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Robert Johnson

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Robert Johnson


Despite his early death and small list of recordings, Robert Johnson is without a doubt one of the most influential musician's of the twentieth century. Among those indebted to his music are: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Eric Clapton (Cream) and The Rolling Stones. At the root of Robert Johnson's music is a relentless ability to express the deepest rawest emotion with unmistakable honesty, clarity and soul. Robert Johnson expressed his life experience through his music, which quickly became the center of his existence. Therefore to understand Robert Johnson we must understand his upbringing, his recorded works and their interrelationship.

Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911, Robert Johnson spent the first few years of his life in migrant labor camps . After being raised partly by his step father Charles Spencer in Memphis and his second step father Willie "Dusty" Willis in Robinsonville Mississippi, Robert Johnson married Virginia Travis in February 19292. In 1930 Virginia Travis died in childbirth at sixteen. The loss of his first love and their expected child pushed the young Robert Johnson to the life of The Blues. Later that year, Robert first came in contact with blues legend Eddie James "Son House" Jr. In was in "Son House" that Robert was first exposed to the "rawest, most direct pure emotion..." he had ever heard. This led him to start to play the guitar and begin to develop as a blues singer. He developed so quickly that rumor began spread of him selling his soul for his astonishing ability. All of Johnson's recoded works were done on two studio dates, one in San Antonio TX in 1936 and one in Dallas TX a year later. Only two years after his first recording, Robert Johnson was poisoned at one of his performances and died shortly after at the age of twenty-seven.

Upon recalling his tragic life, one can begin to gain insight into his music. One of his most famous songs 'Crossroad Blues (take 2)' is characteristic of his immediate and heartbreaking style. It is also unique because of its harmonic/rhythmic structure, its melodic embellishments and foreboding lyrics.

When first listening to 'Crossroad Blues (take 2) one hears the usual harmonic progression of a blues. The first phrase stays on the I7 of the key then moving to IV7 in the second phrase and to V7 on the last phrase. In a standard blues form this would mean that each phrase is four bars long. However, when listening closer, it becomes apparent that each phrase is not only of different lengths but may also contain meter changes. For example in the first chorus the phrases are divided as follows: (I) 4/4, 4/4, 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 4/4 (II) 4/4, 4/4, 4/4, 4/4, 2/4 (III) 4/4, 4/4, 4/4, 4/4 . If we skip ahead to chorus three we find yet another structure :(I) 4/4, 4/4, 4/4, 4/4, 2/4 (II) 4/4, 4/4, 4/4, 4,4, 2/4 (III) 4/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 . One can speculate that Johnson followed his melody line intuitively making the blues form conform to the lyrics he wrote. This gives the song an organic floating feeling while still sustaining the blues form harmonically.

Robert Johnson's singing is at the same time elastic and mournful. He will often spring into a note from a lower pitch giving the phase lift and direction. The first line of the 'Crossroad Blues' is 'I went to the crossroad'. He springs up from the root of the chord to the minor seventh on the 'I'. He does the same embellishment on the beginning of the next line on the word 'fell' and several other times throughout the tune. The mournful quality in his voice comes through especially when he changes the timbre of his voice from brilliant to wispy. At the beginning of the third chorus the color of his voice changes from the word 'sun' and 'gon''. On the word 'gon'' his voice hollows out giving the listener the feeling that something is absent, which makes perfect sense in the context of the song, in which the light is decreasing as the day is ending.




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