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Blues Before Robert Johnson

By Mike “Hoodoo Man” Reilly
Who would you say was the first to record Walking Blues? If you answered, Robert Johnson, then you would not be alone. In fact, a large number of contemporary blues artists who still cover that timeless classic, erroneously credit it to him even though he clearly picked it up from one of his delta blues predecessors, Son House. In fact House recorded that song 7 years before his younger counterpart near the time when Son House, himself, remembers a teenage Johnson hanging around the delta players. He was reportedly a competent harmonica player, but an embarrassingly bad guitar player.
History shows that Robert Johnson had little impact on the blues world of his time. His total recorded output was nailed down between 1936 and 1937, with Johnson reportedly dying in 1938 at the tender age of 27. His only hit,Terraplane Blues, was a marginal success until the 1961 re-release of his catalogue was championed by the then fledgling British blues movement, with such notables as Eric Clapton touting Robert Johnson as “the greatest blues singer who ever lived.” As a result of that, Robert Johnson has been given a disproportionate amount of attention, when to many, including myself, his recordings are merely a gateway drug to other, more primordial, blues artists from the pre-war era. My intention here, is not to take away from his posthumous success but rather to shed some light on his influences. I have chosen 8 artists whose individual contributions to Robert Johnson's legacy are undeniable.
My descriptions are brief, since I've tried to keep them as to how they pertain to Robert Johnson, but I hope you will take the time to click on the links and see if you don't agree with me, that these artists' music had to have made a big impact on the younger, itinerant blues man we've come to know so well; Robert Leroy Johnson. (1911 – 1938)

1. Eddie James “Son” House Jr. (1902-1974)

Son House first recorded in 1930, in a session with his mentor, the legendary Charlie Patton, known to many as the “grandfather of the delta blues.” His first recordings did not do so well commercially, largely due to the great depression, but his impact would later be felt in the folk blues revival of the 50's and 60's. House had a visceral vocal delivery reminiscent of the evangelical musicians of the time. His bottle neck riffs are still providing blues musicians with a language from which to extrapolate. Robert Johnson recorded versions of Preaching Blues, and Walking Blues, two songs that came out of Son House's 1930 session.

House's vocal style and slide guitar technique were also clearly referenced in Robert Johnson'sCrossroad Blues and Come On In My Kitchen, among others.

2. Nemiah Curtis “Skip” James (1902-1969)

Skip James first recorded for Paramount in 1931. His full impact would also be delayed by the great depression, but as in the case of Son House, he would not be overlooked by the folk blues revival of the 50's and 60's. Skip was a true original, with a sardonic, brooding, falsetto voice that was and is inimitable. (trust me I've tried) British super group, Cream, covered his songI’m So Glad, which reportedly offered James some much needed royalties during his hospitalisation at the end of his life. Johnson's 32-20's based on Skip James 22-20, a piano blues that he recorded 5 years prior to the R.J. sessions. Skip James was also the first to record using the minor tuning that clearly influenced the structure and mood of Johnson's Hell Hound On My Tail.  Check out Skip James Devil Got My Woman. Your life may never be the same.


3. “Hambone” Willie Newbern (1899-1947)

Not a lot is known about this delta blues, bottle neck pioneer other than the familiar reports of his having an explosive temper, which would eventually lead to his untimely, violent death. I feel that Newbern cannot be overlooked in a discussion of Robert Johnson's influences since he was the first to record Rollin’ and Tumblin’, a full 8 years before Robert Johnson would reissue it as If I Had Possession Over Judgment DayR.J. took very few liberties with the seminal Newbern version.


4. Leroy Carr (1905-1935)

Unlike the three fore mentioned delta blues pioneers, Leroy Carr was a very popular piano man and crooner from 1928 until his life was cut short at the age of 30 due to the ravages of hard drinking. Leroy, with the aid of his guitar playing counterpart Scrapper Blackwell, left behind a vast body of work which includes the blues standards, Blues Before Sunrise, and How Long Blues.  Robert Johnson invoked the mood and song structure of Carr's hit record, When The Sun Goes Down, when he recorded All My Love’s In Vain.


5. Francis Hillman “Scrapper” Blackwell (1903-1962)

Scrapper, as mentioned above, became popular in the late 20's and 30's for his work alongside Leroy Carr. His guitar style is often cited as a precursor to modern guitar, as he was one of the first to invoke melodic runs and string bends that are so widely prevalent in contemporary guitar playing. Scrapper Blackwell is worth mentioning apart from Carr for his solo recording, Kokomo Blues, which is clearly the inspiration for Robert Johnson's, Sweet Home Chicago.


6. Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson 1899-1970

Lonnie Johnson was perhaps the most prolific and widely respected musician that is included here. He was truly a musician's musician, capable of singing and playing in many styles with exceptional virtuosity. His recordings with fellow American guitar ace, Eddie Lang are said to have influenced the then fledgling jazz and gypsy swing artists, Charlie Christian, and Django Reinhardt. His storied career spanned 5 decades until his death after being struck by an automobile in his adopted city of Toronto, Ontario in 1970. (Ontario drivers!) Lonnie Johnson's body of work is so extensive and varied that one would be hard pressed to find an early blues or jazz artist who wasn't influenced by him. I mention him in this context because of the striking similarities between his Lifesaver Blues, and R. J.'s Drunken Hearted Man, and Malted Milk.  In fact, it is widely accepted that Robert Johnson received his pop crooner sensibility, as displayed on other numbers such as From Four Until Late, from his older and much more famous namesake.


7. James “Kokomo” Arnold (1901-1968)

Kokomo Arnold got his nickname from his 1934 recording of the Scrapper Blackwell blues of the same name. As mentioned previously, that same song was inarguably the inspiration for R. J.'s Sweet Home Chicago.  Another direct correlation worth mentioning here, is that Robert Johnson paid tribute to this highly influential bottle neck pioneer when he recorded Kokomo's Milk Cow Blues, which either he or his record label renamed Milk Cow’s Calf BluesKokomo Arnold's influence would have been undeniable at the time, for any young artist playing bottle neck slide guitar, due to his dominant status in Chicago blues.


8. William Bunch aka “Peetie Wheatstraw” (1902-1941)

Finally, I feel I would be remiss if not to mention this highly prolific and influential blues singer, Peetie Wheatstraw. Although Wheatstraw is pictured with a tri-cone, resonator guitar in his only known photograph, he was one of the most influential blues piano players of the 30's. His total output of recordings was surpassed by only 4 other artists from the pre-war era, namely Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, and Bumble Bee Slim. Apart from the obvious similarities between songs like Wheatstraw's Police Station Blues, and Johnson's Stones In My Passway, there is another obvious connection related to both artists. If you are familiar with Robert Johnson then you must know of his famous Faustian legend in which he gained his extraordinary ability as a blues singer and guitarist, virtually over night, by making a pact with the devil. The myth is recounted in his song Cross Road Blues, and has even been retold in the 1986 Hollywood movie Crossroads. Well, Peetie Wheatstraw was one of the first masters of media spin who painted himself in a similar vein. He released records as Peetie Wheatstraw – The Devils Son-in-Law, and also as Peetie Wheatstraw – The High Sherriff From Hell. In fact it is widely accepted that not only did he influence the Faustian aspect of Robert Johnson's persona, but also that he is an archetype for today's macho rapper image.

The fact that Robert Johnson didn't invent the blues is hardly a revelation. I think he is deserving of recognition for his clear and conversant guitar and vocal work on those recording sessions. His lyric writing was generally a cut above his predecessors, as well, achieving a poetic dimension that is often lacking in this rural, blue collar medium. The song I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom is a perfect archetype for Rock and Roll, which would still be nearly another 20 years in the making, after that song was recorded. That being said, my intention is merely to share some other great artists, whom I've discovered in my foray into this music called the Blues. I think if you take the time to check them out you'll see, as I did, how they have all influenced Robert Johnson, and subsequently, the rest of us hacks in the process.
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