Today is the birthday of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the blues great who is the daddy of them all. My early knowledge of him was not of his performances—performances taped in 1936-37 and released on the two volumes of King of the Delta Blues in 1961—but rather through reverential covers of his songs, notably The Rolling Stones’ versions of “Love in Vain” (one of my favorites by them) on Let It Bleed (1969) and “Stop Breaking Down” on Exile on Main Street (1972), and George Thorogood’s spirited rendition of “Kind Hearted Woman” on his debut album from 1976. Other Johnson songs have surfaced here and there—such as Cowboy Junkies covers, released 1986, of “Me and the Devil” and “Crossroads,” the latter famously done by Eric Clapton in Cream. So, yeah, Johnson has never gone away, it’s just that, for my listening, he hadn’t really arrived.
Then I got a vinyl pressing of King of the Delta Blues last year and could hear better than on the CD I’d heard earlier. It makes a difference. Some say there’s a further difference to be made: that those recordings from the Thirties were pressed speeded-up, whether deliberately or not, and so we aren’t hearing what Johnson actually sounded like. I’ve heard a version of one of his songs remastered at what is supposedly the correct speed and it’s true that it has a better sound, but I don’t know that it really is Johnson’s sound. His voice on the versions that have existed for over 50 years has a high whine to it, so that even when he gets guttural there’s something a bit ethereal about it. Like it’s not just his voice you’re hearing but his very spirit. The “restored” version makes him sound more conventional.
Regardless of whether it’s how he would’ve sounded in person, the recordings of Johnson have the sound that is recognizable immediately as him. The song I’ve chosen for today is a good example and it suits this gloomy day here in early May in New Haven. An ordinary May in New Haven, we might call it.
“Come On In My Kitchen,” to me, fairly jumps off the grooves of this album. If you’ve heard blues that go deeper, I’d like to know where. The sentiment “you better come on in my kitchen / it’s gonna be rainin’ outdoors” pretty much says it all. It’s got that edgy feeling of knowing the shit’s going to be coming down and it suggests there might be a way of avoiding it. But like a lot of songs in the blues tradition, it gives what seems a benign invitation a feeling of foreboding. Like: IF you don’t come in my kitchen, all hell’s gonna come down on you.
The rest of the lyrics talk about a gal that’s making the rounds—she goes off with a best friend, then she gets stolen back. A woman—hypothetically here—“gets in trouble,” which can mean what you assume it means but it can also mean real heart trouble, like the kind that comes from two-timing two friends? In any case, there’s lots of rain outdoors.
There’s also an interesting figure for the used-up nature of the woman: “She’s gone / And she won’t be back / I took the last nickel / Out of her nation sack.” Apparently a nation sack is an actual bag worn by women as a talisman, to wield influence over a man (keeping him faithful, primarily). Depleting this bag (“last nickel”) is tantamount to saying “she’s out of tricks.”
What seems to me so distinctive about Johnson is the way he plays with such subdued but full feeling; there’s a very expressive way of fingering that many have imitated but which seems to be his own natural sound. And he matches this with a vocal that, on this song in particularly, stays close to the guitar, almost doubling its sound with his voice. The effect created makes the song sound like a cry in unison of guitar and voice. And when he does a little picking in the middle and says, “Yeah, can’t you hear that wind howl? / You can hear it now,” that’s the one place at which the guitar and voice both speak but differently. And it’s almost sotto voce, as if a word in your/her ear.
The only recordings of Johnson were made in 1936 and 1937. For a further tie-in for today: on this day, May 8, in 1937, Thomas Pynchon, one of my favorite living authors, was born, and so is now 77. That has nothing to do with Johnson except to say that TP was born on the penultimate birthday of Johnson’s short—27 years!—life.