Malc sent me this
“I was talking to various musicians at yesterday’s gig and the subject came up. “How good were the old blues players of old”. One friend of mine who is a superb and well respected local guitar player stated that he couldn’t understand why so many people rated Robert Johnson because as as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t that good. Then he said compared to the many great jazz players around at the same time those old blues men were just amateurs.”
Thanks Malc – He wondered whether people would be interested in the idea. I am.
I could go on about this for ever but – apart from wondering what precisely we might mean by “good” – I’ll make three points to start with – which you will see disagrees with the view
1. To be a blues player (and nothing else) is to accept certain ‘structural’ limitations. Put simply, most blues are eight or twelve bars, 4/4 time, using those special ‘blue’ notes etc. Jazz across a century is not limited in that sense but the point about ‘great’ blues players is that despite those limitations, they play in ways that no one else does
2. I wonder who his great jazz guitarists are? Eddie Lang? Barney Kessel? Wes Montgomery? From what I’ve heard of them, I don’t recall that their singing was very good. Are we not talking about singing? Then we’re not talking about Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, T-Bone Walker (etc) because they were not simply guitar players and the key to hearing what they did is to understand the relationship between their singing and their guitar playing – Robert Johnson’s mastery of those two complementary things was astonishing, especially because no one had quite done that like that before and because its influence across popular music is HUGE. How many major blues guitarists are there who are not also singers (I’m not interested in blues-rock)?
3. is this just a discussion about skill? There’s only so much to be claimed about skill. The world is full of skilful guitarists and many of them get no further than Youtube. Jugglers are skilful and who really cares? Some guitar players speak ‘volumes’ to me (for example Robert Johnson, Bert Jansch, Jimi Hendrix, Richard Thompson, Jerry Garcia, Pat Metheny) and others don’t. If somebody tells me that Robert Johnson is an “amateur” despite the fact that his music has been central to my life for fifty years what’s he trying to say? In the final analysis I don’t give a shit – it doesn’t change a single thing I feel when I hear him – and hearing him changed my whole life in a way that none of those jazz guys I named ever did. What’s more I’m not alone. Maybe that counts for something.