and the erotic act.
Getting hot? Didn’t think so. I had no idea that when I engage my partner in “interactions” and take a crop to her ass that I am merely acting out behavior that is embedded in the social structure, and that though I may pass myself off as a dominant woman, I am simply expressing male domination envy. Of course!
Well, fuck that shit. I’m not going to sterilize one of the most powerful erotic singers of all time. Memphis Minnie sung about fucking, not “interactions,” and her songs were grounded in life experience, not abstract social structures. She knew from early childhood that she didn’t want to work in the fields and ran away from home at the ripe old age of thirteen. She toured with the circus, busked on Beale Street, worked as a hooker and over the decades built a catalog that ranks with the best blues artists in history. Minnie could drink anyone under the table, chewed tobacco in her early years and partied like there was no tomorrow. A beautiful woman, she took pride in her beauty and the power it gave her, always making sure she was well-dressed and ready for any occasion. And though surrounded by men who grew up expecting blind subservience from their women, Minnie never let anyone fuck with her, especially aggressive types. “That woman was tougher than a man,” said Homesick James in Woman with Guitar. “No man was strong enough to mess with her.”
My kind of gal!
The best way to experience Memphis Minnie is not through the pages of a book or through modern feminist reinterpretations of a black woman’s experience in the early 20th century, but by listening to her music, where her command, her confidence and her unabashed eroticism is on full display. The Essential Recordings is a great listening experience, a set of forty of Minnie’s original compositions and collaborations from 1929 through the 40’s. Though she was often second-billed on the records due to the sexist norms of the time, she dominates the proceedings with the power of her voice and her guitar-picking mastery. Instead of my typical track-by-track approach, I’m going to focus on the “essentials of the essentials,” the songs that best demonstrate Minnie’s memorable personality and her undeniable talent in music and lyrics.
“Bumble Bee”: The version included in this collection is the 1929 Columbia version, from her first recording session with second hubby Kansas Joe. As the Garons point out, Minnie’s delivery is off and her guitar rather clunky, and it’s apparent that she felt the same way, for she re-recorded the song several times. The bumble bee is one of several euphemisms Minnie used for horny males and penises, often borrowing imagery from the animal kingdom. While the Garons engage in an elaborate interpretation of the symbol (that Minnie is making fun of the male obsession with penis size; or mocking the male belief that women can’t live without those big dicks), the lyrics contradict their hypotheses several times over. Why would she sing “it got me to the place, hate to see my bumble bee leave home” if she wasn’t getting any satisfaction from a hard one?
Give feminists an inch, they’ll call it a phallic symbol.
What I hear and read is a woman who knows how to handle a man and get them to perform exactly to her specifications. She also knows that when a man is a bad mood it’s because he needs to rebalance his testosterone levels with a good fuck:
I can’t stand to hear him, buzz, buzz, buzz
Come in, bumble bee, want you to stop your fuss.
You’s my bumble bee and you know your stuff.
Oh, sting me bumble bee, until I get enough.
Note that the act is for the woman’s satisfaction, not the man’s: “until I get enough.” Yes, you have to flatter men and tell them what great fucks they are so the brains in their penises keep the blood flow going, but that’s the strategy of a dominant woman who’s in the mood for a hard cock and knows how to get it done, not a weak woman submitting to oppression. Minnie’s sexual songs and her relationships with her husbands show clearly that she knew how to navigate in a world where a woman had to pay tribute to the myth that men are in charge, but understood that men are often terribly insecure people burdened with the unreasonable and absurd expectation that they are supposed to be the superior sex. Minnie wants a man who can get her “to the place,” the experience of deep orgasm, but unfortunately, as she sings in another version of “Bumble Bee,” it’s a rare occurrence: “He had me to the place once, I wish to God that I could die.”
Once? Pretty common, I’m afraid. Too many guys are pounders who don’t understand the clitoris.
“Frankie Jean”: Not all Minnie’s songs were about sex. “Frankie Jean” is a talking blues about a horse Minnie loves to ride but who keeps running away. She asks for her papa’s advice on how to get her horse back, and he tells her “You must whistle when you want your horse to come to you.” This is a cue for Minnie to whistle away on two separate verses, and she’s a great whistler. She also shows she’s one hell of a guitar player, breaking the bouncy rhythm of the song to use her guitar to replicate the rhythm of a horse trotting. In the last verse, Minnie indulges in the fantasy of turning Frankie Jean into a race horse and betting $5000 on her in a display of female bravado. The Garons go nuts on their interpretation of this one, calling up surrealist paintings and the image of the woman on the horse as a metaphorical statement of liberation. I really don’t think Minnie needed anyone to tell her that she was liberated, and I don’t think she gave a damn about liberating anyone but herself—her personal struggle for recognition took a lot of energy all by itself.
“Nothing in Rambling”: This is the one that got me hooked on Minnie. Back in my wayward, slutty college days, when penises and pussies replaced music on my priority list, my dad gave me a CD called Legends of the Blues, Volume 1 for Christmas, hoping to rekindle my interest in music. It’s a wonderful sampler of many of the great early blues artists: Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Charley Patton, Son House—they’re all there. But the voice that grabbed me was Memphis Minnie’s, because she was singing metaphorically about my life experience at the time.
I was seriously fucking rambling. I must have fucked over 100 people during my college years, men and women aged 18-60, all the races and several ethnic varieties of horny humans in one-on-ones and groups. I lived one charmed life, never falling victim to VD, herpes, AIDS or even a yeast infection. Now that I am a virtual sexual paranoid, requiring background checks and medical tests before I even think of getting down with a new partner, I look back with amazement and gratitude that I made it through as clean as a whistle.
Minnie’s song has nothing to do with my kind of rambling, but folkloric rambling—the life of the hobo, the itinerant musician, the people hitting the road to find a better life somewhere else. It’s one of Minnie’s richest and most dramatic numbers, with cinema verité imagery. In the first two verses, when the folks she encounters on her travels tell her “Ain’t nothing in rambling/Either run around,” her response is the ironic and playful “Well, I’ll believe I’ll marry/Oooo, wooo, Lord, and settle down.” The tone belies the lyrics, as if Minnie thinks the idea of setting down is nonsense. However, the remaining verses present stronger arguments for exiting the life on the road:
I was walking through the alley with my hand in my coat
The police start to shoot me, thought it was something I stole
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .
Racial profiling is a modern catchword for a time-honored practice of police everywhere, and this apparently describes a real event that took place in Minnie’s travels (and I doubt it was a singular event). In the next verse, Minnie expands her social criticism to the unalleviated suffering of the migrants of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression:
The peoples on the highway is walking and crying,
Some is starving, some is dying.
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .
The last verse deepens the irony inherent in rambling: it’s a gamble, but when you’re poor, hungry and hopeless, what have you got to lose?
You may go to Hollywood and try to get on the screen,
But I’m gonna stay right here and eat these old charity beans.
You know it ain’t nothing in rambling . . .
As a black woman in the 1930’s, she had no chance of getting on the big screen in any meaningful way, and a much greater chance of getting shot down by the cops, beaten by johns or starving in the icy cold of a Midwestern winter. Given the evidence in her biography, she found a practical middle ground: take the hubby along with you when you ramble. What’s important here is Minnie’s remarkable self-awareness; she knows the risks, but goddamn if she’s going to let a little risk get in the way of getting what she wants.
“Jockey Man Blues”: A riff on Kokomo Arnold’s version of Sleepy John Estes’ “Milk Cow Blues” (later recorded by The Kinks), Minnie sings of her jockey in the same way she sang of her bumble bee: “My pretty papa’s a jockey and he sure don’t ride for fun.” The Garons resurrect their miniaturization-of-men interpretation, and fall flat once again. If true, then why does Minnie, waking up to an empty bed, sing “I’ve got the blues this morning, just as low as I can be” and later, “”Lord, since you went away and left me, I don’t want nobody else?” It’s more likely that Minnie’s deflation was simply a part of the experience of a dominant woman. Look. A dominant woman always has to deal with the cultural reality that males are ashamed to be seen as submissive, so they tend to run and hide from her to hide the culturally-induced shame they feel as a by-product of submission. That trash-talking macho shit they hear from the boys always interferes with the male desire to submit (hence the epithet “pussy-whipped”), and even when a man finds submission a deeply satisfying and transformative experience, it’s a better-than even chance that they’ll eventually slip away to avoid having to accept who they are. Minnie sings of the vanishing man in several of the songs on this collection, and since I and every other dominant woman I know have experienced the disappearing act, it is definitely real, but also one of those taboo subjects that languish in obscurity.
Someone should write a book . . .
“If You See My Rooster”: The Garons try to turn this song about sex into a Marxist message about labor and production. Shit, did those people ever fuck? This is a rollicking number repeating the disappearing man theme, with Minnie playing hot guitar over Black Bob’s steady piano. This one’s great for getting in the mood, or if you’re me, getting more in the mood than usual. I should acknowledge here that one reason why the disappearing man theme appears frequently in Minnie’s work is that the phenomenon was much more common in the African-American community, as there were other socio-economic factors in play in that culture.
“Me and My Chauffeur Blues”: Minnie’s biggest hit, recorded in 1941 is an expression of a very logical fantasy: if men are such wimps that they can’t take a strong woman, maybe it’s better to hire them when you need them. Her guitar work here is superb, with marvelous fills and sliding chords that hint at the sound of a steel guitar. Minnie’s voice soars on this number, as she eschews the growl and just belts it out with the energy of someone who knows she’s written one hell of a song.
“Black Cat Blues”: Minnie gives us another strong, confident vocal about a black cat who starts out as a rat-catcher and later becomes a euphemism for a sexual partner. Her lead solo is the centerpiece here, a nimble piece of work with a rocking feel very reminiscent of the rhythms Buddy Holly would create a couple of decades later. All of Minnie’s songs are intensely rhythmic, but this one rocks a bit more noticeably . . . as do my hips after about five seconds.
“Ice Man (Come on Up)”: Goddamn, I wish I would have written this song. This is so me! The most unapologetically explicit song in the collection, this is the theme song par excellence for the perpetually horny, dominant female.
I got an ice man in the spring, a coal man in the fall:
All I need now to get my ashes hauled.
I’m gonna strut my stuff,
I’m gonna strut my stuff,
I’m gonna strut my stuff everywhere I go . . .
Ice man, ice man, come on up
You know my box is hard to fill up
I’m gonna strut my stuff (2)
I’m gonna strut my stuff everywhere I go . . .
Minnie also knew how to set clear, inviolable boundaries for her lovers:
Ice man, ice man, come and don’t get rough
If you start anything I’m gonna strut my stuff.
Baby, that’s a woman who knows how to put a man in his place! The only problem with making this my theme song is I’ll never be as good as Memphis Minnie on the guitar. Her bass rhythm and picking are way out of my league, and I can fully understand how she could just sit there, play the guitar and blow away all those big bad blues guys in cutting sessions.
Excuse me. I have so much sexual tension right now that I have to go strut my stuff for a while. I’ll pick this up . . . tomorrow.
“When the Levee Breaks”: Minnie’s great early recordings were largely performed in tandem with second hubby Kansas Joe McCoy (she would later record with his brother and a third husband, Little Son Joe). This piece from Minnie and Kansas Joe’s first session is sung by Joe, and it’s a marvelous and moving song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive flood in U. S. history. Joe has an everyman’s voice and the life experience that gives his performance an authenticity completely missing from the overwrought Led Zeppelin version. The words are so simple, but so touching in their personification of nature and the personalization of tragedy:
If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break (2)
And the water gonna come and have no place to stay.
If it keeps on raining, levee’s going to break (2)
And all these people’ll have no place to stay.
The picking speed accelerates in a few spots to mirror the rising levee and the rising anxiety, a superb example of Minnie using everything at her disposal to accentuate the story line. But as hard as Joe works to keep the water away, there’s no hope except that which comes from moving on to a new life once the old one is destroyed.
“Hoodoo Lady”: One of Minnie’s most spirited and heartfelt vocals, her encounter with a hoodoo practitioner is a fascinating look into the powers of the female shaman, witch or whatever you choose to call those who dabble in the dark arts. Minnie’s more than willing to have the Hoodoo Lady work some magic to improve her odds at craps, or to help her find that vanishing man, but she knows that women—spiritually imbued or not—can be spiteful and competitive:
Hoodoo lady, you can turn water into wine
I been wondering where you’ve been all this time.
I’m setting here, broke, and I ain’t got a dime.
You ought to put something in these dukes of mine
But don’t put that thing on me,
Don’t put that thing on me (2),
‘Cause I’m going back to Tennessee
Her spoken word vocalizations—“Boy, you better watch it ’cause she’s tricky” and “Boys, I’m scared of her”—are spoken with no-bullshit intensity by a woman who knows how nasty other women can be. While men are boorishly competitive, relying largely on physical displays to resolve their conflicts, many women who never resolved their self-esteem issues compete in a sneaky, manipulative manner, using the learned helplessness of “feminine guile” to try to make up for a relative lack of physical strength. Echoing the twisted nature of many a female in a dysfunctional society, Minnie really bends those guitar strings in the instrumental passage, pushing those blue notes to maximum dissonance.
“In My Girlish Days”: Here Minnie steps back from her power position and assumes the role of wayward woman engaging in reflection over the life events that shaped her. This song has the intimate feel of sitting with the woman on the front porch drinking iced tea, or lolling around the kitchen table while waiting for the biscuits to come out of the oven while she tells her story. The first two verses describe how she fell prey to her “girlish ways”:
Late hours at night, trying to play my hand,
Through my window, out stepped a man.
I didn’t know no better,
In my girlish days.
My mama cried, Papa did too,
Ooh, daughter, look what a shame on you.
She’s driven from home by the shame of unwanted pregnancy, has no money for the train and has to “hit the highway” and hitchhike her way through the cold winter of 1917. The beauty of the song is in the complete rejection of the conventional notion that once a girl has ruined herself, life is over for her. In the last verse, the woman rewrites the traditional narrative:
All of my playmates is not surprised,
I had to travel ‘fore I got wise.
I found out better,
And I still got
My girlish ways.
The woman is now in a space where she can make better and more selective choices about love partners, but damned if she’s going to deny her sexuality and submit to Christian shaming. This is one of those songs that is “metaphorically autobiographical,” because while the events Minnie describes don’t sync with her personal timeline, she learned a lot on the road, and despite the usual “mistakes,” she never denied her passions. The guitar duet here is one of the best on the record, but in this song, it’s the message that matters.
“New Dirty Dozen”: The Garons quote two authors on the meaning of the phrase “dirty dozens;” we’ll go with Audre Lorde’s: “A black game of supposedly friendly rivalry and name-calling; in reality, a crucial exercise in learning how to absorb verbal abuse without faltering.”
Oh. Trash-talking. Why the fuck didn’t you say so?
The first and most noticeable thing about this song is that Minnie’s guitar run sounds very much like the opening to CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Funny, I don’t remember Stills giving Minnie any credit, nor the author of the song on which Minnie’s tune is based, a piano-player named Speckled Red. Saving the issue of white boy plagiarism for another day, Minnie’s adaptation shows both her exceptionally advanced guitar skills and a lyrical talent that was far ahead of her competitors:
Come all of you women’s oughta be in the can.
Out on the corner stopping every man,
Hollering, “Soap is a nickel and the towel is free,
I’m pigmeat, pappy, now who wants me?”
You’s an old mistreater, robber and a cheater,
Slip you in the dozen, your papa and your cousin
Your mama do the lordly lord.
The last three lines are Speckled Red’s, but the first four are trash-talking Minnie. Apparently she didn’t appreciate the value of prostitutes as a way to reduce male sexual tension so guys won’t go around raping women; for Minnie, women were not sisters, but evil competitors.
“Can I Do It for You?”: My favorite duet with Kansas Joe is a call-and-response number where Joe offers Minnie different enticements in each verse and Minnie essentially tells him to piss off after each one.
Buy your shoes and clothes, buy your shoes and clothes
Buy your shoes and clothes, if I can do something to you
Hear me saying, I want to do something to you
I don’t want no shoes and clothes, I don’t want no shoes and clothes
I don’t want nothing in the world you got, and can’t do nothing for me
Hear me saying, you can’t do nothing for me
I’ll buy you a Chevrolet, I’ll buy you a Chevrolet
Buy you a Chevrolet, if I can do something to you
Hear me saying, I want to do something to you
I don’t want no Chevrolet, I don’t want no Chevrolet
I don’t want nothing in the world you got, and you can’t do nothing for me
Hear me saying, you can’t do nothing for me
Minnie eventually relents, settling for a Ford sedan, but even then she tells him “I don’t want nothing in the world you got.” What I love is Kansas Joe’s periodic exclamations as Minnie rejects his attempts to bribe her into giving him access to her pussy: “What kind of woman is this?”
She’s a woman who owns her fucking body and soul, you idiot!
“Dirty Mother for You”: It doesn’t take much effort to translate that title into the uncensored “Dirty Mother Fucker,” and most of the motherfuckers Minnie sings about are men in male-dominated professions of authority: doctors, judges and cops:
I ain’t no doctor, but I’m the doctor’s wife,
You better come to me if you want to save your life.
He’s a dirty mother fuyer,
He don’t mean no good.
He got drunk this morning, tore up the neighborhood.
In the last round, Minnie returns to her motherfucker archetype, the vanishing man: “You done squeezed my lemon, now you done broke and run.” The song predates the recording of Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” by a couple of years, so it’s likely that his famous line, “I want you to squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg,” reveals a Memphis Minnie influence. Another couplet, “I want you to come here, baby, come here quick/He done give me something ’bout to make me sick” would find a home in Red Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues,” later semi-popularized by Dave Van Ronk. Tell me this broad didn’t have influence!
“He’s in the Ring”: Two songs in the collection are devoted to Joe Louis, a hero of staggering proportions for African-Americans in the 30’s and 40’s. One of Minnie’s most intense vocals, you can hear how deeply she identifies with the fighter in her growls and passion-loaded offbeat phrasing. Long-time accompanist Black Bob makes his first appearance here, and I have to say that while Minnie’s guitar was pretty much all she needed, the piano deepens her rhythms and works very well with her voice. “Dirty Mother for You” has a fabulous piano piece (played by someone she calls “Dennis” on the record), and Black Bob’s piano on this song calls up pictures of smoky saloons and good times.
There are many more memorable songs in this collection, and I wish I had the time and the proper venue to write about them all. “Plymouth Rock Blues,” “Black Rat Swing,” “Reachin’ Pete,” “What’s the Matter with the Mill?,” “Where Is My Good Man” and “Chickasaw Train Blues” are all exceptionally strong pieces, and I could have lengthened that list by adding a dozen more. I hope that my limited sample encourages readers to explore one of the most talented women in music history, a woman who wrote some of the most striking poetry in the long tradition of the blues and who had that unique combination of courage and self-awareness that enabled her to build a successful and influential life despite unimaginably difficult obstacles.
That Minnie turned herself into an expert on the dynamics of sex and power makes her music all the sweeter for me. Damn, I would have loved to drink with this broad!