Monday, March 10, 2014

John Hammond - The Search for Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is one of legendary blues guitarists of the Mississippi Delta Blues tradition - and we know very little about his life and his death at the age of 27. Largely forgotten until the 1960s, Johnson's blues style and guitar skill influenced a generation of guitarists and musicians, including Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and many others.

This documentary by John Hammond tries to trace the life of Johnson with the limited and contradictory information available, As an added bonus, I have included the Radiolab episode (from NPR) on the "crossroads" myth on Johnson's skills.

The Search for Robert Johnson

Uploaded on Mar 14, 2011

A very good bio-doc (from 1992) effort to untangle the life and myths of blues legend Robert Johnson. This is a challenging task, as not a lot is known about Johnson except through his music and through lore. There is speculation at times, but this is inevitable. It still uncovers a lot, from his rejection by his family (blues was the work of the devil) to the darkness of his lyrics and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death.

I would have preferred the original music of Johnson, but narrator John Hammond does a very satisfactory job in his renditions. Relatively minor players "Honeyboy" Edwards and Johnny Shines give classic delta blues performances that stand out. Appearances by Eric Clapton and Keith Richards help to emphasize Johnson's lasting impact on blues and rock.

Johnson was never interviewed, and his performance was never captured on film. Beside his music, all that are left are oral accounts, peppered by exaggeration and myth. An accurate, objective bio may be impossible to achieve. But The Search for Robert Johnson comes about as close as might be expected, and has great entertainment value as well.
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Monday, April 16, 2012

Crossroad at night (eioua/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

In this short, we go looking for the devil, and find ourselves tangled in a web of details surrounding one of the most haunting figures in music--a legendary guitarist whose shadowy life spawned a legend so powerful, it's still being repeated...even by fans who don't believe a word of it.

For years and years, Jad's been fascinated by the myth of what happened to Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The story goes like this: back in the 1920s, Robert Johnson wanted to play the blues. But he really sucked. He sucked so much, that everyone who heard him told him to get lost. So he did. He disappeared for a little while, and when he came back, he was different. His music was startling--and musicians who'd laughed at him before now wanted to know how he did it. And according to the now-famous legend, Johnson had a simple answer: he went out to the crossroads just before midnight, and when the devil offered to tune his guitar in exchange for his soul, he took the deal.

Producer Pat Walters bravely escorts Jad to the scene of the supposed crime, in the middle of the night in the Mississippi Delta, to try to track down some shred of truth to all this. Not because they really thought something spooky would actually happen, but because deep down, there's a part of this story that--as much as the facts fall apart--still feels kind of true.

To help us get close to the real human behind the tall tales, we talk to Robert Johnson experts Tom Graves, Elijah Wald, David Evans, and Robert “Mack” McCormick. And we hear, posthumously, from Ledell Johnson...a man of no relation to Robert, who unintentionally helped the world fall for a blues-imbued ghost story.

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