Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929)
02. Big road blues
03. Bye-bye blues
04. Maggie Campbell blues
05. Canned heat blues
06. Lonesome home blues (take 1)
07. Lonesome home blues (take 2)
08. Big fat mama blues
09. I wonder to myself
10. Slidin` delta
11. Lonesome home blues
12. Untitled Song (Morning Prayer Blues)
13. Untitled Song (Boogaloosa Woman)
14. Black mare blues (take 1)
15. Black mare blues (take 2)
16. Ridin` horse
17. Alcohol and jake blues
Tommy Johnson; vocal , guitar.
With contributions by; Charlie McCoy , guitar; Kid Ernest Michall, clarinet, Charley Taylor, piano and others...
Charley Patton is often considered to be the father of the Mississippi Blues, and the young, ill-fated Robert Johnson epitomised the Mississippi Blues as its most agonised exponent. But there is no doubt that the music of Tommy Johnson epitomised the Mississippi Blues at its most expressive and poetic. Johnson achieved the perfection of a regional vocal and instrumental tradition, while realising its potential for the development of a unique and personal means of communication.
The Mississippi Delta is a wedge-shaped, fertile, blacklands region between the Yazoo and the Mississippi Rivers. Near Drew, the heart of the Delta, where so many blues singers lived, Tommy Johnson apparently met up with the celebrated Charley Patton, and the encounter helped shape his career. Barely eighteen, Tommy was soon back in Terry and playing hard in the jukes, accompanying his brother LeDell. There he married one Maggie Bidwell - very likely the Maggie Campbell of his song - and he took her up to the Delta with him to exchange stanzas and musical ideas with Patton, Willie Brown and the Drew musicians.
If they influenced him, in no way was Johnson a copyist; on the contrary, he was an individualist, whose sense of timing and rhythm, sensitive guitar playing, and impressive vocal range, were innate. They were brought together in Memphis, in 1928, on some of the most memorable recordings ever made of Mississippi Blues.
Cool Drink Of Water with its loose structure and unerring falsetto calls, the insistent momentum of Big Road Blues, the field holler singing of Bye Bye Blues, and the melisma of Lonesome Home Blues illustrate Johnson's combination of strength and sensibility. On some titles he was complemented by the young Charlie McCoy who played second guitar, mandolin-fashion, interweaving with Johnson's deceptively relaxed instrumental line.
In the main, Tommy Johnson used traditional verses, remodelling them to suit the overall theme of blues. But Canned Heat was a notable exception, a song about his addiction to crude alcohol. In a later session, on which his friend Ishman Bracey accompanied him on a couple of titles, he was less well served by the infamous recording quality of the Paramount company. But the quality of his blues was unimpaired on Slidinï¿½ Delta, and I Wonder hints at the humour for which he was known among his friends.
Perhaps the most extraordinary story in this documentation of a remarkable blues talent is the discovery, sixty years after it was made, of the sole known copy of his coupling Riding Horse and Alcohol and Jake Blues. A version of Maggie Campbell the former is much impaired, but on the latter, which is adapted from Canned Heat, we can hear Tommy Johnson fresh and relaxed, and at the height of his abilities. He lived on, unrecorded, for a quarter of a century; much addicted, but much admired and much copied by those who knew him.
An essential Tommy Johnson collection, Document's Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929) features 17 songs from the Delta blues pioneer, including two alternative takes and a pair of previously unissued songs known respectively as "Morning Prayer Blues" and "Boogaloosa Blues." Culled from the great Delta musician's recording sessions in Memphis and Grafton, WI, from February 1928 to December 1929, this collection shines a light on all of Johnson's known output during his most active recording years. As with most music taken straight from original 78s, the sound quality varies between tracks; all in all, the pops and static aren't too distracting here. The music is well-worth seeking out as the writing, guitar playing, and singing are all exceptional. ohnson's voice, one of the distinctive early Delta blues voices along with Son House and Charley Patton, changes from a deep rumble to a woeful falsetto while his guitar playing is characteristic of the early Delta style. With the exception of a few of the tracks from an August 1928 session, other players accompany Johnson on the tracks. Highlights include the well-known material such as "Cool Drink of Water Blues" and "Canned Heat Blues," as well as scratchy lesser-known gems from his later sessions. The tracks "Ridin' Horse" and "Alcohol and Jake Blues" were taken from what is believed to be the only remaining copy of the 78 they were originally released on. These two songs had not been released on CD prior to this collection. On the two versions of "Black Mare Blues" included, Johnson is joined by the New Orleans Nehi Boys, featuring Kid Ernest Marshall on clarinet and Charley Taylor on piano. This CD is highly recommended for those who have never heard Johnson's music and equally recommended for those who have.
Biography by Cub Koda
Next to Son House and Charley Patton, no one was more important to the development of pre-Robert Johnson Delta blues than Tommy Johnson. Armed with a powerful voice that could go from a growl to an eerie falsetto range and a guitar style that had all of the early figures and licks of the Delta style clearly delineated, Johnson only recorded for two years — from 1928 to 1930 — but left behind a body of work that's hard to ignore.
The legend of Tommy Johnson is even harder to ignore. The stories about his live performances — where he would play the guitar behind his neck in emulation of Charley Patton's showboating while hollering the blues at full throated level for hours without a break — are part of it. So is his uncontrolled womanizing and alcoholism, both of which constantly got him in trouble. Johnson's addiction to spirits was so pronounced that he was often seen drinking Sterno-denatured alcohol used for artificial heat — or shoe polish strained through bread for the kick each could offer when whiskey wasn't affordable or available in dry counties throughout the South. Then there's the crossroads story. Yes, years before the deal with the Devil at a deserted Delta crossroad was being used as an explanation of the other-worldly abilities of young Robert Johnson, the story was being told repeatedly about Tommy, often by the man himself to reinforce his abilities to doubting audiences.
Then there's the music. His "Cool Water Blues" got amped up in the '50s by one of his early admirers, Howlin' Wolf, and became "I Asked for Water (She Brought Me Gasoline)." Another signature piece, his "Maggie Campbell," came with a chord progression that was used for infinite variations by blues players dating all the way back to his contemporary Charley Patton through Robert Nighthawk. Two of his best-known numbers have survived into modern times; "Big Road Blues" is probably best known to contemporary blues fans from adaptions by Floyd Jones and others, while his "Canned Heat Blues" — a bone-chilling account of his complete addiction to alcohol and his slavish attempts to score it by whatever means necessary — was the tune that gave a California blues-rock band their name. After awhile, all of the above starts adding up, no matter how you slice it. Tommy Johnson was one tough hombre, and a real piece of work.
He was born in 1896 in Hinds County, MS, on the George Miller plantation. Once the family moved to Crystal Springs in 1910, Tommy picked up the guitar, learning from his older brother, LeDell. By age 16, Johnson had run away from home to become a "professional" musician, largely supporting himself by playing on the street for tips. By the late teens-early '20s, Tommy was frequently playing the company of rising local stars Charley Patton, Dick Bankston and Willie Brown, their collective ouevre planting seed, later becoming the first greening of the Mississippi Delta blues. Johnson spent most of the '20s drinking, womanizing, gambling, and playing in the company of Rubin Lacy, Charley McCoy, Son Spand, Walter Vincent, and Ishmon Bracey when the money got low and apparently, only when the mood struck him. By all acounts, Tommy felt no particular drive to relentlessly promote himself and — while he played music for pay until the very end of his life — he certainly wasn't as serious about his career as he was about his drinking. He cut his first records for the Victor (later RCA Victor, now BMG) label at sessions held in Memphis, TN, in 1928. Johnson's first releases hit the area hard, inspiring a raft of up and comers that reads like the proverbial who's who list; you could easily count Howlin' Wolf, Robert Nighthawk, Houston Stackhouse, Floyd Jones, Boogie Bill Webb, K.C. Douglas, Johnny "Geechie" Temple, and Otis Spann among his many disciples.
He cut one more stack of great records for the Paramount label in 1930, largely through the maneuvering of fellow drinking buddy Charley Patton. Then the slow descent into alcoholism started taking its toll, the one too many nights of Sterno and shoe polish buzzes reducing his once prodigious talents to small, sporadic flickerings of former genius. He worked on a medicine show with Ishmon Bracey in the '30s, but mostly seemed to be a mainstay of the juke and small party dance circuit the rest of his days. He was playing just such a local house party in November of 1956 when he suffered a fatal heart attack and went out in probably the exact fashion he wanted to. Whether the story about the deal with the Devil at the crossroads was something he truly believed or just something Johnson said to drum up local interest in himself, it seems odd that you'll find him buried at the Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery in Crystal Springs. Maybe he mellowed out towards the end, maybe he found God. Some things about the blues you'll never know, no matter how many computers you hook up to it.