Tag: robert johnson

Country Blues Basics Part 13: Me and the Devil Blues

Aside from a driving feel, monotonic bass can also give a simplistic drum like beat to your music. It can create space in a way that alternating bass cannot.

Again, these bass techniques are a way of creating a fabric that you can adorn.

Robert Johnson was a master of creating space. He played a similar accompaniment to many of his most well known songs– it featured simple A position chords in a 12 bar Blues format. Johnson would alter the tempo and placement of the notes in each, giving them a different feel. 

A good example of this is in his song Kind Hearted Woman. We are lucky enough to have two takes of this song. One features a slow tempo, the other with a quicker one. Although the notes he plays are similar, the space he creates using the bass creates a much different feel. 

Here are his performances of Kind Hearted Woman:

In order to give you an exercise to practice the monotonic bass, let’s take a look at his song Me and the Devil Blues. The chords used are identical to Kind Hearted Woman, Phonograph Blues, 32-20 Blues, and Dead Shrimp Blues. By learning this song you are actually learning 5 songs. Sounds like a good deal to me!

Here is my performance of Me and the Devil Blues:

The chords I use is are an D7 shape moved up to the 9th fret to be A7. It looks like this:

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I use a D7 shape with my thumb hooked over the neck to catch the F# note. This shape is important for monotonic bass so you can get a really low sounding note.

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I also use an E7 shape that looks like this:

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During the second A section in the progression I use a A flat 7 chord. This is essentially a D chord shape moved up one string, and up to the 5th fret. It gives the song a sinister lonesome feel. Robert Johnson got this chord from Scrapper Blackwell. It sounds awesome!

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Finally, during the turnaround I utilize the A7 shape from the previous lesson and walk down in the bass. The turnaround riff looks like this:

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Here is the basic tablature of the progression:

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One thing to pay attention to is how the pulse of the bass effects the feel. At some times I place the note right on the beat, with 4 pulses a measure. Sometimes, I double up on the beat and give each measure 8 pulses.

How you create the fabric is up to you. 

Once you have mastered the Robert Johnson A blues progression, add other licks, or sing over it! I learned to play this years ago and still play it almost everyday because it’s such an awesome template. 

We will take a look at Sam Chatmon’s That’s Alright to demonstrate how we can weave the two bass techniques together to create a cohesive fabric.

Featured Musician: Skip James

When I started listening to the blues, I was fortunate to live in the world of YouTube and blogs. All of the living old blues men and women had already been tracked down, rare sides found, and historical performance footage uploaded to the internet.

One of my favorite stories to read about are when old performers were rediscovered by a small group of dedicated record collectors and amateur historians.

The legendary blues man Skip James was rediscovered in 1964. Check out this amazing performance he recorded that same year:

Skip James recorded some incredible sides in 1931, but his success was marred by the Great Depression. He did not record again for over 30 years. 

In 1964, after rediscovery, James preformed for the first time at the Newport Blues Festival. For the next five years, James enjoyed the career as a musician he never had. He passed away in 1969. 

Aside from Blind Lemon Jefferson, it’s hard to find a more idiosyncratic musician from the pre-war blues era than Skip James.

In many of his 1931 recordings, James played in a strange minor tuning he called “cross-note tuning.” This gave his music a somber, dark, moody quality. He also sang in an eerie falsetto that he was able to replicate even after his rediscovery. 

James’ contribution to music are unknown to many, but are significant. Hard Times Killing Floor Blues was famously covered in the Cohen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Additionally, Skip James’ recording Devil Got My Woman heavily influenced Robert Johnson’s 1937 Hellhound on my Trail, which is considered to be one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. 

Many people think of blues men as nomadic, soulful, troubled men that traveled the open road expressing themselves through their guitar. In reality, many great country blues artists we’re not like this, but were seasoned performers, playing pop songs of the day.

When you listen to Skip James’ music, you don’t hear a 1930s pop performer. You hear a man channeling something deep through his voice, piano, and guitar.

Skip James is a true country blues legend– there will never be another.

Bad songs vs. Good songs vs. Great songs

I remember telling my friend in high school that the reason I loved the Beatles was because all of their recordings were good, there were none that I didn’t like.

Now I would change this statement to:

Some of their recordings weren’t good–

some of their recordings were great–

and some are bad. 

Later, when I started listening seriously to the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, I realized there were quite a few tracks I didn’t like at all. A couple examples is this copy of Stagger Lee by the Dead or this song from Leonard Cohen.

Despite these examples’ clear badness as songs, I thought they were good because I was unable to divorce the artist from their work.

There are a lot of arguments you can make about how art is a representation of the artist.  To critique art is to critique the artist.

However, to truly understand the art you love, you have to realize that an artist can create a lot of duds. These artists we love are just mortals like you and I, no matter how much we deify them. 

Let’s take Robert Johnson as a prime example of this effect.

Johnson had a short career. He died at age 27 in 1938 from being poisoned. If dying from poison isn’t enough proof that Johnson wasn’t a god, I don’t know what is (sorry Clapton fans).

Later rock-and-roll and blues fans claimed Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and was given incredible musical skills. If you listen to his tunes like Me and the Devil Blues or Crossroads Blues you can see how this myth perpetuated:

In truth, Robert Johnson was just a great musician who played a lot of other styles besides blues. We even have a recording of his hokum tune They’re Red Hot. He lived a hard life, traveled around the south to play music, and then died violently. In his life he recorded 29 different songs, with 13 surviving alternate takes of these songs.

I don’t like the song They’re Red Hot, but I still think Robert Johnson was a great musician. A lot of people, who deify Robert Johnson do not accept that any of his work could possibly be bad.

To really appreciate music, we have to be able to discriminate against certain recordings and understand that they are not good. This outlook is especially important for old recordings because there wasn’t really any post processing, we got an honest view of an artist’s performance at the time. 

At the same time, we can always be grateful we have these recordings to formulate these opinions. 

Blind Boy Fuller is another example of a prolific artist who made some poor recordings. There a lot sociological reasons why these recordings were bad, but the point is that we can separate artists from their work. 

We shouldn’t assume that because we love an artist, everything they produce is gold. Realizing this improved my own musicianship, as I became able to understand that some sounds will appeal to people for a longtime, and some sounds are relics of a time, or simply bad. 

As a final comparison, check out these three songs by 12-string wizard Blind Willie Mctell. I think the first song is bad, the second song is good, and the last is great. 

What songs do you think are bad, good, or great?