John Hammond, Jr.: At the Crossroads: The Blues of Robert Johnson

Robert R. Calder

John Hammond, Jr.

At the Crossroads: the Blues of Robert Johnson

Label: Vanguard
US Release Date: 2003-10-14
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Melkbelly splices insanely supercharged punk energy with noise-band drums and super catchy pop melodies. It's a bewildering, intoxicating sound which has caught the attention of underground Chicago audiences. We ask singer Miranda Winters how it works.

"I've always, I guess, struggled to decide what kind of music I wanted to play, something sort of abrasive and loud or something sort of pop and folky. I would bounce back and forth between the two," says Miranda Winters, the dynamic singer who careens between pretty girl pop croons and banshee wails in the course of, really, almost any song in the Melkbelly catalog. "When we first started Melkbelly, the goal was to figure out how to make them work together, but I don't know that we actually knew that it would work when we started."

Keep reading... Show less

Is Greta Van Fleet the second coming of Led Zeppelin?

My first exposure to Greta Van Fleet was through the last 30 seconds of "Highway Tune". I've listened to Led Zeppelin since the early 1990s, but I couldn't place the song. My initial thought was that it's a lost track I missed off the recently expanded remasters. When the song finished and the DJ said it was Greta Van Fleet, I wondered who they are. They are three brothers and a friend from Frankenmuth, Michigan. Joshua Kiszka supplies lead vocals, Jacob Kiszka provides lead guitar, Samuel Kiszka plays bass and keyboard, and Daniel Wagner pounds the drums. The first two are 21 and the other two are 18.

Keep reading... Show less

The everywhere-at-once trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith goes it alone, alternating Monk tunes and Monk-inspired originals for solo trumpet. S L O W.

Wadada Leo Smith is having a great run in the critical eye. In 2016 he topped many polls with his meditative but free composing and presentations, collaborating with the likes of Vijay Iyer and making jazz move in interesting new directions. He has long been fascinated with the music and legacy of Miles Davis, an obvious brass inspiration, and he was among the first to revive real interest in Davis's later period of playing.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.