Thursday, June 20, 2019

Robert Johnson and the electric guitar

What is it about Robert Johnson that invites speculation? From his (re)appearance in popular music in the 1960s, to his resurgence in the early 1990s, he must be the African-American musician about whom most drivel has been written and spoken.

Now that the biography by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow is out—my review: essential reading—, speculation should diminish significantly. Never mind that, I now offer you a bit of guessing, at least to provide some context regarding Johnson and the electric guitar, an instrument with a tradition in blues and rock heavily influenced by Johnson, even though he never really played it himself.

By the time Johnson made his first recordings in 1936, the regular—or "Spanish"—electric guitar had already been recorded (I wrote about that here). It appears that Johnson never got around to use one regularly, although Conforth and Wardlow detail how he did try it (in New York City!). In this context Charlie Christian gets the compulsory namecheck, but given his and Johnson's travels—Christian to the west of Johnson—, it is unlikely that they crossed paths. In any case, there were other soloists playing and recording with it while Johnson was alive. The most prolific of those would be Muryel, best known as "Zeke", Campbell.

When Johnson made it to his appointment with producer Don Law in Dallas in June 1937, the Light Crust Doughboys had already been making some records for him. Among those was "Blue Guitars", not the earliest recording of an electric guitar but, with its title and Campbell flat-picking single-note lines for more than half the record, an explicit showcase for the "new" instrument.

This recording was made on Sunday, June 13, less than a week before Johnson got to make his Dallas debut on Saturday 19. The next day, Sunday 20, he would record for the last time, on a busy day with the following bands going through the makeshift studio at 508 Park Avenue.
  • The Light Crust Doughboys (masters DAL-385 to 392)
  • Clifford Gross and Muryel Campbell (master DAL-393)
  • Robert Johnson (masters DAL-394 to 403)
  • Blue Ridge Cowboys
  • Donnell Rezah (personal record)
  • John Boyd and His Southerners
  • Bill Nettle and His Dixie Blueboys
About that day, Conforth and Gardlow offer the recollections of Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery, a long-time member of the Crustboys who, years later, didn't recall Johnson by name, but did remember a blues musician. This is open to speculation, but it is likely that Johnson was there before the Doughboys were done—Gross and Campbell only waxed one track, which went unreleased—and if he caught the tail of their session, he may have heard Campbell's solos on their last two tracks, another two prime examples of BC (before Christian) electric guitar playing.

The Light Crust Doughboys: "Just Once Too Often" (DAL-391-2; solo begins at 1:32).

The Light Crust Doughboys: "Stay Out of the South" (DAL-392- ; solo begins at 1:05)

In any case, if Johnson heard Campbell, it had exactly the same effect as when he actually tried the instrument: none. As Conforth and Wardlow explain, Johnson traveled light and couldn't depend on whether electricity would be available. Who knows what he'd have done with it? 

To listen to what Robert Johnson recorded on that day, go here.

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