Robert Johnson and the Rise of the Blues

by Elijah Wald

Robert Johnson, portrait by Hooks Bros., Memphis, TN, ca. 1935. (Wikipedia)In November of 1936 , a young man named Robert Johnson traveled from Mississippi to San Antonio, Texas, for his first recording session with the American Record Corporation. He was twenty-five years old and had already hoboed and hitchhiked north to Chicago and east to New York, playing guitar and singing for anyone who would listen. His music was a potent fusion of older styles learned from local musicians in the rural Delta and Memphis with the latest sounds on records, radio, and jukeboxes. His friend Johnny Shines would later recall that Johnson was terrifically versatile and quick to master any style that caught his attention:

I mean anything—popular songs, ballads, blues . . . It didn’t make him no difference what it was. If he liked it, he did it . . . The country singer, Jimmie Rodgers, me and Robert used to play a hell of a lot of his tunes, man. Ragtime, pop tunes, waltz numbers, polkas—shoot, a polka hound, man. Robert just picked songs out of the air.

Before records replaced live performance as the typical way to hear music, that versatility was the mark of any serious professional. Whether on street corners or in theaters, in urban bars or rural juke joints, customers wanted to hear a varied mix of styles, and musicians were expected to play whatever was popular in their time and region.

Recording made different demands. There were ballroom orchestras recording waltzes, accordion virtuosos recording polkas, white country singers recording old ballads and yodeling cowboy songs, and crooners like Bing Crosby recording the latest pop hits. So when Robert Johnson entered the makeshift recording studio in a San Antonio hotel, he wasn’t asked to demonstrate the breadth of his repertoire. As a black guitarist from Mississippi, he was asked to play blues—a style considered specific to his race, instrument, and region—and rather than recording the songs that were most in demand at local parties and dances, he was asked to sing original compositions that weren’t already published and being marketed by other companies.

The Robert Johnson we know today is the result of that anomaly: of the hundreds—maybe thousands—of songs he sang in his travels and day-to-day life, we have only twenty-nine examples, performed under special conditions for a special purpose. They are among the great documents of American music, but to understand Johnson and the wider world of blues in the early twentieth century, we need to be aware that what survives on record is only a small part of the story.

Black Americans brought music from all their various regions of Africa to the United States and mixed those styles with what they heard from European, Native American, and Pacific Island musicians, and those fusions spread around the country and eventually around the world. The African banjo blended with the European fiddle and the Mediterranean guitar, English lyrics were reshaped to fit West African tonalities, and the results have been variously categorized as blues, hoedowns, country music, bluegrass, and, with other instrumentation, as ragtime, jazz, R&B, rock, and hip-hop.

Bessie Smith, 1936. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. (Library of Congress) W. C. Handy, 1941. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. (Library of Congress) Blind Lemon Jefferson, ca. 1926-1929 (Wikimedia Commons)

Out of that dazzling variety of music, it’s hard to sort out what was first called “blues,” where it first appeared, or how it sounded. In New Orleans, the word was associated with a slow, sultry dance rhythm played by pianists and jazz bands in working-class saloons. In black vaudeville theaters, it was first associated with southern comedians with colorful names like Baby Seals, String Beans, and Sweetie May, then with deep-voiced divas like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Those bands and singers drew on rural traditions of moans, hollers, work songs, and spirituals, but what they called blues was a new sound—hip, fierce, and often funny—much like rap three quarters of a century later.

A few early blues songs became sheet music hits—most famously W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues”—and the African American press described others as favorites with vaudeville audiences, but the first important records only appeared in 1920, almost ten years after blues became a major trend. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” started the craze, and was followed by hundreds of recordings by the female stars known as “blues queens.” For a few years they were the most popular recording artists in black America. Then, in 1926 a record company scout looking for something different took a chance on a blind Texas street guitarist named Lemon Jefferson.

Jefferson had none of the polished professionalism of the blues queens. His guitar rhythms were jerky and irregular, and he sang with a deep Texas accent and a shout that could be heard over noisy street crowds. When his records took off, they started a rage for guitar-accompanied street performers. Most were men, and though their recording repertoire was often inspired by the hits of the blues queens, they were marketed as “down home blues,” the sound of the rural South.

The down-home trend was followed in the late 1920s by a wave of urban pianists and piano/guitar duos. Then microphones arrived, making it possible for singers to be heard over full dance bands, and the blues mainstream was redefined by groups like the Count Basie Orchestra, blending older styles with a swing beat.

Count Basie Orchestra, 1941, at the Howard Theater. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb. (Library of Congress)

By the time Robert Johnson recorded, guitar-accompanied blues was already considered old-fashioned, but there was still a regional market for it in the rural South—and, unexpectedly, among new fans in northern cities. In 1938 a record producer named John Hammond decided that people who loved Basie and Benny Goodman should have some historical background, so he staged a concert at Carnegie Hall called “From Spirituals to Swing.” It presented swing bands alongside artists representing earlier styles: gospel singers, boogie-woogie pianists, Sonny Terry playing country harmonica, Big Bill Broonzy playing Chicago blues, and recordings of African tribal music and Robert Johnson.

Johnson had died four months earlier, murdered by a jealous husband while performing at a dance in the Delta, but Hammond felt that Johnson’s music was so extraordinary that it must be heard. He was particularly taken with Johnson’s slide guitar style, learned from an older Mississippi performer, Son House, who would also mentor Muddy Waters. The two records Hammond played at Carnegie Hall were both adapted from House’s repertoire, and he presented them as masterpieces of “primitive blues,” the deep roots of what was sung by Basie’s vocalists.

Thus a young artist who had impressed his peers in Mississippi with adept reworkings of the latest hits from St. Louis and Chicago was introduced to a new audience as a mysterious figure from the primitive past, and that was how he was framed again in the 1960s, when Hammond released an album of Johnson’s work titled King of the Delta Blues Singers, which became a model for everyone from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones.

By that time blues had become a mainstream style on both sides of the Atlantic, performed by everyone from Elvis Presley to James Brown, but its name had been changed, first to R&B (rhythm and blues), then to rock ’n’ roll and soul. Young artists and marketers embraced those new labels, and “blues” has ever since been associated with the past, with rural roots and down-home authenticity. When we hear Robert Johnson today, it is as the source for thousands of later artists who have learned his guitar licks and sung his songs, and as a foundational figure in the evolution of American music. So it’s worth remembering that he once was a young, innovative figure, a relative latecomer to the blues scene. Like his modern-day heirs, his talent was blending the past with the present, creating music that was deeply rooted but looking toward the future.

Elijah Wald is a blues historian and musician. He has published several books on American popular music, including Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004) and Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties (2015). With Dave Van Ronk, he is the author of The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005), which inspired the Coen Brothers’ 2013 movie Inside Llewyn Davis.

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