OTR, Take 15: Robert Johnson – The Complete Master Recordings

Before getting to anything else, I have to take a moment to say thank you for the tremendous outpouring of love and support after I published last week's newsletter tribute to Winnie.  I received touching comments, DMs, text messages, physical notes (in the actual mail!?), and phone calls.  I am absolutely floored by you folks.  Thank you for giving a shit.

It's been a hard week and I'm not going to pretend I was particularly productive.  Lots of sitting down to do work I wanted to get done and lots of staring at screens or notebooks.  I suppose that's to be expected; as one of the notes I received said, big loss flows from big love.  (I presume she didn't mean that reality show about polygamists, but I've been wrong before!)

Life will gradually take on a sense of normal again, though with a streak of color forever missing from the palette.  Thank you, again.

Okay, let's talk some blues!  Old-school blues, the original blues.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about friendship and the attenuating circumstances of life.  I mentioned how much I loved that my great friend Dave Vaala routinely sends me a photo or short video of the record he's listening to on Friday night to be in communion with my Saturday morning spin.  Vaala is a man of many faces.  He knows more about frog reproduction than basically anybody on earth and can make you the best version of any obscure cocktail you can name.  He has a fabulous record collection, yet he listens to ska (I kid, I kid).  He's one of the very best people I know and I am fortunate to call him my friend.

He dialed it up this week and sent me a record.  In the mail.  Legend.  And boy did he pick a record to send my way: the complete master recordings of Robert Johnson, a bluesman so unique and groundbreaking, a musician so steeped in legend, that it's nearly impossible to untangle the real from the fabrications.

I love the artwork on the cover so much!

You may have heard the legend about Robert Johnson.  Met with the devil in the Missippi delta, disappeared for a year, and re-emerged playing the blues like nobody had ever heard before.  I am fascinated by these legends, not because of the purported deal signed in blood, but because of what it says about his contemporaries that led them to explain away something they simply couldn't understand.

Arthur C. Clarke stated that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  The same holds true for a generational musical talent.  Every once in a while, someone comes along and plays something that is simply impossible.  That cannot be done with human hands.  And yet, there it is.

I've had this experience a few times.  I'm not an amazing musician, but I'm pretty okay.  I'm not the most technically proficient, but I can usually figure out how another guitarist is playing something – even if I can't quite replicate it.  But sometimes, I'll hear a record or see someone live who does something I just can't explain.  On record, this is less troubling (you can do all kinds of crazy shit in a studio), but on stage...that's something else.  I'll stand there, a supremely confused primate, my head turned like a dog trying to understand.  And when I am unable, there's a piece deep down in me that wants to scream, Sorcery!

There's an apocryphal story (that I choose to believe both because I want it to be true and also because it has all the hallmarks of truth) about the time Keith Richards and Mick Jagger first heard a recording of Robert Johnson.  They listened for a few tracks, nodding approvingly.  Eventually, Keith spoke up.

"Yeah, he's pretty good.  Who's he playing with?"

The guy who was playing Johnson for the Rolling fucking Stones, as I imagine it, shuffled his feet and nervously cleared his throat.

"It's uh...it's just him."

"Nah, there's another guy playing lead," Mick insisted.


Johnson remained a bit of a myth for quite some time.  The legend of the recordings he made in 1936 spread, although it wasn't until the 1970s that photos of the man began to surface.

Look at those eyes.

That is a man who has seen things.  I'm taken also by his fingers – perhaps only in a way that another guitarist (or pianist) can be fascinated by another man's hands.  There's a strength to those narrow digits.  You can see the formation there of the way he played: the structure of his fretting hand accounts for the rhythm playing on the bass strings and his pinky and pointer are there ready to play a little lead.

Even if you are not familiar with Johnson himself, you know his songs.  He's one of the most revered bluesman, which means – in a genre that is obsessed with form and precedent (not unlike law, in some ways) – there are a ton of covers of his music.  I'd be willing to bet you've at least heard "Sweet Home Chicago" somewhere along the way.

Whether Dave intended it or not, the blues have been my soundtrack for the past week.  No better way to ground myself and attempt to invite a better week to come than to spend some time with the master himself.

I hope all of you have a lovely Saturday!

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