The tradition of a solo singer providing music for a community or gathering is very old. As far back as the 12th century with the troubadours and trouvères of France as well as the minnesinger from Germany, all the way up to today’s buskers the singer of vernacular music has been a recognizable feature of society.
This week, on May 8th, there was the birthday of one of the best: Robert Johnson.
Nowadays Robert Johnson is considered the “King of the Delta Blues Singers,” but it was not always the case. During his lifetime, while known to a few other blues singers and guitarists, Robert Johnson was not well-known among the regular folk who were avid consumers of music. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson were much more well-known and would have regularly been mentioned by people when asked who they listened to, but no one would have thought to mention Robert Johnson. Even though people did hear local singers at juke joints and other places at social gatherings, by the 1920s recorded blues was far more likely the source where people heard the music.
In the late 1920s Robert Johnson only recorded 29 master tracks, with about a dozen more alternate takes, meaning that his 41 or 42 tracks easily fit on one CD. By comparison, Lonnie Johnson left 191 recordings, Bill Broonzy, 224 sides, Leroy Carr, 120 and Lemon Jefferson, 86. This could partly be explained by the fact that Johnson died early whereas the others continued recording into the 1940s. But the reality is that most people did not share today’s preference for the rough, guitar-vocal country blues singer. Much more popular was a piano and guitar combo accompanying a singer and possessing a more polished sound.
It has only been since the so-called “blues revival” of the ’60s when folklorists and academics began to study and write about the music that Robert Johnson hasbeen elevated to the pinnacle of the blues pyramid.
I certainly do not wish to take anything away from Johnson’s artistry which is impressive indeed. But I also do not accept the tendency by academics to downplay the significance of someone like Leroy Carr merely because he was successful and more “commercial” and lived and recorded in urban areas. There has been a tendancy to romanticize the idea of the country blues singer: primitive, unschooled, seemingly growing out of the same ground that the cotton grew that they picked.
The reality for Robert Johnson as well as someone like Muddy Waters, was that they did not identify with the country-singer that has come to be the norm for white academics. These men wished to use music to make enough money so they could avoid “hard work” and buy stylish clothes and fancy cars.
The only photographs we have of Robert Johnson show us a young man in a snazzy suit, with a fedora rakishly cocked and looking as much like a successful musician as he can. No overalls and bare feet for him.
Let us acknowledge and appreciate the amazing artistry of Robert Johnson but let us not create a false mythology.