Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2012-07-13

2012-07-13

Blind Willie Johnson: The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia/Legacy, 1993) Between 1927 and 1930, in his early thirties and probably his prime, the Texas-based Johnson applied his gravelly voice and dexterous bottleneck to 28 gospel sides. On 19 of these he was accompanied by a female singer, usually his first wife Willie Harris, and in a sense lyrics and melodies are rendered superfluous by the sound of his gruff false bass shadowed and set right by a simpatico soprano: a sane, haunting aural image of suffering and succor that's hard to get too much of. But most of the songs are at least solid in themselves, and refreshingly unfamiliar unless Johnson planted the seed of their renown, as he did with "Motherless Children," "If I Had My Way," "John the Revelator," and the indomitable "Praise God I'm Satisfied." Like most gospel, they value melodic flow and rhythmic momentum more than the Delta blues other Johnsons purveyed. I'm not going to say they rock. But you might. A

Tommy Johnson: Essential Blues Masters (Goldenlane, 2009) This Johnson is a Delta legend best appreciated by blues aesthetes like the late great Robert Palmer--who hears, for instance, "a slippery, danceable swing" in guitar accompaniments others account regionally generic. Johnson messed with your woman, drank Sterno for breakfast, and claimed meetings at the crossroads with you-know-who. But he only recorded for two years of his 1896-1956 lifespan. Like most collections available, this one preserves 17 tracks and 13 songs, five of which I have now removed from my iPod for reasons of distressed audio, compositional shortfall, or (usually) both. I've also banished three alternate versions, although I kept both scratchy "Black Mare Blues" just to hear New Orleans's Nehi Boys kick in their piano and clarinet, which do Johnson a lot more good than you-know-who. As I hear it, he has two drop-dead classics in his kit: the indelible "Big Road Blues" and the clarion "Cool Drink of Water Blues." The frailing "Maggie Campbell Blues" and the confessional "Canned Heat Blues" are close behind, and the rowdy-to-miserable likes of "Big Fat Mamma Blues" and "Lonesome Home Blues" fill in the blanks. I saved serious bucks by purchasing this iteration as a download. It also includes a posthumously electrified band version of "Canned Heat Blues" designated "an abomination" by the one blues aesthete on the interweb to acknowledge its existence. Personally, I welcome it as a hint of what might have been. B+

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