The Roots of Indie: Robert Johnson
We all come from somewhere. Even if you were cooked up in a Petri dish, your genetic material has an origin.
Many years ago I got sucked into the genealogy rabbit hole, connecting brackets like some kind of mad Final Four fan until I'd traced my lineage back as far as some Swede now 600 years gone. By the time I came to my senses, I had thousands of names laid out in front of me.
Thousands of names, each belonging to a relative, each leading to me. The thought overwhelmed me, but it also comforted me. I was part of something bigger, one point on a continuum that extended both backward and forward indefinitely.
Music is precisely the same way. Genetic markers scatter across the musical family tree like the meedly meedly eighth notes of an '80s power ballad. No genre is self contained, no trend sprouts from untilled soil. Do a little research on your favorite band and you'll see what I mean. Henry Rollins loves doo-wop, for example, and Mark Lanegan is a Kraftwerk fan.
What makes the roots of independent music such an interesting topic is that virtually all music starts out as independent. Sure, manufactured pop stars have existed for as long as music has been recorded -- and probably longer than that. My 600-year-old Swedish ancestor probably mocked Olaf the Yodeler for not keeping it real.
It starts in bedrooms and garages, and then those first tentative steps into the world follow. That's how it happened for 22-year-old Robert Johnson, who left home after his wife died giving birth. From there he was a busker, playing street corners, dance halls, bars, wherever. People who knew him claimed that he could play whatever style the gathered crowd wanted -- an important skill for a performer passing the hat.
There's nothing really unique about that story. In 1932 a lot of itinerant bluesmen were kicking around doing the same thing -- so why not them? Why pick Robert Johnson as the spiritual godfather of rock and roll?
Robert Johnson's influence stretches from the '30s to whatever Jack White cut you were just listening to.
Because this is where it all comes together: the showmanship, the deals with the devil, the booze and women, the myth of the too fast to live too young to die rock star. Robert Johnson's recording career consists of 29 songs, but his influence stretches from the 1930s to whatever Jack White cut you were just listening to.
The story begins in 1929. Johnson and his teenaged wife, Virginia, are expecting their first baby. The father-to-be has another love -- music, especially the blues, but Johnson can play popular tunes, country, whatever you like.
Rural Mississippi at the time is awash with both religion and superstition, so when Virginia dies during childbirth the locals chalk it up as a payment to the devil for playing his music. That's a steep price to pay, but Johnson wasn't the settled type. Music was in his blood. Blues legend Son House recalled:
We'd all play for the Saturday night balls, and there'd be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson. He was just a little boy then. He blew harmonica and he was pretty good with that, but he wanted to play guitar.
He did, eventually, in the style that we know as Delta blues. His mastery of the instrument happened so quickly and completely that once again rumors of a pact with the devil spread.
Johnson remarried in 1931 and moved to Clarksdale, Miss., the location of the crossroads that are such a part of his legend. Again, his wife died in childbirth. This would be the last time that the singer married, but hardly the last woman in his life. As a traveling musician Johnson cultivated relationships in various towns along the road -- a decision that kept him fed with a roof over his head, but may have been his undoing.
Johnson spent the next half dozen years on the road, traveling from town to town. It's the same kind of work that struggling musicians still do, but without the luxury of an air-conditioned van and frequent stops at fast food joints. Remarkably, Johnson's travels took him much farther than just the Southeast. The Mississippi bluesman played dates in Midwest cities like Chicago to as far north as Canada. He even turned up Texas ... and that's where things get interesting.
Back in the late '20s, an Okeh Records executive named Ralph Peer came up with the brilliant idea of regional records. We'll cover him soon in his own Roots of Indie piece, but the gist is that Peer started a gold rush on what were then known as "race records" -- what we know call the blues. (Another regional recording innovation of Peer's, "hillbilly records," gave birth to country music.)
These recordings weren't as casual as the field recordings made by the Lomax family, nor were they as formal as studio recordings; rather, what Peer would do was set up a mobile studio in a hotel room in some local town and make professional quality recordings.
By the the 1930s Peer's innovations were commonplace throughout the industry. Okeh competitor Brunswick Records published a line of race records known as The 1000 Series through their Vocalion subsidiary, and in November 1936 they set up a Peer-like mobile studio in San Antonio's Gunter Hotel. Johnson made his way to Texas, and over the course of three days he recorded 16 cuts, including "Terraplane Blues."
The following year Johnson returned to Texas, this time Dallas, to record 11 more songs for Vocalion. Between the two sessions (and including the alternate takes) Johnson's complete discography contains only the 42 recordings made during these two sessions. Among those are cuts that clearly exhibit the DNA of what would become rock and roll a generation later, perhaps most evident in "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom."
Johnson's tastes for women and whiskey allegedly were his downfall. The commonly accepted version of the bluesman's death is that he was poisoned via a tainted whiskey bottle by a jealous husband after flirting with a woman at a dance. Like so much of Johnson's biography, it's hard to know whether this is truth or legend; however, one thing is certain: When Robert Johnson died on Aug. 16, 1938, he became the charter member of the "27 Club." If you believe in curses, this is where this one begins. Other unfortunate musicians who died at age 27 include Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix.
After his death, Johnson's records went out of print for over 20 years. It wasn't until the folk revival of the early '60s that Columbia Records released the first compilation of his recordings, 1961's King of the Delta Blues Singers.
That also happens to be right around the time that England was in the thrall of American blues. All but forgotten for 20 years, suddenly Johnson was an enormous influence on young guitarists like Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton -- musicians who not only adopted his style but covered his songs:
Those guys kept Johnson's songs and style alive and they influenced the next generations, which brings me back to the thousands of ancestors who all add up to little old me.
What's so fascinating is that we can push even farther back than Johnson -- and that's what makes the search for the roots of indie an endless adventure. We'll wrap this up with Jack White's take on the subject: