Tommy Johnson: Canned Heat Blues PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 January 2006 00:00
Tommy Johnson: Canned Heat Blues
By Alex van der Tuuk. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Tommy Johnson was the seventh child of Idell and Mary Ella Johnson, born around 1896 near Terry, Mississippi. Although she didn’t play an instrument herself, Mary Ella did come from a musical family, and so it’s not surprising that her offspring naturally inclined towards it. The first of her children to pick up the guitar was Ledell Johnson, who was four years older than Tommy, and taught him to play the instrument around 1910-1912.

During his life, Tommy had several serious relationships with women, four of whom he married. The first one took him away from his native town around 1912, and not much is known of the relationship except that when he returned two years later he was alone! However, during this “sabbatical”, Tommy had transformed himself into an accomplished guitarist, and the repertoire he had developed comprised the material he would record fourteen years later.

He had also hooked up with Charlie Patton, Willie Brown and Dick Bankston, all figures that were extremely important in Tommy’s musical development, and although Tommy had claimed that all his songs were composed alone, it seems logical that this “Delta Trio” had influenced him heavily. On the family front, two other brothers of Tommy’s, Clarence and Mager, also took up playing guitar, and the three of them formed a nucleus of performing bluesmen around areas of Crystal Springs and Jackson, Mississippi.

During this period in the 1920s, Tommy also met and collaborated with people such as Rueben Lacy, Charlie McCoy, Ishmon Bracey, Walter Vincent and the brothers Bo and Lonnie Chatmon. The latter three would go on to become famous as The Mississippi Sheiks. Other frequent visitors to Jackson were Tommy’s old collaborators Charlie Patton and Willie Brown.

One of the most influential and important men in the record business at the time was talent scout Henry C. Speir. The scout operated a furniture store on Farish Street in Jackson, where one could have acetates made up and sent off to the various record companies. Speir thought that Tommy could only come up with two different songs, and told him to go and make some more before attending his first recording session. In February 1928, recording a session for the Victor company, Tommy, together with Ishmon Bracey, Charlie McCoy and Rosie Mae Moore, recorded his best known songs, including “Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, “Big Road Blues”, “Bye-Bye Blues” and “Maggie Campbell Blues”. Looking at Johnson’s repertoire, it is noticeable that many of his lyrics are traditional and reappear in different songs he recorded. Although “Maggie” was also mainly traditional, Tommy claimed it was written about his first wife. It was about this time that he recorded his most personal song, the prophetic “Canned Heat Blues”.

The first issues of the songs must have sold fairly well, as six months later Tommy returned to Memphis to do some more recording for Victor. After this session his contract was not renewed, and Tommy had to wait almost eighteen months before he had a chance to record again, this time for Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin. One of the most peculiar songs he recorded for this label, “I Wonder To Myself” on which a kazoo can be heard, showed that his trademark falsetto had deteriorated, mainly due to his constant alcohol abuse. Tommy also cut some records with the New Orleans Nehi Boys, comprising Kid Ernest (probably Kid Ernest Moliere) and Charley Taylor. Ishmon Bracey also added some speech to his last recording “Alcohol And Jake Blues”. Several years ago, in 2001, Tommy’s first Grafton recording, a version of a Jimmie Rodgers song, was found as a test pressing and sold for $11,000.

Basically, the strength of his Victor recordings was such that Tommy was able to remain a musician for the rest of his life, and his recordings influenced countless musicians who would later become recording artists themselves. The most successful group to record a Tommy Johnson tune was the Mississippi Sheiks, whose recording of “Stop And Listen Blues” was a version of Tommy’s “Big Road Blues” with a new set of lyrics. The record sold sufficiently well to influence other artists, such as Kokomo Arnold and Willie Lofton, to record their own versions of the song, while Amos Easton, who recorded as Bumble Bee Slim, used the Big Road melody for his own composition, “Sad And Lonesome” and “Rough Road Blues”.

Tommy Johnson did not live long enough to be part of the blues revival of the 1960s, as he died on November 1, 1956.

However, his legacy remains very much alive, and without doubt makes him one of the most important blues artists to make records in the 1920s.

Suggested reading:
Tommy Johnson by David Evans, Studio Vista, 1970 (if still available through Red Lick)
Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues by David Evans;
Da Capo Press, 1982; ISBN 0-306-80300-3

Suggested music:
Tommy Johnson: complete recorded works in chronological order (Document DOCD 5001)

Alex van der Tuuk
25 January 2006
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