Monday, October 29, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 12

Robert Johnson
King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961)
You've probably heard the story of the aspiring musician who, desperate to become a legend, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unnatural talent. This long perpetuated rumor goes back most famously to Robert Johnson, a guitarist and singer who recorded between the years of 1936 and 1938. According to the tale, from a young age Johnson had a strong desire to become an accomplished blues musician. One night as he was traveling, he met a large black man at the cross roads of Highway 61 and U.S. 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Yet this man was no mere mortal, but was actually Lucifer himself in human form. Robert made a deal with the devil to master the guitar in exchange for his soul. The man took the instrument from him, tuned it, played on it, and returned it to him, before (presumably) vanishing into the shadows, disappearing in a cloud of smoke, or descending below the road in a burst of flames.

There has been much speculation to how this legend originated, but Mr. Johnson certainly didn't make any effort to stem the tide of rumors. His song "Cross Road Blues" gives a nod to the story, as does "Me and the Devil Blues." His unsolved death at the age of 27 may have played a role in fomenting suspicion, not to mention that he allegedly had a habit of practicing in a graveyard to find quiet. In fact, very little is known of Johnson's life in general. Accounts differ on the year of his birth, his gravesite remains unknown, and the only documentation relating to him seems to be two recording sessions in Texas in '36 and '37, as well as a death certificate found thirty years later in 1968. Additionally, take a look at the photo in the video below. It's one of two known photographs of Johnson... and what is that up and to the right of his guitar... is that a face? The man from the cross roads, showing his approval?

Why has this made it onto a list of wicked albums? Though you probably wouldn't get the impression from most artists in the genre today, the blues was once considered the devil's music. Before the antics of Elvis Presley, before the lyrics of Led Zeppelin, the sad and depressing moan of the blues not only pushed the boundaries musically, but it caught the attention of women too. To capture the fancy of the ladies through skillful playing suggested you were too skilled, that you must have been granted some special power others didn't have. And whose job description includes stirring up lust in the hearts of young girls? On King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson sings primarily about two things: women and the devil. If you have a hard time believing there's wickedness in blues, take some of the lyrics from "Me and the Devil Blues" as an example.

Early this mornin'
When you knocked upon my door
And I said, "Hello, Satan,
I believe it's time to go."

Me and the Devil
Was walkin' side by side
And I'm goin' to beat my woman
Till I get satisfied

You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

Granted, this may not be wickedness on par with Darkthrone or King Diamond, but I'd say walking alongside Satan, beating your woman, and being buried near the site where you supposedly made your pact with the Prince of Darkness qualifies as being pretty wicked. Other tracks like "Hellhound On My Trail," "32-20 Blues," and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" deal with similar themes. The guitar work is a little sad sounding, but is made increasingly dreary by the dated quality of the audio and the worn-out feel of the guitar itself. The hardships of the Depression can definitely be heard, and along with the chains of racial oppression and the difficulties of life in general, Johnson delivers harrowing guitar melodies accompanied by a chillingly beautiful yet sorrowful voice. To call his performances "ghostly" in this digital age might be an understatement.

The reasons I find this album enjoyable and haunting are almost the same reasons I find Darkthrone and many other black metal bands enjoyable and haunting. They use a deceptively simple production to achieve a vast atmosphere that captures the imagination. The music is minimalist, though full of sadness, pain, anger, and darkness. The lyrics speak from the heart, even when that heart expresses itself in blasphemous and unconventional ways regarded as ugly or forbidden by many. King of the Delta Blues is likely not the blues you're used to, much as modern black metal is a phantom of what it used to be - now sanitized, commercialized, and adapted for a different audience. The beauty of these kinds of records is that they're brutally honest in laying bare all they've got, almost like a deathbed confession. In Johnson's case, some of these tracks actually were recorded shortly before his death. If you can handle a different kind of darkness, this album - which has influenced so many since its release - could make for quite a surreal Halloween.

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