Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Riffing on Robert Johnson's astounding legacy

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Robert Johnson wasn't the first blues singer to emerge from the Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression, but his 29 recordings have emerged as an enduring element of American culture. USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver gathered perspectives on the artist and on the state of the blues from those who have come under his influence.

  • David

    By Gene Tomko

    David "Honeyboy" Edwards, 95, knew Johnson, who died at age 27. "It is amazing to me how his music has carried on a long ways," he says.

By Gene Tomko

David "Honeyboy" Edwards, 95, knew Johnson, who died at age 27. "It is amazing to me how his music has carried on a long ways," he says.

Guitarist/vocalist Warren Haynes

On learning to play the blues: "It takes a long time to get to a point where you aren't analyzing what you're playing and are just letting it come through. ... He got good in such a short time, and you wanted to know how. When you're a teen studying the blues, that's a pretty heavy thing to process."

Haynes, lead guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band and Gov't Mule, will take his Warren Haynes Band to Greenwood, Miss., on Saturday to perform at the Robert Johnson Centennial concerts.

Record company executive Bruce Iglauer

On the future of the blues: "B.B. King and Buddy Guy are in their 80s and 70s, respectively, and no figure since (the late) Stevie Ray Vaughan has arisen to be the next world icon of blues. So when those artists are no longer performing, people will say, 'Is the blues still here?' (Today's performers) have to take the emotions and healing power that blues already has had and put it in contemporary form."

Iglauer is founder and president of blues label Alligator Records.

Traditional blues revivalist Rory Block

On her Johnson obsession, captured on 2006'sThe Lady and Mr. Johnson: "He was the mountaintop. I had nothing better to add. I strived to recreate it, crack the code, note for note, measure for measure, out of deep respect. It's like Handel's Messiah, which they play the way it was written. It was my Ph.D."

Block played on the Johnson tribute tour with the Big Head Blues Club.

Record producer Steve Berkowitz

On the potency of Johnson's music: "I don't think Wiz Khalifa or Lil Wayne or any heavy-metal band has any deeper despair in their music than Robert Johnson. This handsome man plays around, likes to drink, gets poisoned, crawling on his belly down the street with foam coming out of his mouth, and dies. Then you listen to the music and it IS that great!"

Berkowitz is co-producer on the new Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters Centennial Edition box set.

Guitarist Steve Miller

On blues influences in today's R&B and hip-hop: "It's in everything. You can't kill it. You can take a hip-hop beat and sing Cross Roads to it. I feel it in all of these pop music variations. It has taken me a lifetime to realize this."

Miller's Let Your Hair Down features original treatments of classic blues songs, including Johnson's Sweet Home Chicago.

Former Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin

On the blues life: "I came up the hard way. We had no food, people were robbing and stealing. Your love life wasn't working right. Heck, I was taught the blues by people who had the blues. I don't care if it's rock or jazz or country, you better believe the words you're singing."

Sumlin, 79, performed with the Big Head Blues Clubs' Johnson tribute tour.

Johnson friend David 'Honeyboy' Edwards

On white performers adapting to the blues:  "They've got good fingers, but most of them don't have the voice. Let me tell you something, the blues was meant to be played slow. And they play it too fast. The slower it's played, the more things that you can pour into it from your own lifetime of experiences."

Edwards, 95,will play this weekend at the Johnson festivities in Greenwood, Miss.

Music writer Bob Riesman

On the fateful connection between Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, another influencer of early rock: "In 1938, (producer) John Hammond organized a Carnegie Hall concert. He wanted blues represented, and he wanted Robert Johnson. When he went to look for him, he found Johnson had died." Broonzy replaced him, with "tremendous success."

Riesman's I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy, has just been published by University of Chicago Press.

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