John Mayall is conclusive evidence that “Hope I die before I get old” is the dumbest fucking statement in music history.
The still-active Mr. Mayall will celebrate his eighty-fourth birthday this November. He has been a working musician for sixty-one years, and as I write, he is currently on tour in the United States. After a six-week hiatus, he’ll spend every night save three in the period between October 17 and November 26 on a stage somewhere in the U. K. He released his sixty-fifth album earlier this year, jamming with Joe Walsh on two of the tracks.
Fuck Pete Townsend.
The Woodstock Generation adopted another motto frequently attributed to yippie Jerry Rubin but actually added to the vernacular by Jack Weinberger of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement: “Never trust anyone over thirty.” John Mayall entered the consciousness of that generation with the release of Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton in 1966. The anti-aging crowd probably didn’t notice that John Mayall had already smashed the boundaries of obsolescence, having reached the ripe old age of thirty-two about six months earlier.
Fuck Jerry Rubin and Jack Weinberger.
To be fair, John Mayall is one of those characters who defy time and generational classification. In terms of genre-tagging, he is primarily known as a blues musician, a very limiting tag indeed. For while blues has always served as his musical foundation, and though The Bluesbreakers pretty much stuck to the dominant Muddy Waters electric guitar virtuoso paradigm of the British Blues Boom, Mayall has always been a curious sort, a man more than willing to expand the boundaries of the blues. After giving huge boosts to the careers of Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor by making them featured Bluesbreaker soloists, he grew tired of chasing down the next guitar hero once Mick left for The Stones and decided to move in a different direction.
Hence The Turning Point. From the liner notes, written by Mayall himself (caps preserved):
THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR A NEW DIRECTION IN BLUES MUSIC. HAVING DECIDED TO DISPENSE WITH HEAVY LEAD GUITAR AND DRUMS, USUALLY A ‘MUST’ FOR BLUES GROUPS TODAY, I SET ABOUT FORMING A NEW BAND WHICH WOULD BE ABLE TO EXPLORE SELDOM-USED AREAS WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF LOW VOLUME MUSIC. THIS ALBUM IS THE RESULT OF THIS EXPERIMENT AND IT WAS RECORDED LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST THEATER, NEW YORK, AFTER ONLY FOUR WEEKS EXPERIENCE OF EACH OTHER’S PLAYING.
Elsewhere in the packaging, Mayall shows off his economical writing style, managing to further expound on his new direction while introducing his new bandmates at the same time:
It no longer seemed logical to me that I should find yet another new lead guitarist; since Eric Clapton more or less founded a whole cult of blues guitar stylists, too many people are into that bag for it to mean much anymore. So I have now got a new thing in operation whereby drums are not used on the theory that every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm. An acoustic finger style guitarist of the finest order, Jon Mark, replaced drummer Colin Allen, Johnny Almond on flutes and saxophones replaces Mick Taylor who made the headlines a week after leaving me when he was asked to join the Rolling Stones.
“Every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm” is a concept that solo acoustic guitarists and classical music aficionados easily grasp, and just a few months before The Turning Point, Ian Anderson demonstrated the utility of the flute as a rhythmic instrument in the context of blues on Jethro Tull’s This Was. But even with those precedents, dispensing with the drummer represented a huge commercial risk for Mayall. As anyone who has ever played in a band understands, the presence of a drum kit requires all the other instruments to crank it up so they can be heard. This dynamic becomes a virtue in rock music, because the loudness itself adds to the aura of excitement, allowing even third-rate bands to sound pretty good for a number or two until the audience filters out the noise. Because Mayall’s audience was a rock-oriented audience who expected loud-and-powerful, one would assume that “low-volume music” would have been greeted with hoots, hollers and catcalls by the crowd at Fillmore East on July 12, 1969.
Damn if he didn’t win them over and leave them begging for more. The Turning Point is one of the truly great live albums, all the more delightful for the risk involved.
After Mayall’s decidedly proper introductions of the boys in the band and without further ado, the band launches into the Mayall composition, “The Laws Must Change.” In the midst of the atmosphere of protest pervading the United States with the Vietnam War at its peak, Mayall delivers a song that radicals of the era would have dismissed as “Establishment propaganda.” Urging listeners to be nice to the police and to try to see both sides of a question, Mayall even goes so far as to remind his probably stoned audience that “Every time you’re holdin’/You are guilty of the crime.” Seriously uncool, man! Actually, the advice is quite sensible, but common sense was an alien concept for the starry-eyed idealists of the period:
It seems to be the fashion
To say you’re right and they are wrong (2)
But you gotta see both sides
(Or) You’ll find yourself in jail ‘fore long
You’re screamin’ at policemen
But they’re only doin’ a gig (2)
Gotta try and take the time
To figure out how the issue got that big
After that verse Johnny Almond launches into a Yusef Lateef/Ian Anderson-style flute solo, heavy on the thrust with sharp overtones. The rhythm section of Steve Thompson on bass and Jon Mark on rhythm acoustic guitar is spot-on, inspiring a mid-tempo ass wiggle from yours truly. Halfway through the solo, Mayall asserts himself on harp, leading to a tight call-and-response pattern with Johnny Almond’s flute that earns a well-deserved round of applause. Almond disappears for a moment during the Lenny Bruce verse (“Lenny Bruce was trying to tell you many things before he died/Don’t throw rocks at policemen/But get the knots of law untied), reappearing with a sax to enhance the sharpness of the rhythmic punctuation. This switcheroo pays off in the fade when the band highlights the dominant pattern of three eighth notes played in 4/4 time, leading to a subtle crescendo of rising harmonic notes and a sudden but effective finish that definitely wows the crowd. “The Laws Must Change” is the perfect opener, a mid-tempo number that shows off the tightness of the band (after four weeks!) and allows the audience to get comfortable with drum-deprived rhythm.
“Saw Mill Gulch Road” is a slower blues number with a gorgeous introduction featuring John Mayall playing slide on a Telecaster, his sustained notes floating over a somewhat intense rhythmic pattern established by Mark and Thompson. Johnny Almond enters toward the end of the intro with a warm and gentle flute pattern that communicates a mood of introspective regret. The song is about a teenage girl, your classic jail bait who sneaks out at night to meet her adult male lover. The male narrator decides to break it off without a word of goodbye, probably realizing that fucking a minor wasn’t the smartest idea he’d ever had. What makes the story work is not the double-sided aspect of the regret (lost love and “how could I have been so fucking stupid?”) but the simple truth that the blues is the place where you share the unthinkable, the shameful and the honest, sometimes ugly truth. As a mood piece, it’s a first-rate performance.
The next piece is John Mayall’s second tribute to the late blues great J. B. Lenoir, a relatively minor figure from the popular perspective but an influential guitarist and one of the few blues singers in the 50’s and 60’s who tackled social and political issues such as racism and war. Mayall’s first song about Lenoir was the mournful “The Death of J. B. Lenoir” on the album Crusade, where he sings that Lenoir’s death “hit me like a hammer blow.” In “I’m Gonna Fight for You, J. B.” he has moved beyond grief and resolves to dedicate his energies toward making sure Lenoir’s blues is “heard everywhere.” Mayall would not realize his dream until the 21st century, when Lenoir was featured in Martin Scorsese’s documentary series The Blues (2003), inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (2011) and honored by the inclusion of his song “Alabama Blues” in the movie Selma (2015).
“I’m Gonna Fight for You, J. B.” is a relaxed blues in the traditional style, sung by Mayall in his relatively high-pitched voice (a trait he shared with Lenoir) over a guitar duet that shifts to a long instrumental break allowing both guitarists to strut their stuff. Jon Mark’s acoustic solo is a breathtaking flurry of notes and chords with occasional patterns that break the boundaries of the loping rhythm; Mayall’s Tele solo is by contrast clean and classic blues. Interestingly, Steve Thompson doesn’t enter until Mayall’s solo, adding depth to that passage and retrospectively confirming that “every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm” (you hardly notice his absence during the duet). The simplicity of the arrangement also gives you a moment to appreciate the quality of the recording: The Turning Point is beautifully recorded and engineered (kudos to Eddie Kramer), capturing each performer’s contributions while always maintaining superb sonic balance.
“So Hard to Share” shifts to more of a jazz sensibility in large part due to Johnny Almond’s sax and Mayall’s syncopated rhythm guitar pattern. Johnny Almond’s solo is a marvelous piece of work alternating between smooth riffs, disciplined flurries and near-growls at the higher end of the register. In one memorable passage, Mayall sings scat while harmonizing with his guitar licks, totally immersed in the groove. The fade is fascinating because it is a genuine fade, a slow but steady reduction in volume down to nothing but the sounds of the musicians catching their breaths. The audience is so silent during the fade you’ve almost forgotten about them, indicating how firmly Mayall had them seated in the palm of his hand with his low-volume approach.
Mayall attached a brief explanatory tagline to each of the songs in the track listing, and the one of “So Hard To Share” reads, “Patricia and a possessive ‘old man’ who stood in our way.” Patricia is hard to share because her ‘old man’ sometimes keeps Patricia “locked up,” denying Mayall a coveted spot between her luscious legs. Mayall differentiates himself from the possessive prick in the third verse, stating clearly that “If she loves him that’s okay,” indicating he has no possessive designs of his own. Whoop-de-do. 1969 was the year of one small step for man, and I guess the share-the-broad concept could have been perceived as one small step in the deconstruction of traditional relational paradigms. Since there’s no indication that Patricia had a say in the matter, though, I think it was really one small step forward and two steps back into the safety of a male-controlled society. In a truly enlightened relationship, Patricia would have been in charge of the whole thing! To be fair, Mayall wasn’t the only stepper to stumble that year, for 1969 was also the year of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a thoroughly stupid film about open relationships long on titillation, short on delivering the goods and leaves all participants in the foursome completely disillusioned about traditional and alternative ways of getting your rocks off. If Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had been released in today’s environment of sequel-mania, there would have been four sequels, one for each member of the quartet, each showing them masturbating for two hours in a state of existential disillusionment.
John Mayall wisely changes the subject with “California,” a nine-and-a-half minute Mayall-Thompson opus described as “improvisations and moods on the theme of homesickness.” California of the late 60’s probably was more like the paradise described in this song (unless you lived in Watts or East Oakland), so the lyrics represent a time capsule of sorts. Here the music is the draw, an extended jazz jam that remains in the key of D for the entire journey. The soloists take over a little more than a minute into the song, beginning with Johnny Almond on alto sax. Almond’s solo captures the feel of driving down Highway 1 during a sunset while the Pacific Ocean fog remains at bay—fluid with peaks of color expressed at the upper end of the alto sax range. The next passage features Jon Mark’s rhythmic capabilities with a few understated variations, inviting Mayall to join in with a touch of support on the harmonica. We also hear a touch of Almond’s flute, presaging a more prominent role in a harmonica-flute duet. Here Almond adds a touch of Arabian Nights by shifting briefly to the Andalusian scale, reflecting the reputed magic of the California scene. The piece wraps up with Mayall returning to the scant lyrics, and my overwhelming reaction is one of disbelief that this piece has ended so soon! It certainly doesn’t feel like nine-and-a-half minutes, indicating that it is very easy to lose yourself in such an enchanting piece as “California.”
“Thoughts about Roxanne” shifts the mood to 3 a. m. night club with a languorous blues number featuring deft and subtle work from Almond, Mark and Thompson (who co-wrote this piece). The fills and responses here are an absolute delight, with Almond’s smooth but intense blues-informed riffs and Mark’s nimble command of the stop-time-punctuated rhythms. John Mayall’s Telecaster enters with some sweet reverb-accented touches before cueing the band to pick up the tempo. Johnny Almond is all over that cue, leaving smoothness behind for the sensibilities of modern jazz played fast and furiously. Mayall comes to the fore with his guitar, a relatively straightforward run that sounds fabulous in context. A sudden shift—perhaps a bit too sudden to my ears—brings us back to the smoky bar and our half-finished highball.
Up to this point, none of the songs on The Turning Point qualify as up-tempo numbers, and though Mayall and friends have broken any resistance to low-volume music with a series of intensely pleasurable performances, both he and the crowd recognize it’s time to slam the foot down on the accelerator and get the fuck moving! In the pause that follows “Thoughts about Roxanne,” someone in the audience calls out for “Chicka, chicka!” Mayall’s response is a puzzled, “What? What’s it say? Chicka-chicka what?” He then acknowledges the request for mouth percussion by announcing, “Well, there’s a bit of chicka-chicka in this one, actually. You’ll be all right. This one’s called ‘Room to Move’.”
Oh, yeah, baby! Chicka-chicka all over me!
According to the liner notes, “Room to Move” is about “a musician’s need for personal freedom to love without entanglement.” The lyrics are short and to the point:
May seem peculiar
How I think o’ you
If you want me darlin’
Here’s what you must do.
You gotta free (give) me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move.
If you want me darlin’
Take me how you can
I’ll be circulating,
‘Cause that’s the way I am.
You gotta free me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move
I endorse these sentiments whole-heartedly, because unlike the “I’ll be true to you” blather that accompanies too many romantic interactions, these sentiments are unmistakably honest. This man needs freedom to get a hard-on, and unlike all the other lovers who sneak around behind your back, he’s giving you the straight scoop. Now you have a choice, and that choice needs to be just as honest—“Well, I’ll fuck him and maybe he’ll change” just isn’t going to cut it. That’s called a hidden agenda, and that’s something you should never bring into a relationship. And here’s a tip: honest people are experts at sensing hidden agendas and relational bullshit. If you try to get down and dirty with a guy like Mayall, you’ll send all kinds of confusing vibes and the result will be a penis that you couldn’t firm up with all the plaster in the world.
Hmm. Maybe I should do a “Dear Altrockchick” column.
Lyrics aside, “Room to Move” reinforces the other freedom that pervades the album: the freedom to create rhythms without a drummer. There is no better illustration on the album—or perhaps anywhere—to demonstrate that human beings are creatures of rhythm, and if you don’t have a drummer handy, you still have plenty of options. Thighs. Hands. Fingersnaps. Shoes, with or without taps (boots for the heavy stuff). The body of an acoustic guitar.
And the entire human vocal apparatus.
“Room to Move” shoots out of the gate like the proverbial bat out of hell, with all four musicians on point with the quick chord changes and the stop time moments at the end of each bar. The chord changes themselves aren’t at all difficult (E-D-E-D-E-D-E-rest, then up to A-G), but the speed and the precision required to properly execute the pattern isn’t kids’ stuff. The break to a G chord also temporarily changes the rhythm, and whether that feels like temporary relief or a stride-breaking moment depends on the musician. Fortunately, this bunch could handle anything you threw at them.
After only four weeks of rehearsal.
After Mayall sings the first verse, he launches into an energetic harp solo. What I find amazing here is that he’s already spent more energy alternating between voice and harp in the first verse than most singers expend during your average song, but damn, this is a man on fire and there’s nothing that can slow him down. Accompanied only by Jon Mark slapping his guitar body and a bit of handicapping, Mayall delivers a solo that qualifies as an absolute delight—I smile every time he starts to crank it up. Right when he seems to hit the peak, Johnny Almond enters with “mouth percussion” (chicka-chicka stuff), a series of unvoiced syllables attached to the frantic rhythm. Eventually, Mayall puts his harp in his shirt pocket and does counterpoint mouth percussion that draws oohs and aahs from the crowd, throwing in a cheek pop and random breath for good measure. Now I’m smiling and giggling, immersed the sheer playfulness of this unique musical moment. Mayall reconnects with his harp for a few more measures, gives the countdown one more time and once again, the entire band enters on point, thrilling both the crowd and yours truly. Amazingly, Mayall, who has taken more breaths during the preceding four minutes than an out-of-shape stud giving the fuck of his life, steps up to the mike to sing the final verse, blowing harp between the lines. I want this man’s genes preserved for science! Needless to say, “Room to Move” ends on the dominant pattern, with everyone ending at precisely the same moment, like a group of Olympic gymnasts who all stick it at once in a ten-point performance that even a Russian judge would validate.
God damn, what an experience! More! More! More!
If, like my dear OLD dad you bought the original album in the 60’s, you didn’t get any more. The album ended with “Room to Move.” What? No encore? No sloppy seconds? No post-fuck cigarette? You’re just going to fuck me, put your pants on and split! You rotten bastard!
Ah, but if you buy the 2001 re-issue, “Room to Move” is followed by three bonus tracks. I usually abhor bonus tracks because they usually are sloppy seconds, but in this case, the bonus tracks enrich the listening experience so much I can’t imagine listening to The Turning Point without them. “Sleeping by Her Side” combines a soothing background of acoustic guitar and clean flute with a lyrically-vivid story about a seriously desirable party chick who passes out in John Mayall’s arms, and though he didn’t hit the jackpot, he nestles by her side as the sun rises over the Arizona desert. “Don’t Waste My Time” is a country-tinged hoot (Jon Mark does some brilliant finger-picking here), a reinforcement of the “Room to Move” message:
Well, tell me woman who you’re with tonight
If you’re on your own then that’s alright
But if you don’t want me with you
Don’t waste my time with your jive
Mark opens “Can’t Sleep This Night” with another mesmerizing pattern that seems more British folk than blues or jazz, a pattern that eventually gives way to bass, sax and Tele riffing over a steady, slightly edgy contrasting minor key pattern. When Mark returns with the opening pattern, it has the effect of intensifying the edge, a musical replication of the tension that often drives a sleepless night. After the song ends, Mayall responds to the applause with a polite but absolutely firm, “Thank you and good night,” giving the album the proper ending it deserved.
One of the most truly unique and memorable albums to come from a unique and memorable decade, The Turning Point is a testament to the freedom-seeking ethos that formed the positive pole of the 60’s dynamic. Conceived and released during a period when genre-definition was virtually irrelevant, the spirit of The Turning Point reflects the same spirit that led Miles Davis to turn traitor to the pure jazz contingent and create the inevitable act of fusion we know as Bitches Brew. In The Turning Point, John Mayall proved two things: one, that despite certain structural norms, the blues is much more malleable than people believe; and two, music in all its various forms has the power to move people to let go of expectations when the music is played with drive, enthusiasm, talent and ego-free collaboration.
May John Mayall live and play forever.
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.