I've been thinking about Tommy Johnson and his influence lately. For someone who recorded so little his influence was unusually vast and long lasting; after all his recorded output only consists of six issued sides for Victor in 1928 and six issued sides for Paramount in 1929. A welcome surprise in recent years has been the discovery of several recordings of unissued material. It was Johnson's Victor sides that were the most influential and oft covered: "Cool Drink of Water Blues", "Big Road Blues", "Bye-Bye Blues", "Maggie Campbell Blues", "Canned Heat Blues" and "Big Fat Mama." Unlike the Paramount records these sold fairly well and were apparently the songs Johnson sang most often in person.
It was David Evans investigation into Johnson in the late 1960's that we owe a good deal of what we know about Johnson and it was through Evans' field recordings that Johnson's influence comes into sharper focus. Evans had this to say regarding Johnson's influence: "Johnson exerted almost no musical influence, either in person or through his records, on blues singers outside the state of Mississippi. …Furthermore, none of his songs, was a big enough hit to enter the folk tradition significantly in its recorded from. Instead, his records tended to act as a reinforcement of the playing of men who had already learned the songs from him in person, and as a stabilizing force within the tradition. …Versions of Johnson's songs derive exclusively from personal contact, though many of the artists undoubtedly heard Johnson's records at one time or other."
Evans recorded many men who learned directly from Johnson including Roosevelt Holts, Boogie Bill Webb, Arzo Youngblood, Isaac Youngblood, Bubba Brown, Babe Stovall, Houston Stackhouse and Tommy's brother Mager Johnson. Others who were directly influenced by Johnson include K.C. Douglas, Shirley Griffith, Jim Brewer, Joe and Charlie McCoy, Bo Carter, Johnnie Temple, Robert Nighthawk (at least indirectly through Houston Stackhouse) and several others. While I've been listening primarily to later recordings that bear Johnson's influence, his influence can be heard on many earlier recordings: Willie Lofton's "Dark Road Blues" (1935) and the Mississippi Sheiks "Stop and Listen Blues" (1930) were covers of "Big Road Blues", The McCoy Brothers recorded "Going Back Home" (1934) which was a version of "Cool Drink of Water Blues", Robert Nighthawk recorded versions of "Maggie Campbell Blues" in 1953 and 1964 and K.C. Douglas recorded "Canned Heat Blues" in 1956 and 1961. In addition elements from some of Johnson's songs show up in the blues of several other early blues artists.
As I mentioned it's the 1960's and 1970's recordings that I've mainly been listening to lately. Unfortunately a good many of these have never been issued on CD and many of the artists are little remembered today. Take for example Shirley Griffith, a wonderful singer and guitarist who learned first hand from Johnson as a teenager in Mississippi. Griffith missed his opportunity to record as a young man but recorded three superb albums, all of which are long out of print: Indiana Ave. Blues (1964, with partner J.T. Adams), Saturday Blues (1965) and Mississippi Blues (1973). Roosevelt Holts spent time working with Johnson and was married to Johnson's cousin. He was sixty by the time he recorded and the bulk of his slim output remains out of print including two fine albums: Presenting The Country Blues (1966) and Roosevelt Holts and Friends (1970). Also long out of print are several important collections of Evans' field recordings that gather artists influenced by Johnson. Most importantly is The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (1972), the companion LP to Evans' Tommy Johnson biography featuring all songs that were in Johnson's repertoire and all of which were learned by the artists from Johnson himself. In addition there's South Mississippi Blues (1974 ?, Isaac Youngblood, Babe Stovall, Roosevelt Holts and more) and Goin' Up The Country (1968, Roosevelt Holts, Arzo Youngblood, Mager Johnson, Boogie Bill Webb and more). There was a planned (apparently compiled and notes written) companion album to Evans' book Big Road Blues but for whatever reason this was never issued.
All of this ruminating about Johnson's legacy will result in a show that I have slated for December 30, my final radio show of the year. I'll be playing many of the discussed records, several of Johnson's own sides and if all goes well an interview with David Evans who I just talked with the other day. It should be a nice way to end the first year of the show and a fitting one for a show called Big Road Blues.
Arzo Youngblood – Bye and Bye Blues (MP3)
Shirley Griffith – Maggie Campbell Blues (MP3)
Roosevelt Holts – Big Road Blues (MP3)