September 17, 2010

Down to the Crossroads: Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix

The following is an essay I wrote a few years back comparing Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix. 40 years ago on September 18, 1970 Jimi Hendrix passed away.

                        Down to the Crossroads: Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix

                                    "The reflection of the world is blues,
                                    that's where that part of the music is at." Jimi Hendrix
            In the nineteenth century, a new form of music came to prominence in the African-American communities along the Mississippi River - the blues. This new musical style was in many ways derived from the spirituals and music of Africa. The call and response form, the succession of two phrases, where the second phrase is a response to the first, was a human expression used in African religious rituals. Pre-blues music was adapted from the call and response field shouts and hollers performed during slave times, expanded into "simple solo songs laden with emotional content" (Ferris, Jean, 1993). The earliest accounts of blues music are described as “call and response”, lacking harmony and instrumentation. The work songs and spirituals of the African American communities were passionate, conveying the struggles and misery of the times.
            Although this new musical style had many structures, blues music was most commonly twelve-, eight-, or sixteen-bar stanzas. Like ragtime, a musical style developing parallel to blues, the harmonic content was based on the tonic, the sub dominant, and the dominant chord. Early delta blues musicians such as Skip James and the legendary Son House most commonly played the twelve bar blues, and accompanied their voices with acoustic guitars and occasional bottleneck slides; Arguably the most influential of the delta blues musicians, was Robert Johnson.
            Robert Johnson is a legendary figure, influencing musicians of all genres including rock musicians Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. Johnson, a gifted blues musician, mastered the craft of vocal phrasing, had the ability to write haunting lyrics, and possessed an unmatched guitar playing style. It is curious to note, for someone so influential to popular music, there is so little known of Robert Johnson.
            According to legend…
            Robert Johnson was a young black man living on a plantation in rural             Mississippi. Branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician, he             was instructed to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery's plantation at             midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar             from Johnson, tuned the guitar so that he could play anything that he wanted, and             handed it back to him in return for his soul. Within less than a year's time, in             exchange for his everlasting soul, Robert Johnson became the king of the Delta             blues singers, able to play, sing, and create the greatest blues anyone had ever             heard (Wardlow, 1998, pp. 196-201).
            Legend aside, Robert Johnson was an extremely capable musician at the point of his makeshift recordings in 1936 and 1937. Robert Johnson’s June 19, 1937 recording of ‘Stones In My Passway’ exemplifies much of the delta blues musician’s sought-after technique. The recording opens with Johnson playing a line with bottleneck slide, he then repeats the slide and octave down. As he moves into the verse of the song, he swings into a now-familiar blues shuffle of seventh chords. According to blues historians, the first recorded shuffle was captured only two years before Johnson, on Johnnie Temple’s “Lead Pencil Blues” (1935). Most impressive of Johnson’s recording is his ability to sing the melody while simultaneously varying the rhythms of the treble notes over the walking bass notes. The bass line, plucked by his right hand thumb, sounds a deep thud, possibly muted with the right hand palm, to only let the notes of turnarounds he is playing on top ring out. This effect of playing the bass line while varying plucking, upstrokes and down strokes, and dampening selected notes creates the effect of a rhythm section behind one man and an acoustic guitar.
            In 1990, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones recalled first hearing Robert Johnson’s music,
            “When I first heard it, I said to Brian, Who's that? Robert Johnson, he said. Yeah,             but who's the other guy playing with him? Because I was hearing two guitars, and             it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself. The             guitar playing - it was almost like listening to Bach. You know, you think you're             getting a handle on playing the blues, and then you hear Robert Johnson - some of             the rhythms he's doing and playing and singing at the same time, you think, this             guy must have 3 brains! You want to know how good the blues can get? Well,             this is it.” (McPherson,, 2000)
            There are many qualities and nuances of Robert Johnson’s music that give it a unique quality. Robert Johnson as a songwriter was also gifted. Whether intended or not, the use of adding and dropping syllables in lyrics to provide momentum to a song is very apparent in Johnson’s original blues compositions, a now standard songwriting technique.

Below is the syllable count for two verses of Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman”.
            I got a kind hearted woman                        8
            Do anything in this world for me.            9
              (Repeat phrases)                                    17 (8+9)
            But the evil hearted women                        8
            man they will not let me be.                        7

            I love my baby                                                5
            My baby don’t love me                        6
            (Repeat)                                                11 (5+6)
            But I really love that woman                        8
            can’t stand to leave her be.                        6
            In 1938, Johnson was believed to have traveled east through the southern states, possibly stopping through Memphis, Tennessee. Like much of the life of Robert Johnson, his final days are clouded with rumor and speculation. There are stories of Johnson being handed a bottle of poisoned whiskey and becoming ill. However, it is know that on August 16th, 1938 at the startling age of twenty-seven, Robert Johnson mysteriously died at the country crossroads of Greenwood, Mississippi.
            In many ways the music of Robert Johnson set the path to which blues music would grow. In the 1940s and 1950s, artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters took the sounds of the Mississippi delta to a new, industrial world of in Chicago. The ‘Chicago blues’ sound is characterized by the addition of the rhythm section - drums, pianos, and the new sounds of electric guitars and amplifiers.
            If there are three chapters to the story of blues music, the first chapter would be Robert Johnson and the delta blues music, the second chapter would be the Chicago blues of the 1950s, and the third chapter would be Jimi Hendrix.
            In many ways rock and soul-psychedelic (as he is so commonly referred to) artist Jimi Hendrix, is a true bluesman. The music he created and the life he led draws remarkable parallels to the music and life of Robert Johnson.
            Before Jimi Hendrix became an icon of the late 1960s London music scene and the Woodstock festival of 1969, he was an rhythm and blues musician.
            As a boy growing up in Seattle, Washington in the 1950s, Hendrix was exposed to the blues. Al Hendrix, Jimi’s father, had a vast collection of the blues records including Muddy Waters and Elmore James. At a young age Hendrix grew interest in becoming a musician, specifically a guitarist.
            Although it is unclear at what age Hendrix first heard Robert Johnson, it wasn’t until Columbia Records released ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’ in 1961, that his music would have been available to young James Marshall Hendrix.
            As a guitar player, Hendrix was a master blues player. On the 1966 recording of ‘Red House’, Hendrix redefines the blues. The recording features Hendrix playing blazing quick blues riffs through a fuzzed out Stratocaster. The guitar solo on ‘Red House’ defines the genre of blues-rock and since has become, to many, the holy grail of blues guitar. Incorporated into Jimi’s overdriven sound and rapid style are the licks of B.B. King and slides of Elmore James. As one of Jimi’s first recordings, his true affinity to blues music is clear. ‘Red House’ is an original composition of Hendrix’s, and the song became a staple of his live set, up until his death in 1970.
            Of all the songs Jimi Hendrix recorded, none draw from Robert Johnson more than ‘Voodoo Chile’, a haunting story of birth and death tainted with hoodoo and witchcraft. 
            The song opens with Hendrix, solo, playing blues licks in the lower register of his Eb tuned Stratocaster, similar to Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Pathway” introduction. Jimi begins to sing the opening line, in a soft moan, accompanying the minor blues melody with unison notes on the guitar – a technique used commonly in blues, especially on the music of Robert Johnson.
            Well, the night I was born                                    6
            Lord I swear the moon turned a fire red            9
            The night I was born                                                5
            I swear the moon turned a fire red                        8
            Well my poor mother cried out lord, the gypsy was right!            13
            And I seen her fell down right dead                        8
            The imagery Hendrix captures in the song is similar to Robert Johnson’s images of the devil in songs like “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues”. The song progresses, with the addition of the rhythm section including Steve Winwood on a Hammond B3 organ, capturing the chilling midnight feel of Hendrix’s sacrificial blues, ‘Voodoo Chile’.
            To this day, many feel Hendrix brought the blues to a point it has not since surpassed. In the same respect, Robert Johnson did the same with the acoustic country blues of the Mississippi delta. Hendrix not only built off the traditional blues and the blues of Muddy Waters and Elmore James, he brought it to the rock music scene in his own unique form, incorporating it into his pop music styles. His guitar playing in general, on songs that would not be considered a blues, are in fact the playing of a bluesman. His unorthodox chord shapes, and the use of his large, left thumb to move bass lines under his chords are very similar to the thumb use of Robert Johnson.
            Again, like Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix led a strange life filled with excess in many areas. At the peak of his career, at a point of growth, Jimi began to contemplate where to bring his music next. Tragically the life and musical journey of a genius musician were cut short. On September 18th, 1970, Jimi Hendrix died in London. The death of Hendrix was mysterious. Lyrics were found in the flat on which Jimi died in London, and many believe them to be a suicide note. Although there is room for speculation, it is reported Hendrix died of asphyxiation from his own vomit.

Jimi Hendrix died at the age of twenty-seven, exact age of Robert Johnson.


  1. Hendrix is RJ reincarnated. Jimi simply psychedelectrified the blues with the aid of analog recording technology of the late 20th century. renato