Robert Johnson was a very influential singer-songwriter during the Blues era. He was born in Mississippi in the early 1900s and was a rather well-educated child for the time. He unfortunately died at the young age of 27 years old (Wikipedia, “Robert Johnson”). Not much is known about Johnson and much of his life remains a mystery. Johnson would later be known for his use of the bottleneck style on the guitar, which used a broken bottle top to slide over the guitar strings. The sound made mimicked the sound of a wailing human. This technique gave the music more variability and flexibility in its style. Johnson helped transform the country blues into the modern blues.
Johnson is known for many different songs, including: “Preachin’ Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Love in Vain,” and “Hellhound on my Trail.”
“Preachin’ Blues” came out in 1936. This song utilizes the twelve bar blues form (AAB) and is dominated by the bottleneck style of the guitar. The singing gives the song some soul and power, and it also adds another layer of texture. The combination of the voice and the guitar evoke a powerful message and are very expressive. However, the vocals and the musical instruments don’t necessarily play together, but rather they are in dissonance with each other. I think this song was very dramatic and different for its time. The way Johnson uses the guitar allows him to add his own style which became more recognized throughout the rest of the century. The lyrics are more mysterious in this song. He refers to the Blues as an “achin’ old heart disease” (genius.com). He goes on to say that it is slowly killing him. This could be taken as a call for help, but once again it is up to interpretation. Many notable musicians have covered this song, including The Rolling Stones and Led Zepellin. He carved the way for many famous rock-and-rock singers of future generations (rockhall.com).
“Crossroad Blues” is another prime example of Robert Johnson’s legacy on music, which also came out in 1936. This song also uses the bottleneck style. The song has some debate about its meaning. It literally talks about the difficulty he found trying to find a ride at a crossroad and how he asked for mercy from God (Wikipedia, Crossroad Blues). However, many people think it refers to the place where he sold his soul to the Devil in return for being a good musician. Because little is known about Johnson, it is up for interpretation. In this song, the lyrics and the instruments are played more synonymously in consonance; instead of trying to out-compete the other, they work together to tell the story. This one is a little slower than “Preachin’ Blues” and it reflects the sadder message behind it.
The last example of Johnson’s work is “Love in Vain.” This is a love song and has a much slower tempo. The rhythm reflects the sadness behind the message. You don’t hear the bottleneck style as much, but rather a regular guitar. It is a quintessential Delta blues song. Many of his songs repeat the same lyrics multiple times, and this is observed in this song as well (Wikipedia, Love in Vain).