Review Summary: I asked for water: she gave me gasoline…2 of 2 thought this review was well written
Delta Blues: the name is a specter that haunts any serious discussion of rock and roll history. Undoubtedly a fascinating historical document, a combination of chronological distance and middle aged white men watering down a potent musical force has lead it to become a time capsule and little more. Apart from the stifling world of aficionados, the blues is too often woefully disregarded by most as a respectable yet anachronistic relic useful only as a retrospective glimpse into the birth of rock and roll. Unfortunately, this tokenistic understanding of the blues bleeds the genre of the integrity it deserves, the innovation it pioneered, and the unmatched talent of its legendary figures, whose records, although no longer available in their original context and overshadowed by the revolutions in music they created, remain self-contained works of art and merit.
Tommy Johnson is one such legend, a quintessential example of the style in its infancy. Born in 1896 on a plantation in Terry, Mississippi, before moving to Crystal Springs in 1910, Johnson soon learned the rudimentary elements of the Delta style, a blues variant that displayed a clear symbiosis with the field hollers and work songs that soundtracked life on cotton plantations. Delta instrumentation was ostensibly simple yet deceivingly so, the percussive use of the guitar often highly decorated in the characteristic meandering blues licks which, in skilled hands, would reach a hypnotic level with a sinister ease. This is especially evident in Johnson’s eerie fretwork, which, if you believe his self-cultivated persona, was bestowed upon him by the devil himself one night at the crossroads, in exchange for Johnson’s soul.
“Cool Drink of Water Blues” certainly does little to dispel this mythology, immediately introducing Johnson’s trademark falsetto, which, when mixed with the gritty, rumbling howls of “Big Road Blues” sets an undoubtedly unsettling mood, a feeling aided by the crackling distance imparted by late 1920’s recording equipment. The 17 tracks on this record come from two separate recording sessions with accompanying musicians, the first for the Victor Company and the second for Paramount, the later suffering from an almost unlistenable amount of static corrupting the tracks, while the rawness of the former instead compliments their confronting timbre. Much of the record follows a similar template, the tempo is mostly restrained save for playfully upbeat numbers always strangely juxtaposed with dark subject matter. Johnson, like most blues musicians of the time, is immensely skilled, but makes this subservient to the emotional expression of the music: his voice is not meant to impress but rather act as the outlet for his pain, the guitar is subtle and understated, playing delicate variations on a theme to keep the songs captivating and interesting while cultivating an essential repetition. Johnson is, however, always in exquisite control of his instruments, and subsequently the listener, who, as if Johnson’s marionette, is jerked around by the rhythmical, animated strumming and trips on slid or vibrated notes placed for emphasis and impact, not empty embellishment.
Johnson has good reason to be playing the blues, and he sings with the unchallengeable integrity of an originator in the field. Much like the howling desperation of the field hollers, Johnson’s recordings are blunt expressions of oppression both socially enforced and personally inflicted. A sharecropper by day, Johnson was also a womanizer, and most infamously a heavy alcoholic whose consuming need for intoxication (so much so that he would strain the alcohol out of everyday household items such as shoe polish) is reflected heavily in the immense depression and dependence that permeates the record. In “Canned Heat Blues,” he is found lamenting his penchant for drinking lighter fluid to fuel his addiction, the heavy lyrical repetition echoing the folk poetry and slang of the cotton fields while adding to the sense of despair, helplessness and ennui that characterizes his work. The remainder of the record is equally bleak, delving into a deep sense of loneliness and entrapment as displayed on tracks such as “Big Road Blues,” or “Bye Bye Blues.” While desperate and pained Johnson constantly refrains from being abrasive, using superb compositional skills to evoke a coherent mood of melancholia, which, through a nuanced reiteration of licks and lyrics, masterfully imparts the helpless stupor of Johnson’s life onto the listener.
Little more needs to be said, as the experience stands for itself. Much could be made about the influence of this record, from the supernatural stories and clichés that became deeply and namelessly folded into blues mythology to the indisputable influence of Johnson not only on his contemporaries such as Howlin’ Wolf or Robert Johnson, but to the scope and direction of music to come as his innovations and efforts seeped into the birth of rock and metal music. But to focus on this is to create unnecessary barriers to a pure and immersive experience of a record that is less a historical document and more an intense glimpse into a songwriter of indisputable passion, pain, and skill. As a pioneer of the Delta Blues, Johnson was not only pivotal in the violent and tumultuous conception of rock and roll, he remains deeply embedded in the fabric of contemporary music long after his passing. Eighty years on, his distinctive, soulless warble remains an eerie ghost haunting the history and future of rock music, surviving not only through his legacy, but through a body of work that encapsulates so much spirit in such little time. Far beyond the grave, Johnson is still singing…still crying…still looking for that cool drink of water and waiting for the wind to change and blow his blues away. It is a testament to his power that they remain. Far into the future, he’ll still going down this big road by himself…