Sample Essay On Blues And Related Traditions
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Robert Johnson is often referred to as the “king of delta blues”. He is a unique guitarist and singer of country blues from Mississippi (“country” in this context means just simple, “rural” blues). His personality is very curious and mysterious; it will be difficult to find any other musician in the history of blues, whose life contains so many aspects we have no information about: it is not known how he came into this world; it is not known how he became great; it is not known how he died and when. It is also not known how many songs he wrote during his short life, but he managed to record 29 songs. The most prominent songs were recorded between 1936 and 1937. These songs combine Johnson’s incredible song writing talent with outstanding singing and guitar skills. Although he did not create anything new and original himself, he succeeded in summing up and combining the best achievements of his predecessors. As an African-American living in the state of Mississippi during the Great Depression, he obtained a specific inner emotional experience and he managed to transform this experience into music. That is one of the reasons his songs are so popular worldwide: the experience Johnson revealed in this music was common to other people in the world, they also experienced the same feelings and emotions, and Johnson’s songs touched their hearts. Although the number of songs Robert Johnson managed to record is not big, even with such small number of songs he inspired and influenced many musicians, among which there were not only his contemporaries but also the following generations, including: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Courtney). Johnson’s mysterious life together with his even more mysterious death at the age of 27 caused much gossip and legend – when there is a lack of facts, people start to invent them. It was said that Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in return for the ability to sing and play blues in a unique, brilliant, genuine manner and without any effort. Perhaps that was the reason why his hit single “Crossroad Blues” became so popular. “Crossroad Blues” is a stunning display of captivating vocals and lyrics, mastery guitar playing, and indeed is the song that contributed too much of the famous myth of Robert Johnson.
Even if you don’t believe in possession by the devil, there is something so rough and desperate about Johnson’s singing in “Crossroad Blues” that leaves people captivated. He demonstrates perhaps some of the most fantastic utilization of vocal microtonality among musicians. He manages to show complete vocal control as he ranges from a high falsetto on some notes all the way down to a low hum, such as when he sings the note “yeooee” before a verse. He adds rough, vibrant grunts to surprise his audience and sings with such emotion and expression that it is impossible not to listen. As for the lyrics themselves, Johnson is also known for his creative and unique song writing skills. The song has been renowned to perpetuate the myth of Johnson selling his soul for his musical ability. Though the lyrics do not reference Satan specifically, they do hint at some supernatural imagery. The symbolic “falling on his knees” is his prayer to God to have mercy on him for his sinful act, which the legend suggests is his act of selling his soul to the devil.
It is considered that “Crossroad Blues” was recorded in 1932. In this song we may observe Johnson’s Delta Blues roots. In “Crossroad Blues” we notice for the first time the proficient skill of the style which was typical to Johnson’s mentor Son House’s, especially the famous slide guitar technique. But Johnson added his personal touch to this technique and instead of House’s relaxed approach he applied a more forceful one. In this modified version loud percussive emphases were used on the bass strings. Due to such intense and forceful guitar technique, Johnson was able to explore new possibilities such as diverse chordings and fills. Though he is not known for inventing this technique, Johnson manages to intensify and add his own twist on it making it quite difficult for others to imitate. The song highlights his use of a slide, which is emphasized as blatantly in the song as the vocal. Johnson uses the “call-and-response” technique, where the slide parts serve more as a vocal sounding “response” than an instrumental accompaniment. This is one small example as to how Johnson separates himself from other musicians. When he played a guitar, it sounded as if there were three different people playing, but in reality there was only one person. Johnson managed to receive such effect when he simultaneously played on low strings (a bass line), on the middle strings (the rhythms) and on the higher strings (the lead), and in addition to that he was also singing. To add to the intensity of the song, Johnson also goes beyond the typical 12-bar blues guitar arrangement and instead ranges from 14 to 15 bars showing off his incredible guitar solos. As said by Spin Magazine and Rolling Stone, “Crossroad Blues” displays Robert Johnson to be one of the greatest guitar players of all time. Johnsons mastered playing the guitar and he used it not merely as a background for the song, but as a full-fledged complement to the singing voice.
According to Blues Folklore, 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 the crossroads near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man thought to be the devil, who took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it so that he could play anything he wanted and gave it back to him in return for his soul (Lecture 3 The Blues). This famous myth has become the iconography for Robert Johnson. In addition to the myth that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, there were also many gossips regarding his death: there were rumors that he was poisoned, stabbed and shot. He was known to be wild and was associated with his obsession with women and drinking. He would often disappear from a room unnoticed and was even caught using different names in different towns. These rebellious habits and the ‘do as I please’ attitude of Robert Johnson along with his accompanying devil myth attracted many future rock and roll musicians and people of younger generations who wanted to stray away from the mainstream ideals.
“Crossroad Blues” displays the intensity and musicianship of Robert Johnson by showing off a range of his captivating vocals and lyrics, his mastery guitar playing and contributes much to his famous devil mythology. His tendency and ability to put a unique and fixating twist in every aspect of his musical career and life inspired many followers. The song shows his talent in precision and control in his vocals as he ranges from high falsetto to low keys, difficult for many to imitate. Some verses his voice seems clear and unshaken though other verses he purposely adds a quivering rough timbre. The lyrics, written by him, are extremely emotional and expressive. Whether he is simply singing to God for mercy to hitch a ride or he is singing of selling his soul to the devil is left completely up to the audience, which makes the song universally controversial. Furthermore, his use of the guitar slide technique in “Crossroad Blues” is of extreme difficulty and intensity. He breaks the original 12-bar blues structure and uses his skills to manipulate the guitars sound to mimic his own vocals. He uses percussion, bass, and rhythm in a seamless and captivating manner. Additionally, the popularity of this song in particular amongst younger generations and future rock and roll artists proves that Robert Johnson’s wild and rebellious lifestyle was a turning point in mainstream music and social conformity.
Danforth, Courtney. "The Robert Johnson Notebooks." The Robert Johnson Notebooks. Rjhome, 11 Mar. 2003. Web. 01 Apr. 2015. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~music/rjhome.html>.
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