Eric Clapton, rightfully, revered the mysterious Southern bluesman Robert Johnson and, because of that, some dubbed him the father of rock ‘n’ roll. Anthony Mostrom, who also admires Johnson, nonetheless offers a point-by-point refutation of that latter opinion herein:
That’s Robert Johnson, also known as Eric Clapton’s everlasting God. When CBS Sony released the box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings back in 1990, you would have thought the sky fell in. Some overexcited critics declared him to be the original father of rock ‘n roll, or something close to that. Clapton’s number one favorite bluesman was finally made available to a new generation of fans who could wrongly, ignorantly, proclaim him the original father of the blues too, thereby ignoring the vast golden age of blues recordings from about 1924 to 1935, the generation of bluesmen and women that had preceded and influenced him. Johnson was from a younger generation and didn’t record until 1936 and 1937.
But Robert Johnson was an innovator inspired by that great blues tradition that was concentrated in Mississippi and Tennessee. Once you’ve heard him, it’s maddeningly hard to keep his catchy tunes out of your head for long. Here on the song “Preachin’ Blues” his playing sounds almost literally out of control, and to my ears makes a strong case for the appeal of acoustic blues over electrified rock: that gut-level box-and-string sound, rough and almost chaotically off the rails, the slide of the glass bottleneck on the guitar shivering like a fish out of water, its insistent rhythm almost hypnotic and drone-like…intense.
There’s been a half a ton of biographies of Robert Johnson written since the release of that Columbia box set 20 years ago, but I think the best of them has just come out, written by two seasoned blues scholars who know the history of the blues from top to bottom and combined about 100 accumulated years of work into the book. It’s called Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson.
The music gods made sure that Robert Johnson was born in a certain place and time: 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. There, he first saw and heard, then met and eventually learned from the great guitar bluesmen of the time…like Charley Patton and his friends, Son House and Willie Brown. Both of these blues “elders” had recorded for Paramount in 1930, and were celebrities among blues-loving Southern black folk:
Robert Johnson’s 78 rpm blues sides include one song directly inspired by another older Mississippian, Skip James, on whose 1931 original version James’ anarchic piano is very different from Johnson’s guitar playing:
James himself was a lifelong wanderer and a loner from the tiny town of Bentonia, Mississippi. Like Johnson, he was one of the great songwriting innovators in blues, and his music would influence musicians beyond Robert Johnson’s generation well into the 1960s. Unfortunately he was also one of those tortured “sinners” who vacillated between playing the so-called “devil’s music” and going back to preaching the Gospel exclusively, a lifelong pattern of blues vs. guilt, something that never troubled Johnson (Son House reportedly suffered from the same conflict as James, which he too never resolved).
Meanwhile, you might wonder: was there a genuine “father of the blues” at some early point in time, some primordial ur-genius way, way back before, say, the First World War? The disappointing answer is: no, not really, except for a nameless, tantalizing phantom who was sighted around the year of 1900 playing bottleneck guitar at a railroad depot in Tutwiler, Mississippi. You can read about this fascinating incident in the published autobiography of the so-called “blues” composer W.C. Handy, which he rather dubiously titled Father of the Blues (Handy wrote brass-band music with a slight bluesy blue-note flavor).
But the guitar-based country blues that was recorded by hundreds of artists on thousands of 78 rpm records during the 1920s and 1930s clearly constitutes rock n’ roll’s granddaddy. A standout genius from among these artists, like the awesomely creative Charlie Patton, could probably qualify, by about 90%, as being the first rock musician. Try this:
Digging deeper into the bedrock of rock and blues history, one can get very excited when coming across something as tantalizing as this one: William Moore’s “Old Country Rock”, from 1928:
Great, isn’t it? Sounds like a peaceful picnic on a river… I love this record too but, alas, it rocketh not. On the other hand, you have something like this early “urban” blues from North Carolina’s Blind Boy Fuller recorded in 1940, which sounds a heck of a lot like Rockabilly, which didn’t exist until a good ten years after:
It’s a safe bet that Eric Clapton does not believe in the devil, but he does believe in black American bluesmen as gods. Clapton and his fellow rock musicians of the 1960s (Brits born during the World War II, mostly) were connoisseurs of the prewar country blues. The Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Jack Bruce: they were all, in terms of musical knowledge, miles ahead of their young and musically in-the-dark American audiences.
Like Dylan, these young Brits were absorbing old-time American blues thanks to some early ‘60s LP compilations released on tiny reissue labels like Origin Jazz Library, Herwin Records and Belzona, labels launched as “passion projects” by the first generation of white blues collectors who were eager to share their treasures (and who have now become part of blues history themselves: see Amanda Petrusich’s great book, Do Not Sell At Any Price: the Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records).
None of the British blues-loving rock musicians of the ‘60s mined the goldmines quite like Clapton did. On the 1966 album Fresh Cream, the band covered a long-forgotten 1931 blues by (there he is again) Robert Johnson’s hero, Skip James. Here Clapton even duplicates Skip’s fingerpicking style:
American rockers got into the act too, of course: remember that folksy and strangely popular country rock song from the ‘70s called “The Midnight Special”, as sung by Creedence Clearwater Revival, a bunch of Californian boys? Well, here’s the deep-Southern, black, extremely rare 1927 version, of which those ever-lovin’ Fogerty brothers, John and Tom, were obvious fans:
Meanwhile, some of your longhaired uncles knew and loved the group Canned Heat and no doubt moved n’ grooved to the band’s biggest hit “Going Up the Country”, which featured the bizarrely falsetto-ish voice of band member Alan Wilson, singing about hittin’ the good old American road (side note: Canned Heat’s guitarist Henry Vestine was a major collector of vintage blues 78s).
This turned out to be a quite faithful version of an early, square-dance-flavored blues number recorded back in 1928 by a black Texas “songster” named Henry Thomas (nickname: Ragtime Texas):
Some fans know the story of the Rolling Stones taking on an old-time blues song and not crediting the composer until they were forced to by lawyers: the composer happened to still be alive at the time. The album was Beggars Banquet, and the Stones had taken the Rev. Robert Wilkins’ song from 1929, “That’s No Way to Get Along”, and simply re-titled it “The Prodigal Son” and credited it to themselves. Here’s the original (better) version, from a Victor 78:
Speaking of rock, remember Elvis? Remember how he and a handful of young Southern artists scraped away all those jazzy, bloated saxophone barnacles from so-called “rhythm and blues” (awful stuff that sounded like piles of freakin’ Glenn Miller orchestrations) and created a kind of black-flavored rockabilly, all speeded up and intensified and called it you-know-what? (Bill Haley helped, and he was a Northerner.) The Elvis Presley-Bo Diddley-Bill Haley revolution could be seen now as a clear parallel to the way punk stripped off ‘70s progressive rock’s baubles and ornaments and brought the music back to its twin original sources: to blues and country music:
In the mid-1960s, Eric Clapton heard (on a compilation LP called Country Blues Encores) Blind Joe Reynolds’ 1929 Paramount recording “Outside Woman Blues”, and was struck by Reynolds’ extremely catchy repeated riff and his comical, sarcastic lyrics. Clapton’s band Cream had the discerning good taste to record this virtually unknown rarity, whose intensity must have seemed too incredibly rock-like to be left ignored and forgotten, and composed by an ultra-obscure Southern bluesman who, unbeknownst to anyone, was still alive in 1967 and living in his native Louisiana, playing blues for tips on the street! As you know, their version was released on the 1967 Cream album Disraeli Gears:
Joe recorded the original back in November 1929 on Paramount Records:
After Blind Joe Reynolds, there’s not much left to say. Except that if everyone has their candidate for the first rock record, that one’s mine.