Posts Tagged ‘Robert Johnson’

A Landmark In Peril

February 1, 2012

Originally posted February 23, 2009

Twice during trips to visit the Texas Gal’s family in the Dallas area, she and I have driven into the heart of downtown Dallas, to a portion of the city whose good days are long gone. There, we’ve visited Park Avenue and the building at 508, where Robert Johnson recorded thirteen tracks over a two-day period in 1937. As well as taking pictures, I’ve stood on the front step, sharing the same space once occupied by both Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton.

The other week, the Texas Gal’s mom and sister sent me a clipping of a story from the Dallas Morning News, detailing the uncertain future of the building at 508 Park Avenue.

(It seems that the links to the images that ran with the story are no longer working. [Nor, for that matter, is the link to the story.] Here’s a photo of the front door of the building that I took on one of our two visits to Park Avenue.)

It would be nice to have the building saved, of course, both for its exterior architecture and for its place in music history. But I’m guessing that won’t happen. In the meantime, here are cover versions of some of the songs Robert Johnson recorded during his two days in Dallas in July of 1937.*

A Six-Pack of 508 Park Avenue
“Stop Breakin’ Down” by the Jeff Healey Band from Cover To Cover [1995]
“Malted Milk” by Eric Clapton from Unplugged [1992]
“Traveling Riverside Blues” by John Hammond from Country Blues [1964]
“Love In Vain” by the Rolling Stones from ‘Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out!’ [1970]
“Stones In My Passway” by Chris Thomas King from Me, My Guitar and the Blues [1992]
“I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” by Robert Lockwood, Jr. & Carey Bell from Hellhound on My Trail: Songs of Robert Johnson [2000]

*I was too pessimistic, it seems: According to this piece in the January 26, 2012, edition of the Dallas Observer, the building at 508 Park Avenue will be restored and become the site of the Museum of Street Culture. That will include a recording studio on the floor of the building where Robert Johnson and others played, and – according to the January 26, 2012 piece – a memorial of some sort in the corner of that floor where Johnson and other musicians actually sat or stood to record. Note added February 1, 2012

‘It’s Goin’ To Be Rainin’ Outdoors . . .’

July 18, 2011

Originally posted July 8, 2008

Many people of my generation – maybe most – first heard of “Come On In My Kitchen” from the snippet of the song that leads into “49 Bye Byes,” the closing song on the 1969 debut album of Crosby, Stills & Nash. That snippet, sung by – I think – Crosby in an odd, strained voice, is a little bit haunting, and for a few years, I wondered why that little snippet was stuck there, not imagining that there was a whole song out there somewhere for me to hear.

At least not until I heard Delaney & Bonnie’s To Bonnie From Delaney a few years later; the album includes a brief rendition of “Come On In My Kitchen” as part of a three-song medley. (“Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” are the others.) As was the case in those days – before we knew what we now know – the song was credited to someone named Payne, as it was when Delaney & Bonnie recorded it for 1971’s Motel Shot.

I’m not sure who Payne is – someone out there in blogworld must know – but the song, of course, is one of the twenty-nine blues songs written by Robert Johnson during his brief life (1911-1938). During the blues revival of the 1960s and the blues-rock era that followed, most of the Robert Johnson songs performed by rock bands were credited to someone else, or to no one at all. When the Rolling Stones recorded “Love In Vain” for Let It Bleed, they credited the song to W. Payne; when they included it on the live Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out!, the song was labeled “traditional.”

These days, when one sorts through the list of recordings of “Come On In My Kitchen” at All-Music Guide, nearly all of them give writing credit to Robert Johnson. (Oddly enough, some of those that don’t are on compilations of Johnson’s own performances, a few of which give writing credit for the song to Blind Willie Johnson.) Without digging into the conundrum too deeply, I imagine that the credit for returning “Come On In My Kitchen” and the rest of Johnson oeuvre to the long-dead bluesman’s fold should go to Columbia Records and its 1990 release, Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings.

Johnson’s own version of “Come On In My Kitchen” (along with an alternate that was unreleased until 1990) was recorded in a room at San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel on November 23, 1936. That was one of three San Antonio sessions; the others were November 26 and 27. Johnson’s only other recording sessions took place in Dallas the following year, sessions on June 19 and 20, 1937, in the building at 512 Park Avenue.

The Park Avenue building is closed and awaiting its fate. I recently wrote about stopping there with the Texas Gal in December 2004. We stopped there again a little more than a year ago. During that 2007 trip, we also went to San Antonio, and our last bit of business during three days there was a stop at the Gunter Hotel, now the Sheraton-Gunter.

In the lobby, there’s a plaque detailing the historic significance of the recording sessions that took place at the Gunter. The plaque notes that musicians of all types recorded there, as recording companies frequently leased rooms to use as studios in cities far away from their offices, and it cites Johnson’s influences on blues and rock and notes his inclusion – as an influence – in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

There are also two framed displays in the Sheraton-Gunter Hotel lobby.

I went to the registration counter and spoke briefly with the young man on duty. No doubt others had asked the same question I did: Did the hotel know which room the American Record Company used as its studio during Thanksgiving Week, 1936?

He smiled and said the hotel registers for that year had been lost long ago. “It would be nice to know,” he said. “But we don’t.”

And then I asked a question that seemed to surprise him. Maybe it was the first time he’d heard it. I noted that in the Texas of 1936, it was unlikely that Robert Johnson would have been allowed to enter the hotel by its front door, due to the color of his skin. My informant nodded and said, “True enough.” And I asked him if he knew the location of the door through which Robert Johnson was allowed to enter the hotel.

He thought for a moment, then answered: “There’s a bar called McLeod’s,” he said. “Before remodeling, its front door was the back way into the hotel. That’s almost certainly the door that Robert Johnson would have used.”

As I headed back to the car, where the Texas Gal was waiting patiently, I went past the door to McLeod’s and stood once more where Robert Johnson had stood. Then I took some pictures and went on my way.

Here are three versions of “Come On In My Kitchen.” The first is by Robert Johnson and is the take that was issued on a 78 rpm record as Vocalion 3563, recorded November 23, 1936, in San Antonio.

The second is by Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, recorded at A&R Studios in New York for a live broadcast on WPLJ-FM on July 22, 1971. The Bramletts are accompanied by Duane Allman on slide guitar and Sam Clayton on congas. The performance was included on Duane Allman: An Anthology, Vol. II, released in 1974.

The third version is by Chris Thomas King with James Cotton on harp. It comes from the album Hellhound on my Trail: Songs of Robert Johnson, a 2001 release.

Robert Johnson – Come On In My Kitchen [1936]

Delaney & Bonnie – Come On In My Kitchen [1971]

Chris Thomas King & James Cotton – Come On In My Kitchen [2001]

‘Down By The Highway Side’

June 29, 2011

Originally posted May 27, 2008

When one thinks of cover songs, I’m not sure that recordings of blues songs written long ago are what come to mind. One generally thinks of cover songs in the context of being able to compare the cover versions to a relatively recent original. And in the case of many of the classic blues songs, the original can be hard to determine, if not lost to history.

There are, of course, some blues songs that we can trace back to a writer: There are the twenty-nine songs written by Robert Johnson. Charlie Patton, who was born about twenty years earlier than Johnson, no doubt wrote many more blues songs than that during his lifetime. (The box set titled Complete Recordings, 1929-1934, available in numerous places, gathers in more than ninety recordings, many of which, if not all, are credited to Patton. That’s a set that’s high on my wish list.) In between the two – born eleven years after Patton and nine years before Johnson – came Son House, creator during his recording days of many songs as well.

I’m being imprecise about the work of Patton and House, I know. Their work came a few years earlier and their catalogs are larger than Johnson’s. The very slenderness of Johnson’s recorded catalog – twenty-nine songs, forty-two recordings – makes it easy to deal with. (My music collection includes Johnson’s complete recordings, but neither Patton’s nor House’s.)

In addition, there is a difficulty in crediting writers of blues songs – especially those songs created in, say, the first half of the twentieth century. Improvising singers would borrow a line from here, a figure of speech from there and a snippet of dialogue from another place: Did that make a new song? In the folk, early country and early blues tradition, it did. A new legal copyright? These days, likely not. (It’s interesting to realize that what those early blues singers were doing was similar to what today’s studio masters do when they sample other recordings for their own uses.) Johnson, no doubt, did the same; I’m not a blues historian, but I know that themes and ideas and language similar to those in Johnson’s works have been found in earlier works, as was common in the blues tradition. So how can the copyrights be Johnson’s and now belong to his heirs? I dunno. That’s a question for lawyers. On an artistic level, Johnson’s blues are clearly distinct from those that came before in their dark vision and their lyrical complexity (not to mention musical virtuosity).

(Again, I’m not a blues scholar; I know the history of the music fairly well for an amateur, I think, and I’m more or less just wandering through this thicket without notes. If I overstate or understate or ignore something, let me know.)

Anyway, acknowledging that to some degree or another, Patton, House and Johnson built their own songs on those that had come before, I think they’d still have to be considered three of the six most important blues writers ever. (The other three? Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie McTell – the first pretty much a contemporary of Patton, House and Johnson, with McTell coming along a little later – and Willie Dixon, who wrote an astounding number of blues songs for Chess Records during the 1950s and 1960s. Where’s W.C. Handy? Seventh, eighth, ninth – I don’t know.)

So it’s not hard at all to find covers of the songs written by Patton, House and Johnson, as many of those songs have become central to how we hear the blues today. That’s been true even when the original writer got no credit; for years, early blues songs were credited as “traditional” at best. Performers and producers often took writing credit for the songs, too. That practice has generally ended, mostly as a result of the two separate eras of increased awareness of the blues, in the 1960s and since 1991, although one can still find the occasional record or CD label that fails to credit Johnson, House, Patton or another early blues artist for the writing of a song that’s historically known to belong to one of them.

One performer who’s never been anything but accurate in crediting his influences and sources has been Eric Clapton. Throughout his career, he’s cited Johnson’s work as one of the touchstones of his own work. And in 2004, Clapton released an album he said he’d wanted to release for some time: Me and Mr. Johnson, a fourteen-song collection of Johnson’s blues. Later that year came another treat for those of us who are fans of both Clapton and Johnson: Sessions for Robert J, an eleven-song CD accompanied by a DVD that chronicled the four sessions that created the CD.

One of those sessions took place during June 2004 in a dark room of a decaying building at 508 Park Avenue in downtown Dallas, Texas. According to records long thought lost but that had come to light in recent years, that room was almost certainly the same one in which Robert Johnson had recorded in June 1937. Clapton and Doyle Bramhall II ran through five of Johnson’s songs as the light faded.

The Texas Gal and I spent Christmas 2004 with her family near Dallas. That morning, one of her gifts to me was Sessions for Robert J. After dinner that day, she and I drove into downtown Dallas and picked our way through the streets to Park Avenue. I walked up to the front door of 508 Park Avenue, now gated and locked. Without success, I tried to imagine how Park Avenue would have looked when Robert Johnson went through that doorway, a doorway that Eric Clapton would pass through in 2004, sixty-seven years later.*

Here’s the original “Me and the Devil Blues” by Robert Johnson, recorded June 20, 1937 at 508 Park Avenue in Dallas and released as Vocalion 4108, and a cover, “Me and the Devil Blues” by Eric Clapton with Doyle Bramhall II, recorded June 3, 2004, at 508 Park Avenue in Dallas and released on Sessions for Robert J.

Robert Johnson – “Me and the Devil Blues” [1937]

Eric Clapton – “Me and the Devil Blues” [2004]

*In the interest of full disclosure, the photo of 508 Park Avenue was taken on our second visit to the site in the spring of 2007. When this post was first published, a reader noted that Google’s street view of that address showed a different building. It did, indeed, but Google’s location was wrong and has since been corrected. Note added June 29, 2011.