Welcome, everybody, to the Monday Morning Blues! & also welcome to the final installment in our 10 Essential Delta Blues Tunes series. If you’ve been following along, I’m sure it’s no surprise that the series (which only featured one song per artist) is wrapping up with a Robert Johnson tune.
Even folks with a very casual knowledge of blues music are familiar with Robert Johnson; he is without question the most recognized & most culturally lauded of all the pre-World War II blues musicians, & this has been true for some time. This being the case, it’s interesting to note that Johnson was not especially successful in his own time; “Terraplane Blues” (with “Kind-Hearted Woman” as the B side) was the closest he came to a hit, & that record only sold 5,000 copies. Of course, Johnson died at age 27, apparently poisoned by a jealous husband, & as such it’s impossible to speculate on what kind of career he might have had. He appears to have been a respected musician among his peers, tho Muddy Waters at one time went on record as saying there were other Delta musicians who were as good at playing slide guitar as Johnson. The two musicians who probably played with Johnson the most, Johnny Shines & Robert Lockwood, Jr, used mostly superlatives to describe his musicianship. Lockwood, however, whose relationship to Johnson was somewhere between that of a stepson & a younger brother, did note that Johnson's tempos weren't always steady; but the same could be said of several other well-known country blues players.
But since his recording were first “discovered” by John Hammond in the late 30s, Johnson has particularly proved fascinating to white blues fans. Hammond wanted him for the Carnegie Hall “From Swing to Spirituals concert,” but had to ask Big Bill Broonzy when he couldn’t locate Johnson (who, in fact, was already dead.) Then the release of the lp King of the Delta Blues Singers by Columbia in 1961, along with subsequent covers of his material by high-profile rockers like the Rolling Stones & Cream, further cemented his reputation. Johnson has been named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & was named the “5th Greatest Guitarist of All Time” by Rolling Stone (editorial note: I put zero credence in these types of lists, but that’s another story—I do think the rating is significant in illustrating his reputation among the rock & roll folks.)
There is no question that Johnson was a magnificent musician—his singing range is formidable & polls aside, a fantastic guitar player. His lyrics are some of the most memorable of all the early blues tunes, & while a lot less of his music was actually original than many realize, he was talented at synthesizing quite disparate elements into an immediately recognizable style. He certainly was important in popularizing the “boogie bass” that’s now so much a part of blues guitar style.
But for all that, there’s controversy surrounding Johnson & his reputation. Although many talk about Johnson in superlatives, there are others, & folks with a lot of musical credentials who take a different view. Elijah Wald, in his great book Escaping the Delta, analyzes Johnson’s playing & composing & comes to the conclusion that Johnson’s biggest strength came in his ability to synthesize styles—this seems to me a balanced view; Dave Van Ronk, on the other hand, dismissed Johnson as an imitator who didn’t come up to his models; Van Ronk particularly was thinking of Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, as well as Lonnie Johnson.
For myself, I love Robert Johnson’s music, & I have a high respect for his musicianship. I don’t like the idea of “rating” guitarists, but I do know that Johnson’s guitar work is masterful; on the other hand, comparing him with a guitarist like Lonnie Johnson who played in top-notch jazz bands (for instance, with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five)—well, you’re simply comparing apples & oranges there, & perhaps it’s best left at that.
“Terraplane Blues” is a great tune—a masterpiece of blues slide guitar. Interestingly, Johnson’s slide work is spare—there’s the usual move up to the 12th fret, & then there’s a very characteristic one note slide toward the end of each verse, the latter made all the more dramatic by the fact that so little slide playing precedes it. The song as recorded is in Bb, with the guitar tuned possibly to open Ab (same as open G, but up a half a step); at least the Ab tuning is the one proposed in David Rubin’s Robert Johnson: The New Transcriptions.
Although “Terraplane Blues” isn’t really a song about a car, it’s worth knowing that the Terraplane, a model made by the Hudson Car Company in the 1930s, is the auto referred to in the lyrics. The Terraplane was a luxury car in its day.
This is the blues, folks! Hope you enjoy it!
The photo of the 1937 Hudson Terraplane Super 4-door sedan is by Lars-Göran Lindgren & is published on Wiki Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.