This year marks the 75th anniversary of the only recordings made of Robert Johnson.
My love of the blues started when I was 16, listening to the eclectic mix being broadcast from WYSO, the radio station of Antioch College.One late night as I was trying to sleep, I heard Taj Mahal playing “Corrina,” and I was hooked. I started buying the old classic recordings, often in anthology form, lacking a good record store that would have carried albums by individual blues artists. Some amazed me, like Big Bill Broonzy, and Rev. Gary Davis, with their fingering and picking ability.
Bukka White stunned me with his originality, , you can hear influences of traditional work songs and some songs lean a little toward traditional blues. But for the most part his playing style, the tunings he played in, the melodies and the heartbreakingly personal lyrics are as fresh today as ever. Despite his Delta origins, I feel like Bukka White was playing something other than what we think of as traditional blues. I believe he was an unschooled musical genius of the highest order.
“The Blues” appears to be a simple structure or format, but it is made elegant by the endless improvisational possibilities it inspires, and by the blues scale, originating in African music, a chromatic scale with a lowered third and seventh, which when alternated with the normal third and seventh, produce the patterns we recognize as the blues
But no one who plays the blues will dispute that Robert Johnson, in his short, mysterious career, established himself as the King. By the time I got around to listening to Johnson, I already knew a bunch of his songs, covered by other people, like ‘Crossroads,” “Love in Vain,” “Sweet Home Chicago.”
His guitar work can still drop my jaw, and the intricacies that may be lost on modern listeners unaccustomed to the crappy recording technology of the time, are better explained by another blues aficionado, Kieth Richards.
There are sad blues, and happy blues and pissed off blues, but no one has captured the essence of the lonely blues as well as Robert Johnson did in Crossroads:
I was standing at the crossroads
trying to flag a ride
Nobody seemed to know me
Everybody passed me by.
When I bought my Gibson L-00 in a little music store in Brunswick, Ga back in 1972, I was told that it was ca.1938. It was beat up a little, looked like it had never seen a case, but remains to this day one of the best sounding guitars I’ve ever heard. I paid $100 for it, and was offered $1000 for it 3 days later by a working musician from the N.Y. Area who was in town. I turned him down, because I knew I had found my instrument, and the looks of it, and the fact that it was an orphan from a southern state convinced me it would be the perfect conduit for channeling the blues.
Years later, the mystique was embellished by seeing one of the few known pictures of Robert Johnson, playing what appeared to be a guitar identical to mine. That he was playing up until his death in 1939 allowed me the fantasy that this could actually Be his guitar, and even though I knew how unlikely that was, no one could really dispute it. Recently, using the ever increasing resources of the web, I located a page that dates Gibsons fairly precisely on attributes other than serial numbers, which are fairly unreliable for early Gibson instruments. There is a banner decal at the top of the peghead that reads, “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough,” and it turns out that Gibson only used that decal on the L-00 in 1941 and 1942. So it’s not Robert Johnson’s guitar, but I knew that. It’s MY guitar.
I recently made an octave mandolin, and although I typically finish my instruments using the French polish technique, I decided to do a tobacco sunburst as a tribute to my guitar. Using Color tone spray lacquers from Stew-Mac, in Vintage Amber, Cherry Red and Tobacco Brown, and then a number of clear coats, I think I got it pretty close. To get an exact match, I’d have to throw it in the back of my pickup for a year or so.
I like the sound of the octave mandolin, and as a guitarist accustomed to a fat neck, wide fret board guitar, I find it a little easier to transition to this than to the mandolin, although what I like about the mandolin is how little distance your fingers have to travel to play fast scales, etc. I’m going to make another one of these soon, to sell, but I think I’m going to keep this one for myself. It just looks like it’s mine.