This Day in Music History – Jason Fickel on Robert Johnson

It was today in 1936 that Robert Johnson laid down his first recordings.  Here to talk about the man and his own three degrees of separation is Jason Fickel.

On this day in 1936, bluesman Robert Johnson made his first recordings in San Antonio, Texas. Often called one of the most influential blues performers of all time, his influence has been non-linear. In his day, his records sold poorly and he was not very well-known, even in his native Mississippi. While he was familiar to some aficionados during his brief life, his influence was greatest on later generations of players, specifically Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. Johnson’s music also spoke to academics of the same era (mid-1960s). I posit that the Brits and profs colluded to magnify Johnson’s significance beyond what it was to other most Mississippi musicians. It believe that it was only after being asked about Johnson repeatedly that other bluesmen (Muddy Waters, Son House, Honeyboy Edwards) developed coherent if fantastic narratives about him.

The recordings do sound a bit more derivative to me than they did when I encountered them in the 1980s. I now hear a lot of Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and the pop tunes of the day in his tortured blues. That being said, his blues are sure enough tortured. The recordings are a magical mystery tour through some kind of torment and celebration. They do indeed have the spooky heft to build a myth on their own, with or without the earnest hagiography. They grabbed me bad and helped send me down my own path to Mississippi where I would eventually learn to play guitar from James “Son” Thomas, a student (in that juke joint kind of way) of Elmore James, who in turn learned to play slide guitar from Johnson himself.

Before I sign off, I got to give a shout-out to Texas: even though Johnson was from Mississippi, he recorded in the Lone Star state, the very same massive state that gave us the best recorded work of Bob Wills and Buddy Holly, all three within 25 years of each other! Give it up for mid-century Texas, y’all!

Jason Fickel is a singer-songwriter, a guitar slinger, and a bluesman at heart.  Check him out via the internet, right here.

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