Book Reviews

Lonnie JohnsonBlue Ghost BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonMr. Johnson's SwingLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Lonnie JohnsonRoamin' Rambler BluesLonnie Johnson Vol. 2 1926-1927
--=Dean Alger Interview=--
Lonnie JohnsonAway Down in the Alley BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonUncle Ned, Don't Use Your HeadUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonHave to Change Keys to Play These BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonMidnight Call BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonBackwater BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonTomorrow NightUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
ElvisTomorrow NightUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Red Nelson w/ Lonnie JohnsonHome Last NightRed Nelson 1935-1947
Lonnie JohnsonNew Orleans BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Otis Spann w/ Lonnie JohnsonTrouble In Mind Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonDon’t Ever LoveUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonFalling Rain BluesThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonCan't Sleep AnymoreThe Original Guitar Wizard
Louis ArmstrongI'm Not RoughThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie Johnson & Clara SmithYou're Getting Old on Your JobYou're Getting Old on Your Job
Lonnie Johnson Lines In My FaceLosing Game
Lonnie JohnsonLonnie's Traveling LightSpivey's Blues Parade

Show Notes:

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson (left) in 1941. Photo by Russell Lee (Library of Congress).

Dear old New Orleans, they call it the land of dreams

Yes, dear old New Orleans, it’s known for the land of dreams
It’s my old hometown, it’s dear old New Orleans

I first spoke with Dean Alger back in 2009 when his biography of Lonnie Johnson was very much a work in progress. Back then the book was tentatively titled The Second Most Important Musician of the Twentieth Century. Dean sent me some rough chapters back then and I was impressed with what I saw but I was bit skeptical as I knew that writing a biography on someone like Lonnie, who was always reticent to give details of his life plus the sheer length of his career, would make this a daunting job. I'm happy to say that Dean has done a fine job tackling the task and the now published and retitled The Original Guitar Hero and The Power of Music, is not only well researched look at Lonnie's life and music but also goes to great lengths to place Lonnie's music in a cultural context.

Lonnie has always been one of my favorites and I've probably devoted more shows to him than anyone else. Despite his huge influence and impressive output I don't think Lonnie ever gets the respect he deserves. It's an odd thing among blues collectors that many worship the obscure and rare, the rough and unpolished, and dismiss those artists who were more polished and those that had a high degree of popularity like Lonnie. Dean clearly understands Lonnie's influence as he writes "…Lonnie Johnson was the leading original force in moving the guitar to be the dominant instrument of the second half of the twentieth century to today. …Further Lonnie's singing influenced major singers in twentieth century music…" This combination, Dean notes, made Lonnie "the first musician to present the smoother, more sophisticated 'urban blues' (in contrast to the old Country Blues) which were a prime force leading to Rhythm & Blues and then Rock & Roll."

Lonnie Johnson was a true musical innovator who's remarkable recording career spanned from the 1920's through the 1960's. During that time his musical diversity was amazing: he played piano, guitar, violin, he recorded solo, he accompanied down home country blues singers like Texas Alexander, he played with Louis Armtrong's Hot Fives, recorded with Duke Ellington, duetted with Victoria Spivey and cut a series of instrumental duets with the white jazzman Eddie Lang that set a standard of musicianship that remains unsurpassed by blues guitarists. In Johnson's single-string style lie the basic precedents of such jazz greats as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, while being a prime influence on bluesman as diverse as Robert Johnson, Tampa Red and B.B. King. Thus Johnson enjoys the rare distinction of having influenced musicians in both the jazz and blues fields. While his guitar skills have been justly celebrated less has been said about his bittersweet vocals, tinged with a world weary sadness and capable of a rare subtly and nuance. It was a perfect match for his well crafted and imaginative songs filled with dark imagery, longing and an unflinchingly misogynist view of woman and love.

Lonnie Johnson BookOn today’s program we cover a wide swath of Johnson’s career, spinning tracks spanning from 1927 to 1963. The bulk of the tracks from were selected by Dean. Most of those tracks come from a CD he calls the Ultimate "Best Of" Lonnie Johnson, a 23 track selection that is a companion to he book and available through Dean's website. Below is background on some of the songs played today.

Either the 1927 version "Roamin’ Rambler Blues" or the 1942 was a favorite recording of B.B. King. As Dean notes: "Lonnie's singing on his 1927 recording is particularly resonant, with a mellow feel. My ears tell me that Lonnie was the influenced one here, since he seems to have drawn on the resonant, mellow, soulful Texas Alexander offered on sides on which Lonnie accompanied him that same day. The song had quintessential Lonnie J guitar work; and he embellished each vocal line at the end with elegantly finger-picked descending lines, with a harmonic jump up the scale at the end, employing his exquisite touch and tone."

On February 21, 1928 Lonnie cut four remarkable instrumentals: "Away Down in the Alley Blues", "Playing With The Strings", "Stompin' 'em Along Slow" and "Blues in G." As Dean writes: "Playing With The Strings" received more attention, but "Away Down in the Alley Blues" was an even better composition and display of unequaled guitar virtuosity. …Of special importance is the masterful thematic  coherence. In the midst of all that, he also keeps an underlying propulsive beat going, and regularly adds exquisite harmonic touches. He guitar work on these recordings exemplifies how Lonnie enlarged the language of the guitar for jazz and blues."

"The Lonnie Johnson-Eddie Lang duets have been celebrated ever since as among the great guitar achievements of the century in popular music. But amazingly, in December 1931, Lonnie may have exceeded even those duets  in what is one of the most stunning virtuoso guitar performances on record. The recording in question is "Uncle Ned" (full title: "Uncle Ned, Don't Lose Your Head"). …Lonnie takes this old Negro folk song and turns it into a vehicle for the most dazzling, blaze-fingered, virtuoso guitar work."

"The ten guitar duets Lonnie and Eddie Lang recorded were landmarks in guitar history. As British blues and popular music writer Tony Russell has written: "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this handful of discs." They were also sociological landmarks as the first full partner interracial recordings." From these sessions we play "Midnight Call Blues" and "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues."

"Backwater Blues" was recorded by Bessie Smith February 17, 1927 and covered by Lonnie  a month later and again in 1948. Today we feature the later version. Dean comments that "…many have missed the artistic value of this "Backwater Blues" because they have too narrow a notion of great guitar playing as being only about fast finger-work and razzle-dazzle. Musical art is much more than that, which Lonnie demonstrated with this recording. He tops it off with truly masterful singing. From the first notes, Lonnie employs rich, resonant vocal tone, among his best ever, great dynamics and nuance, and with his vocal lines and inflections he compellingly conveys the meaning of the lyrics and the feeling of people experiencing  this natural disaster. In short with this recording, Lonnie Johnson refuter demonstrated he'd reached the level of greatness as a singer."

Lonnie recorded the biggest hit of his career, “Tomorrow Night,” for King Records in Cincinnati, released in 1948.That song resonated with musicians who became legendary: B.B. King, Buddy Guy & Robert Lockwood, Jr., all told me they were moved by it. BB covered it on his 2008 CD, One Kind Favor. Bob Dylan covered it, using Lonnie’s phrasing, on his 1992 CD, Good As I Been To You. (Dylan and Lonnie connected at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961, and cd-lonnie-bedbugLonnie gave Bob some tips on guitar.) The other most notable musician influenced by “Tomorrow Night” was Elvis Presley.  As Peter Gurlanick reported in his major Elvis biography: "In 1953 to 1954, 'Tomorrow Night" was a song Elvis sang all the time.”

"Home Last Night" finds Lonnie playing lead electric guitar on a son sung by Red Nelson. "This recordings has a driving Rhythm & Blues feel, rockin' rhythm and style on the guitar by Lonnie, and what, seven to ten years later, became the essence of the early electric guitar and overall sound of the recordings that established the new musical genre of Rock & Roll."

"Don't Ever Love" comes from Lonnie's 1960 comeback for Prestige/Bluesville titled Blues By Lonnie Johnson. "Most striking on "Don't Ever Love" is Lonnie's vocal artistry. The man who was an ultimate virtuoso guitarist  in popular music  sings with such power, nuance, dynamics, expressiveness, timing, and meaningful phrasing on this recording that shows, even more compellingly, how he had achieved the level of greatness in his singing, as well."

In 1963 Lonnie toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. During that tour he recorded a wonderful session with pianist Otis Spann in Copenhagen for the Storyville label. From that session we feature "Trouble In Mind."

"New Orleans Blues" is one of my favorite Lonnie songs issued on the album Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2 which also features Elmer Snowden. Elmer asks Lonnie to sing one from his old hometown and Lonnie responded with this beautifully, dreamy nostalgic number. As Dean writes: "He sings the lyrics with an extraordinary depth of feeling, with excellent timing and phrasing,with knowing strategic use of syncopation , and with verve, yet in a smooth lyrical manner." Along with "Backwater Blues" and "Don't Ever Love", Dean lists this as one of Lonnie's finest vocal performances.

Like "Backwater Blues", "Broken Levee Blues", recorded the same year is another response to the great flood of 1927. In addition to the fine singing and playing, Dean notes that the song has a "deeper dimension. …The song's lyrics express striking protest about the means by which the levees along Mississippi were maintained, a system which a few years later was called a new from of 'Mississippi Slavery' by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP." As David Evanes notes: "In many places Black men who tried to leave the area, even those who were simply passing through, were arrested by White police and National Guard troops and forced to work on the levees"

Related Listening:

Dean Alger Interview/Feature (95 min., MP3)



Kennedy's Blues

Kennedy's Blues is the third volume in Guido Van Rijn's groundbreaking series of books focusing on topical blues and gospel songs. The critically praised Roosevelt Blues kicked off the series in 1997, an examination of all the blues and gospel songs during Roosevelt's administration that contained political commentary and doing the same with 2004's The Truman And Eisenhower Blues. In Kennedy's Blues Rijn turns his attention on the Kennedy years (1961-1963) once again exhaustively analyzing seemingly every blues and gospel song with political content and providing an invaluable and previously untapped source on how Kennedy was viewed in the African American community.

Roosevelt was considered the "poor man's friend" and the lyrical evidence suggests he was viewed "as a benevolent and powerful patron or 'bossman'" while Truman was seen as much more fallible and "unresponsive to the economic plight of black people as well as their growing demands for equal rights." Kennedy's reputation, particularly in the early years, was rather ambivalent but his death, as the lyrical evidence makes clear, "virtually eradicated any criticism of his international or political policies and left him an unadulterated hero."

In his perceptive foreword, Brian Ward notes that "Kennedy's Blues can be said to feature a series of musical 'editorials' on the state of black America and it's collective investment in the promise of the Kennedy administration during the early 1960's." In addition, of course, are the large cache of memorial songs Rijn examines in the wake of Kennedy's tragic murder. Particularly valuable is Rijn's examination of recorded sermons and the records by black comedians like Slappy White and Dick Gregory. As Rijn notes, this book, like the previous volumes, attempts to "restore the silenced voices" and "lost consciousness" of African Americans. The difference is that overt political commentary was rare in recorded blues and gospel prior to the 1960's but became increasingly more common afterwards; 95 percent of the songs in the book were issued while in Roosevelt's era it was 22 percent and 20 percent in the Truman and Eisenhower eras. In all 131 songs are mentioned (89 studied in full) with chapters dealing with the Kennedy myth, cold war, space race, economy, civil rights and the assassination.

While overt criticism against Kennedy, like FDR, was virtually nonexistent there was, as in previous eras, many songs concerned about war and the economy. The draft (300,000 were called up in the winter of 1961) and the Bay of Pigs were primary concerns in the chapter JFK Says I've Got To Go: songs documented include Wilbert Harrison's "Drafted", Lightnin' Hopkins' "War Is Starting Again", Bo Diddley's "Mr. Krushchev", J.D. Short's harrowing "Fighting For Dear Old Uncle Sam" among others. Unemployment and poverty cast a shadow over the Kennedy era as documented in the chapter named after the Freddy King song, The Welfare Turns Its Back On You: songs examined include Jimmy Lee Robinson's "Times Is Hard", Chuck Brown "Hard Times At My Door" and Emmanuel Laskey's "Welfare Cheese" to cite a few.

The lengthiest chapters, March On, Dr. Martin Luther King and The Day The World Stood Still, deal with the increasingly turbulent civil rights movement and the assassination of Kennedy. Rijn tackled the movement's beginnings in The Truman And Eisenhower Blues in the chapters "The Freedom Choo Choo" dealing with the mid to late 40's and in "Alabama Bus" when the mass civil rights movement began to coalesce in the 50's. As Champion Jack Dupree explained: "I don't know anything about politics and that thing but I have seen the mess they have done out of people's life. I've seen these things, so when I sing I can really sing what's going on. If I stand on a box and tell people of all the wrong in the world, people wouldn't listen. But if I sing it on records all around the world everybody will know. That's the way we have to get our message out in the world to the people. …We couldn't stand up like the white men and speak. If we did, we would be killed or put in jail."

Not surprisingly Kennedy's assassination provoked an outpouring of memorial songs where "the deceased president emerges as a near-saint. As Rijn notes, "the blues and gospel singers' president was in heaven now. Like Christ he had died for our sins." Indeed Kennedy's death is often compared to the crucification of Christ a theme hammered home in gospel songs and sermons like Rev. Omie L. Holliday's "The Assassination of President Kennedy and the Crucification of Christ." The popularity of recorded sermons in the 1920's and 1930's was revived in the 1960's (now benefiting from the LP where sermons could be recorded in full) and Rijn goes at length to examine several of these which provide a rich vein of social commentary.

"Kennedy's Blues", like previous volumes, is an invaluable and illuminating look at the forgotten voices and opinions of African Americans "at a crucial, transitional moment in the black experience, just as a new era of mass activism and protest began." Through prodigious research and examining sources long ignored, Rijn has skillfully brought this era into sharper focus. I also have it on good authority that Rijn plans further sequels which is certainly good news.

As with previous books there is a companion CD featuring 28 of the songs discussed in the book. To order the CD visit: