Robert Johnson and the Art of Jimi Hendrix

Robert Johnson and the Art of Jimi Hendrix

“Most traditions of any sort decay, fall into ruin, wear out. It’s rare to see, to hear, any tradition actually be blown up-to be taken to a critical mass of possibility and desire and then destroyed. That’s what happens in Robert Johnson’s last recordings, made in 1937, the year before he died. It seems impossible that there could be any Mississippi blues after those last recordings-and in a way there weren’t. Nothing new; just refinements, revivals, footnotes.”
— Greil Marcus, “When You Walk in the Room”

Greil Marcus, author of such landmark books in rock criticism as Mystery Train (1975) and Lipstick Traces (1989), raises important questions about the nature of influence and the transmission of ideas between artists of the same genre: how do you keep it new? how do you improve on the past? If one buys Marcus’s assertion of Robert Johnson’s insurmountable genius, it would take an artist of equal or greater vision and inventiveness to appropriate Johnson into their work without being relegated to a footnote. Jimi Hendrix was such an artist. On “Voodoo Chile” [not to be confused with the better-known “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” on the same album], which appeared on 1968’s double LP Electric Ladyland, Hendrix did not merely refine the trailblazing work of Johnson — he built on it and ultimately transcended it.

In his attempt to reconcile his blues heritage with his pioneering psychedelic rock, Hendrix created an unbelievable recording that defies any categorization. Like Johnson, his accomplishment was singular. Just as Johnson prevented any further development in Mississippi blues, Hendrix closed off blues-rock forever. He did not open the door for other artists to follow in his footsteps-his amazing amalgam of blues, rock, mysticism, and voodoo was an accomplishment so unique that no other artist could possibly even come close to him. Quite simply, when Hendrix recorded “Voodoo Chile”, like any voodoo priest, he produced magic.

The blues as an art form began to take shape around 1900 as Mississippi country blues, primarily among Southern blacks. As Marcus elegantly puts it in Mystery Train, “. . . whispers of the voice [of the blues] came from all over the Deep South.” Utilizing acoustic guitars, banjos, and sometimes harmonicas, country blues was based on relatively simple song structures with haunting lyrics of unfaithful women, religious fear, and the general malaise of living as a black in the Deep South. “There is a uniquely American language,” writes Marcus, “in the shared body of riffs and lyrics that change from singer to singer.” First recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, country blues was exemplified by such artists as Charlie Patton, Son House, Skip James, and, perhaps the most heralded of all country blues singers, Robert Johnson. As the blues progressed, it became less and less rural as city blacks began to play this mysteriously original and haunting new music. By the 1940s and 1950s, a form of blues known as Chicago blues flourished, characterized less by solitary singers than full electric bands. The work of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf was characteristic of this new urban translation of the country blues. It was through this new art form that the blues came to influence rock and roll, and, by extension, influenced the Rolling Stones and Hendrix.

Hendrix, however, first found success far from the banks of the Delta or the streets of Chicago. In 1966 he left for England to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience with two Englishmen, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. The success of his 1967 debut Are You Experienced? came in the context of the summer of love psychedelic sounds from such English artists as the Beatles, Cream, and Pink Floyd. His soulful, mourning howl goes straight back to Johnson, while his lyrics are heavily imbued with the stock blues themes of unfaithful women and lingering depression, and his soaring electric guitar style can be traced to Albert King, a Chicago blues guitarist of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many Hendrix songs are simply straight blues tunes — footnotes in Marcus’s words — the most obvious example being 1967’s “Red House”. While he may have first gained exposure in the primarily white English rock scene, Hendrix was at heart a blues singer armed with a devil guitar in the tradition of American blacks like Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Albert King.

“Voodoo Chile” is the penultimate proof of this with its heavy, late-night traditional blues languor, and, unlike many of Hendrix’s other experimental recordings of the time, relatively traditional repertoire of instruments. This limited lineup featured guitar, bass, drums, and organ. Furthermore, Hendrix’s vocal is reminiscent of “Red House”, recorded one year earlier, in that it, too, is rough, savage, bone-chilling blues howling. The skeleton of “Voodoo Chile”, therefore, is made of materials imported from the past. These various factors merely set the stage for the entirely singular power of Hendrix to make them revolutionary.

Yet Hendrix was not unique in incorporating the blues in the 1960s rock scene. Along with Hendrix, the Rolling Stones were largely responsible for the resurgence of the blues in the popular consciousness. Like Hendrix, the Rolling Stones were influenced by the Delta blues singers, primarily Johnson, whose impact on the band was described by guitarist Keith Richards as “. . . like a comet or a meteor” in the liner notes to Robert Johnson-The Complete Recordings (Columbia). Their appreciation of Johnson’s work was evidenced by their cover of his classic “Love In Vain” ,which appeared on 1970’s Let It Bleed (Abkco). The blues influenced both the structures of their songs as well as their lyrical style, such as on “Stray Cat Blues” and “Parachute Woman” from 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet (Abkco).

In addition to the basic structure of their songs that obviously links them to the country blues, both Hendrix and the Rolling Stones embody many of the themes explored in Johnson’s work. In Mystery Train, Marcus points out that sex is a major theme in Johnson’s work, describing the song “Terraplane Blues” as “inspired pornography”: “And when I mash down on your little starter,” sang Johnson, “Then your spark gonna give me fire”. A similar emphasis on sex can also be found in the Rolling Stones’s “Parachute Women”, in which Jagger sang, “Parachute woman, join me for a ride. I’ll make my blow in Dallas and get hot again in half the time.” Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” shares this theme of sexual innuendo, perhaps most bluntly when he sang: “Well I’ll make love to you and Lord knows you’ll feel no pain.” In this context, both Hendrix and the Rolling Stones are perfect examples of how Johnson closed off the Mississippi blues forever-they did not improve on his monumental work from the 1930s, but merely imitated it.

“There were demons in his songs,” wrote Marcus about Johnson in Mystery Train, “blues that walked like a man, the devil, or the two in league with each other.” Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” is cited as an example of this occultism: “Early this morning when you knocked upon my door I said, ‘Hello Satan, I believe it’s time to go.'” In “When You Walk In the Room”, Marcus describes people’s initial reaction to Mississippi blues, expressing that same mysteriousness: “They all had the same reaction, used the same words: ‘Weird.’ ‘Strange.’ ‘Eerie.’ ‘Unearthly.’ Devilish.’ ‘Terrifying.’ ‘Not of this world.'” While the Rolling Stones imitated this theme through such songs as “Sympathy for the Devil”, Hendrix did more than imitate Johnson’s occultism-he dove into it, exploring mysteries of the human soul that both Johnson and the Rolling Stones merely hinted at.

The poetry of “Voodoo Chile”, with its surreal lyrics and mystical images, is more reminiscent of a French symbolist than a country blues artist. Because of this stylistic difference, Hendrix was able to probe more deeply the occult themes that Johnson began to explore in the 1930s. Hendrix’s nightmare world is filled with mysterious images and relics absent from Johnson’s almost Puritan-tinged country blues, with lyrics of mountain lions, eagles, gypsies and arrows made of desire, etc..

While Johnson alluded to the occult through his personified encounters with Satan, in “Voodoo Chile” Hendrix went further, extending this occultist-blues to include meetings with gypsies and witches as he sang “Well, my poor mother cryin’ out, ‘Oh Lord the gypsy was right’ . . . He took me past the outskirts of infinity, and when he brought me back he gave me Venus witch’s ring.” If Johnson’s lyrics were Puritan fear-Hendrix’s were mystical myth. Hendrix was probing the magical mysteries of the human experience, the fringes that so often are derided and ignored. “Things like witchcraft,” said Hendrix, “which is a form of exploration and imagination, have been banned by the establishment and called evil. It’s because people are frightened to find out the full power of the mind” (liner notes to Electric Ladyland by Michael Fairchild).

Hendrix’s lyrics are not the only way he reinterpreted and refashioned his blues roots-while Johnson or Charlie Patton’s power was primarily in their voices, Hendrix’s was in his guitar. Hendrix’s guitar was a swirling, roaring, twisting distorted animal that only he could tame. Just listen to the tune and you understand the duality. The organ holds the base of Hendrix’s blues roots, keeping a steady twelve-bar blues, while his guitar solos jettison twelve-bar blues conventions entirely. “Voodoo Chile” is a monumental fifteen-minute dismantling of traditional blues-rock as anyone before or since has known it.

As Marcus writes in Mystery Train, quoting Stanley Booth: “The dedication [the blues] demands lies beyond technique; it makes being a blues player something like being a priest. Virtuosity in playing blues licks is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass, it is empty, it means nothing. Skill is a necessity, but a true blues player’s virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible.” It’s not that Hendrix was simply a virtuoso-there have been plenty of players since him who have stood out because of their pure skill, such as Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai. And it’s not that he was soulful-Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn were capable of just as much feeling in their playing. Hendrix was a shaman, offering his solos as a sacrifice to the electric mystical-blues god that he worshiped. His utilization of heavy distortion, wah-wah, effects pedals, and various other guitar gadgetry gave his playing an added strangeness, an added sonic adventurousness that had never before been present in the blues. In that way, Hendrix avoided the pitfalls of following in Johnson’s footsteps-unlike the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, Hendrix was able to take the blues to a place Johnson could never have conceived of. He made it his own.

* * * * * * * *

(Note: Greil Marcus’s writings on the blues and Robert Johnson are a necessity for any lover of blues and rock. In addition to his incisive critical abilities, putting these artists in the grand pantheon of American thinkers along with Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Twain, his writing matches the music he writes about in its passion and inventiveness. To check out his work, see Mystery Train (New York: Dutton, 1975), and “When You Walk In The Room”, in *The Dustbin Of History* (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).