Morning Music: Tommy Johnson

Tommy JohnsonAnother of the great icons of Mississippi delta blues is Tommy Johnson. I have a story that relates to him. I was sitting at a barber’s place. The guy that owned it was really into old blues and Robert Johnson was playing on his sound system. So I told my sister the standard story about how Robert Johnson supposedly met the Devil and exchanged his soul for his amazing guitar abilities. The barber interrupted me to say that it wasn’t Robert Johnson, but rather Tommy Johnson.

Now, I actually knew that the story was associated with Tommy Johnson as well. This was well after O Brother, Where Art Thou? But the truth is it wasn’t Tommy, Robert, or Santa Claus Johnson. It’s a legend. It didn’t happen to anyone. What’s more, the story has been applied far more to Robert Johnson than to Tommy — probably because Robert Johnson is so much better known. (It’s also true that Robert Johnson wrote Crossroad Blues and other things about the Devil.) I hate when people correct me over things that are meaningless and wrong.

But what is true is that one source of the story was started by Tommy Johnson’s brother, year’s after the guitarist’s death. Apparently, Johnson liked to tell the story to give himself a “dangerous” reputation — probably a common thing for itinerant musicians. But even that may have been based upon earlier legends. You can see the way these things get messed up given that they had the same last names. But Tommy Johnson is very different from Robert. For one thing, Tommy was a generation before Robert. Tommy Johnson was playing professionally when Robert was in diapers. None of this is to put down Robert Johnson, who was the greater guitarist and the one who I prefer.

But Tommy Johnson was hugely influential. In his way, he was as important as Charlie Patton, but as a vocalist more than a guitarist. His guitar playing is excellent, but it is secondary to his vocals, which are capable of incredible emotional range. Most of his recordings are just him and his guitar — which is enough. But I’m going to feature a 1928 recording of a wonderfully complex number, “Maggie Campbell Blues.” In addition to him on guitar and vocals, someone else seems to be playing a mandolin. I don’t think it is necessary to the song.

The song is based upon a traditional stanza, “It looks like Maggie, but she walks too slow.” But Tommy Johnson claimed that the song referred to him being at a bar and seeing his wife coming for him. That makes it sound like she’s mad, but the song itself is, if anything, about love.

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