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A short tale of two Roberts

May 8, 2011

Today marks the centenary of the blues artist, Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938), namesake of another Robert Johnson (c. 1583 – c. 1633) who is sometimes referred to as “Shakespeare’s Lutenist.”  The individual styles of the two musicians are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but comparisons can be made with the depth of feeling in some of the bluesman’s more gripping songs and the brooding melancholy of the older Johnson’s minor-key pavans for lute.

The two Johnsons crafted their respective styles under entirely different circumstances.  The English Johnson was son to one of Queen Elizabeth’s lutenists, and probably lived a fairly privileged childhood in the household of George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon.  Carey was a patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theatre company whose ranks included actor, William Shakespeare.  This Johnson was intimately involved in Stuart-era theatre music, and left behind several sprightly and tuneful works which are entirely representative of the age.

The American Johnson was apparently born and lived in Mississippi, and cultivated his music in much less comfortable and much more mobile circumstances, as was unfortunately typical for African-Americans in the time and place.  But his music captures the incredibly rich spirit of an age and of a people who lived with their emotions close to the surface, quite the opposite of life at the royal courts of England, circa 1600.

I write about the two Robert Johnsons because the music of both artists has had an influence on my development as a musician.  As a guitar teacher, I am occasionally asked to teach some of Johnson’s blues classics like “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Kind Hearted Woman Blues“, which happen to be among the first tunes I ever played on guitar.  Even today, I am moved by the depth of emotion in these songs.

When I began to play the lute, some of the first music I came across included the short, tuneful dances of the other Robert Johnson, entirely convincing as utilitarian dances and interludes for the theatre.  But when I discovered the dark and textural music of Johnson’s pavans for solo lute and some of his more dramatic songs, I was moved by the emotional content of this deeper music.

As a musician, I find the emotional content is what attracts me to any style of music.  I react in similar ways to “Care charming sleep” by the lutenist and “If I Had Possession over Judgment Day” by the bluesman.  Both songs demand to be understood in terms of style, context and delivery, but both songs are on equal footing as art music by any other measure.

  1. Caroline Usher permalink

    So, when can we expect to see lute versions of “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Kond hearted Woman Blues?”

  2. Thanks for your comment, Caroline. You aren’t likely to see lute versions of bottleneck guitar blues, at least not from me. Apart from the problem of style with instrument and rep, the slide just plain doesn’t work with gut or synthetic nylon strings. Maybe it could work for orpharion or bandora if you can find one that can actually be tuned.


  3. Alan Hoyle permalink

    This blog reminds me of when Rob MacKillop announced – a couple of years ago – that he returning to lute music after a sabbatical playing the blues music he’d grown up with (as had I).
    I mailed him with my view that blues & lute music – either was good… His reply was, as I recall, “Hell, it’s all blues”. So you’ll get no complaints from the Balcarres guy, I reckon.

  4. Alan Hoyle permalink

    Sorry – if I’d typed a ‘was’ between ‘he’ and ‘returning’, it might have made more sense…

  5. Thanks, Alan. I think Rob is spot on and my point in the post is that both forms of music are equally engaging and valid as art music.


  6. Thanks to Rainer aus dem Spring for pointing out that the earlier Robert Johnson’s death was recorded as 18.Nov.1633.

    “New Light on Robert Johnson, the King’s Musician”: Jean Carmel: Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1965), pp. 233-235

    Thanks also to Howard Posner who pointed out that it’s too late to send flowers.


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