Not the Best Road
This CD brings together the near enough fifty minutes of Robert Johnson (so to speak) songs recorded by John Hammond, Jr. on eight Vanguard albums between 1964 and 1978—seven under his own name, the eighth, Blues at Newport, by various hands recorded live at Newport Folk Festivals from 1959 to 1964.
The notes here go on about Johnson, born in 1911, and at the age of 27 who lay dying even as John Henry Hammond, famous father of John, Jr., was hunting for him. If only Johnson hadn’t died and Pa Hammond had put him on the 1938 Carnegie Hall stage with Sidney Bechet, Bill Broonzy, Lips Page, and Albert Ammons, would Johnson have been famous ever since? Maybe not.
His idiom was too downright strange to most virgin ears. There were numerous bluesmen stylistically close to Johnson on his stamping ground long after he died—and he might well have been better than them all—but some were extremely good by any standard short of the miraculous. Some people knew enough to be seriously interested, but lacked the clout and the facilities to record or even let people hear what there once was, of a standard comparable with all but the rarest treasures which did get recorded. How long did it take before, say, Johnny Shines had the chance to record half as many songs as Johnson, at the same level as 1952’s “Ramblin’”? Hacksaw (Richard Harney) got recorded decently only in the 1970s, but the tapes weren’t issued for years after that. Who other than the Library of Congress recorded Calvin Frazier’s best? Frazier’s merits became clear only after the technology and the will existed to rescue the music from ruinous noisy old library discs. Hearing Frazier’s 1941-1942 Library of Congress recordings (an exercise strongly recommended in itself), it’s amazing how little is on his commercial discs from post-war Detroit. Would Johnson have had a wide hearing in 1938, when the same music still wasn’t appreciated in 1958? Arhoolie’s early 1960s reissue of Robert Lockwood’s 1941 “Little Boy Blue” was a rare hint for more than a minority within a minority, that there had been a lot more beside Johnson—and of stunning quality. I wish Johnson had lived into the 1970s, as long as, say, Big Joe Williams, but would even his appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1938 have overcome current preoccupations, inhibitions, and ideas that here was an archaic primitive? Would Johnson have been more famous than he became as a result of some stunning recordings and the early death which made his story movie-worthy?
Sorry, Mr. Sleevenote Man, but John Hammond, Jr’s “covers of Robert Johnson” aren’t “as authentic as it gets”, at least in terms of such claims as “Hammond nails Johnson’s high, almost falsetto singing style”. He doesn’t. And there’s no such thing as “almost falsetto”: singing is either falsetto or it isn’t. There are high voices, but falsetto is a separate vocal technique deployed occasionally by Muddy Waters in emulation of Johnson’s own rare upward forays (and also by Russian basses). Skip James had a high voice, but not a ringing one like Johnson’s (there’s a theory, which can be looked up online, that Johnson’s recordings were actually somehow speeded up and his actual voice was lower, nearer Muddy Waters’s baritone). James did use falsetto technique for expressive purposes which his normal voice couldn’t serve. If Johnson did have exactly the voice anybody can hear on the recordings as issued, he was a tenor. Some bits of his anatomy crucial to singing were of a certain shape and size, rather than something different. That was his instrument, a good one. He also had a magnificent technique for singing exactly what he sang, as well as the other technique to sing falsetto, briefly, and the sheer trick of producing the comic low-pitched sounds which are the fun of his raggy burlesque “Hot Nuts”. He was a great artist, his musical sensibilities and style developed within his inherited musical culture, his singing founded on a way of speaking which presumably still bore traces of African language accents. John Hammond’s speaking voice, and probably yours, owes its character to how his or your ancestors spoke, local ways of speaking English, and maybe before that various vocal habits from one and another ancestral language. This sort of story accounts for some special features of Johnson’s singing—and also some special problems Hammond could never avoid in trying to emulate Johnson vocally.
This CD’s notes claim that he “nailed” Johnson vocally. Not so. I’ve heard Europeans get closer to Johnson’s voice, tone, and intonation than did the stripling Hammond of between 25 and 39 years ago here. Johnson might sing “stones”, but Hammond tended to effects like “stoe-woans”, an aspect of a perennial problem for most people from most places who are trying to sing blues. The English George Melly does extraordinarily well, but his repertoire is vocally not so extremely intense as Johnson’s. In opera, there are some great tenor voices just wrong for some tenor roles. In trying to do a Robert Johnson, the young Hammond simply lacked the voice to match the sleevenote’s retrospective claims.
In terms of guitar playing he’d more confidence; he wasted neither his time nor his music trying to “nail” Johnson instrumentally. Even in his early twenties he was far too good a musician to sink into parrotry, and his solo guitar playing and accompaniment were very much the real blues thing.
The opening “32-20 Blues” is splendid on guitar, but the voice begins with something of an affectation, until he gets sufficiently engrossed just to sing well. On another half dozen titles, the affectation makes him sound so self-conscious as to seem embarrassed by himself. “Come on in My Kitchen” is, however, the real thing again, not mimicry. The vocal-guitar interplay is remarkable. Likewise, “Preaching Blues” (1965? It doesn’t say) is up past the mark, very much because it neither sounds nor tries to sound anything like Johnson: the guitar is flailed or made to squeal, the rack-harmonica with its pinched sound implies an unusually acrobatic Jimmy Reed. In fact, the more Hammond did instrumentally the less he strayed into pastiche vocalising.
“Sweet Home Chicago” on electric guitar gets nearer J.B. Hutto. Despite too much stock Elmore James phrasing over second guitar, bass, drums (with a decent, if derivative, harmonica player) the unadventurous performance has the skill and vigour still to be interesting. “When You’ve Got a Good Friend” is superior Bobby Bland blues with band. Hammond plays good harp and a Hawaiian slide sort of guitar and a plucked electric guitar (Billy Butler? Nice to see his name) interact. With plenty of variety well within the idiom. This impressive performance is from the Big City Blues set, which might be one of a few John Hammond CDs rather better than this somewhat contrived Johnson compilation. The last two items, from the So Many Roads set, are very efficient but even with Charlie Musselwhite on harp insufficiently distinctive—in a club you’d not complain, or necessarily ask who was in the band. It’s just a somewhat anonymous late 1960s band style. Collecting together the Hammond-plays-Johnson material has generated a curiosity, mixed in musical interest. Not to be preferred to other Hammond CDs: a demonstration of how not to assemble a “Best of John Hammond, Jr. 1964-‘78”. Too much wishful thinking. Anyway, a CD culled from Hammond’s Vanguard years came out a couple of years back.