Friday, September 25, 2015

Down @ the Crossroads with Dylan, Robert Johnson & the Devil

Down @ the Crossroads w/ Dylan, Robert Johnson and the Devil

Image result for Robert Johnson crossroadsImage result for Robert Johnson crossroads

The day Bob Dylan signed his first Columbia recording contract in John Hammond, Sr.’s office Hammond gave Dylan a couple of albums of other Columbia artists including Robert Johnson’s “The King of the Delta Blues,”  who Dylan never heard of but blew him away.

The Mississippi Delta is the home and cradle of the blues as much as New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and in academic circles blues is considered a branch of jazz, and in fact followed the jazz trail when the musicians and prostitutes were kicked out of New Orleans in the closure of Storyville. The once-legal red light neighborhood where they lived was closed by the U.S. Army and Navy, though the righteous citizens of the city protested. “You can make it illegal but you can’t make it unpopular,” the New Orleans mayor said.

But just as Katrina did a century later, the civic crackdown on Storyville – in November 1917, spread the musicians and the music beyond the city limits, and most of the suddenly out-of-work musicians followed the riverboats upriver to St. Louis, Memphis and Chicago, and letting off the bluesmen in the delta where they took root.

Their contemporary offshoots include the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, B.B. King, Levon Helm and Robert Johnson – the “King of the Delta Blues,” who died broke and friendless at 27 years, said to be poisoned by a jealous husband or lover, leaving behind only 20 some recorded songs and two photographs.

When John Hammond, Sr. and Allan Lomax tried to find him to record him he was already dead, but not forgotten.

Legend has it that Robert Johnson couldn’t play a lick when he first picked up a guitar as a young boy, and was the subject of jokes among the real musicians, until he left town for awhile and came back with a style that shocked and amazed everyone, sparking a the myth that he made a deal with the devil, selling his soul in exchange for the musical talent.

“Sweet Home Chicago” was one of the songs Johnson recorded in two sessions at Texas hotels, and his other songs were covered by many artists over the years, but his most famous song is “Crossroads Blues” that Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix and dozens of others have covered and made famous.

According to Dylan, Robert Johnson hit him like a “tranquilizer bullet.” 

Dylan later wrote in his autobiographical Chronicles, Volume 1: “I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting staring at the record player. Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room; a fearsome apparition…masked the presence of more than twenty men….Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture…..There’s no guarantee that any of his lines either happened, were said, or even imagined…I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns and free associations that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction – themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them. I thought about Robert Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience could have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation field hands at hop joints, relating songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.”

Dylan discounts “the fast moving story going around that he had sold his sold to the devil at a four way crossroads at midnight and that’s how he got to be so good. Well, I don’t know about that. The ones who  knew him told a different tale and that was that he had hung around some older blues players in rural parts of Mississippi, played harmonica, was rejected as a bothersome kid, that he went off and learned how to play guitar from a farmhand named Ike Zinnerman, a mysterious character not in any of the history books.”

“This makes more sense,” says Dylan, as “John Hammond had told me that he thought Johnson had read Walt Whitman. Maybe he did, but it doesn’t clear up everything…..I would see Johnson for myself in eight seconds worth of 8-millimeter film shot in Ruleville, Mississippi, on a brightly lit afternoon street by some Germans in the late 1930s, but slowing the eight seconds, you can see that it really is Robert Johnson, has to be – couldn’t be anyone else.”

“I wasn’t the only one who learned a thing or two from Robert Johnson’s compositions,” Dylan wrote, “Johnny Winter, the flamboyant Texas guitar player born a couple of years after me, rewrote Johnson’s song about the phonograph, turning it into a song about a television set. Robert Johnson would have loved that. Johnny by the way recorded a song of mine, ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ which itself was influenced by Johnson’s writing. It’s a strange the way circles hook up with themselves. Robert Johnson’s code of language was nothing I’d heard before or since. To go with that, someplace along the line Suzie (Rotolo) had also introduced me to the poetry of French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. That was a big deal too. I came across one of his letters called ‘Je est un autre,’ which translates into ‘I is someone else.’ When I read those words bells went off. It made perfect sense….I went right along with Johnson’s dark night of the soul…Everything was in transition and I was standing in the gateway. Soon I’d step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up. Not quite yet though.”

And so it was when Hollywood came calling for the movie rights to the P. F. Kluge novel “Eddie & the Cruisers,” and the producers and script writers would eliminate a chapter, the one where the Cruisers drive their ’57 Chevy to Camden to visit Walt Whitman’s house, and in its place Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”  and “singing the body electric” is replaced by Arthur Rimbaud, who reportedly faked his own death  in order to live out his life anonymously, much like Eddie Wilson does in the follow up film.

Is Dylan pulling our leg with the Ike Zinnerman story, a farmhand teaching Robert Johnson how to play guitar instead of making a deal with the devil at the crossroads? After all, Dylan’s real name is Robert Zimmerman.
Supporting Dylan’s version, over the popular myths and legends, is the fact that the devil isn’t mentioned in the lyrics of Robert Johnson’s song “Crossroads Blues,” that makes no reference to a deal with the devil.

Cross Road Blues

I went to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, now
save poor Bob, if you please

Mmmmm, standing' at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Standin' at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me
everybody pass me by

Mmm, the sun goin' down, boy
dark gon' catch me here
oooo ooee eeee
boy, dark gon' catch me here
I haven't got no lovin' sweet woman that
love and feel my care

You can run, you can run
tell my friend-boy Willie Brown
You can run, you can run
tell my friend-boy Willie Brown
Lord, that I'm standin' at the crossroad, babe
I believe I'm sinkin' down

According to the popular legend: “A crossroads or an intersection of rural roads is one of the few landmarks in the Mississippi Delta, a flat featureless plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. It is part of the local iconography. A crossroads is also where cars are more likely to slow down or stop, thus presenting the best opportunity for a hitchhiker. In the simplest reading, Johnson describes his grief at being unable to catch a ride at an intersection before the sun sets. However, many see different levels of meaning and some have attached a supernatural significance to the song.”

Crossroads are also points where people, families, towns, cities and sometimes whole societies reach a point in time where life changing decisions must be made, directions are changed and new destinations are set.
And so it came to pass in the summer of 1965 when America’s national psych came to a crossroads that was a circle – the Somers Point, New Jersey circle that led to many directions, five different roads, each with its hazards and rewards.

Some people want to know why the summer of ’65 was the best tourist season the Jersey Shore has ever seen before or since. Families came, college kids made it cool, hippies thought it was hip, bikers put in an appearance, but as everyone who was there remembers, it was The Place to be at that time. Some say it was the weather, others say the economy was good while still others say it was written in the stars, and it was just the right alignment of people and planets to create the special things that occurred.

And so the summer of 1965 began down at the crossroads, down the shore, the South Jersey Shore, where the crossroads was a circle, the Somers Point Circle, and very close to where all the action would take place and from where, as the sun set on Labor Day, everyone would leave to go in their own way, for better or for worse, to reward or tragedy, their destiny was determined - a fait accompli – but it still had to play out, as it does in - 

Waiting on the Angels - The Long Cool Summer of '65 Revisited 









1 comment:

  1. Marchesepainting deals Painters in margate nj with also Painters in longport nj. we also have Painter in margate nj and painting contractor in margate nj.

    ReplyDelete