Posts Tagged ‘Tommy Johnson’

Tommy Johnson was born circa 1896, on George Miller’s Plantation near Terry, Mississippi, twenty miles south of the state capital of Jackson. One of thirteen children, Tommy and his family moved to Crystal Springs, Mississippi, around 1910.

The Johnsons were a musical family. Tommy’s uncle and brothers Mager and LeDell played guitar, while other relatives played in a brass band. LeDell taught Tommy the rudiments of guitar about 1910, and by 1914 the Johnson brothers were supplementing their sharecropping incomes by playing parties in the Crystal Springs area. In 1916, Tommy Johnson married Maggie Bidwell and the couple moved to Webb Jennings’s Plantation near Drew, in Mississippi’s Yazoo Delta region close to Dockery’s Plantation.
Although Johnson would have several wives, it was his first whom he later immortalized in the song “Maggie Campbell Blues.”

Johnson soon fell under the spell of Dockery resident Charley Patton and local guitarists Dick Bankston and Willie Brown.
He lived there for a year, learning the nuances of the Delta style before moving on to hobo around Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Johnson, now an alcoholic and womanizer, moved back to Crystal Springs in 1920, resuming his musical partnership with Mager and LeDell. He also returned to life as a sharecropper, playing at parties on the weekends or on the streets of Jackson and nearby towns for tips.

During the fall cotton harvest season, Johnson traveled back to the Delta, playing for sharecroppers who had just been paid. During the early 1920s he gigged with Charley Patton in Greenwood and nearby Moorehead. The latter is famous for its railroad crossing Where the Southern Crosses the Dog, heralded in W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues.”

Johnson cut his first records with guitarist Charlie McCoy in February 1928 at the Memphis Auditorium for the Victor label.
These sides sold well enough to prompt a follow-up session in August of that year. That session yielded the notorious “Canned Heat Blues,” in which he admitted to drinking Sterno to satisfy his alcohol cravings. The theme of alcoholism would be touched upon again in “Alcohol and Jake Blues,” waxed during his final recording session for the Paramount label in December 1929.
Johnson traveled to Paramount’s studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where Delta luminaries Son House, Skip James, and Charley Patton had also recorded. After December 1929, he did not record again. He mistakenly believed that he had signed away his right to record. This resulted on a legal settlement with The Mississippi Sheiks who had used Johnson’s ‘Big Road Blues’ melody in their enormously successful “Stop and Listen”. Johnson was party to the copyright settlement, but was too drunk at the time to understand what he had signed to.

Johnson’s recordings showcased an eerie falsetto and masterfully manipulated vocal dynamics that established him as the premier Delta blues vocalist of his day. His facile guitar playing, rhythmic and solid, was secondary to his exceptional singing. Echoes of Johnson’s vocal style, notably on “Cool Drink of Water Blues,” can be heard in Howlin’ Wolf’s delivery. Johnson’s influence passed from musician to musician: bluesman Houston Stackhouse taught fledgling guitarist Robert Nighthawk several Tommy Johnson numbers.

To enhance his fame, Johnson cultivated a sinister persona similar to that of St. Louis bluesman Peetie Wheatstraw, the self-styled “Devil’s son-in-law.”   His brother LeDell later said that Tommy claimed to have made a pact with Ol’ Scratch at the crossroads, a subject later touched upon by bluesman Robert Johnson (no relation). Adding further eccentricity to his conjurer image, Johnson carried and displayed a large rabbit’s foot. However, the truth is really not so… supernatural.  Tommy Johnson stated (according to LeDell) that “If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12:00 that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself…. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.”  Notice there is no direct reference to the Devil, Legba (who is NOT the devil) or any other supernatural.  One could arguably state that the story of Tommy’s is true and the “big black man” was just some weird guitar teacher.  The truth is probably that Tommy was aware of the “devil’s music” reputation that the blues had, was aware of the original hoodoo crossroads legend (which originates in Africa, and does not necessarily relate to music virtuosity), and used that to his full advantage and concoted this story to entertain and amuse his fans at parties.  Of course Robert Johnson, who often introduced himself as “one of those Johnsons” (referring to Tommy and Lonnie), was aware of this and may have lifted the story for himself (though we really have no proof of Robert Johnson making this claim himself).

Another distinction, perhaps borrowed or picked up from Patton, was a proclivity for “clowning” with his guitar. Even after his death, Johnson was remembered for playing the guitar between his legs like he was riding a mule, playing it behind his head, tossing the guitar up in the air, and other acrobatic antics. Johnson spent the rest of his years in Crystal Springs and remained a popular performer in the Jackson area through the 1940s.

He died of a heart attack after playing a party in 1956. He is buried in the Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery outside of Crystal Springs, Mississippi. In 2001 a headstone was commissioned through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a Mississippi non-profit corporation, by the family of Tommy Johnson and paid for by musician Bonnie Raitt. The large, granite memorial engraved with Johnson’s portrait has not been placed on Johnson’s grave, however, due to a bitter, ongoing dispute between Tommy Johnson’s family, led by his niece, Vera Johnson Collins, the owners of farm property encircling the cemetery, and the Copiah County Board of Supervisors. The headstone has remained on public display in the Crystal Springs, Mississippi Public Library since being unveiled on October 20, 2001. An annual Tommy Johnson Blues Festival is now held in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, on every third weekend in October.

In the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? there is a character named Tommy Johnson (played by Chris Thomas King) who sold his soul to the devil to play guitar. He plays accompaniment for the Soggy Bottom Boys (a band consisting of the film’s three main protagonists plus Johnson) on “Man of Constant Sorrow”. The character of Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is reminiscent of the real Tommy Johnson, who used to talk about how “he sold his soul to the devil” at a crossroads in return for making up songs and playing the guitar. The character plays a number of songs by blues musician Skip James. The character was not based on the better-known bluesman Robert Johnson, as some have speculated.[7]

In the Adult Swim show Metalocalypse, the Tommy Johnson story is parodied when the metal band Dethklok is encouraged by blues man “Mashed Potato Johnson” to channel their depression into the Blues. He is described as having sold his soul to the devil, a “standard blues musician rapsheet.” Mashed Potato Johnson tells the band that every great blues singer has sold his soul to the devil and that this practice is essential to becoming a true blues musician.

Here is a link to the Tommy Johnson website.