Lonnie Johnson: “Careless Love”

Lonnie Johnson playing in Chicago, 1941. Photo: Russell Lee.

Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970) had one of the longest careers of the early country blues musicians. Born in New Orleans, he was best known for his precise musicianship, his vocal talent, and the single-note guitar lines that became a staple of later blues, jazz, and rock-and-roll music. He sat in with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five for several sides recorded in 1927; as Gunther Schuller noted in his book Early Jazz, “Armstrong is no longer outnumbered four to one but has a strong ally. Johnson’s swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly highlights of modern jazz.” He continued to work, performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith, until just about a year before his death in relative obscurity in Toronto. In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Ellington wrote, “[Johnson] must have must have been a good man, because he spoke only good about other people, and I never heard anyone speak anything but good of him. God bless Lonnie Johnson.”

Among his early successes was the below 1928 recording of “Careless Love.” Samuel Charters wrote about the recording in his seminal 1959 book The Country Blues, describing it as “one of [Johnson’s] finest achievements”:

“Careless Love” in successively bitter verses blamed love for an entire life of troubles; finally turning on the personified image of desire with:

… damn you, I’m going to shoot you,
Shoot you four — five times.
Then stand over you until you finish dying.

More information about Johnson can be found in this brief biographical/critical essay by John Cohassey.

A short history of America

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America” has always been on my short list of popcult-as-art masterpieces, so I was delighted to recently receive my very own, artist-approved giclée print of the work, now awaiting framing for prominent display. (A few are still available from Crumb Products, your official source for all things Crumb.) The new print differs from the 1979 original in that, in 1992, Crumb added three panels to the original 12-panel version, depicting possible future outcomes: Ecological Disaster; Techno Fix; and the Ecotopian Solution. I was even more delighted to share it with Goldie and Billie, my daughters, who are comics mavens too. In Goldie’s estimation, the most probable outcome will be that of the “Techno Fix.” “I like Ectopian Solution the best,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen.” We can only hope that Ecological Disaster can be avoided.

I first wrote about Crumb and “A Short History of America” last September. This gives me the welcome opportunity to republish that below; I also recommend Robert Hughes’ essay on Crumb in the March 7, 2005, issue of the Guardian. One of these days I’m going to get around to writing something more substantial on Crumb, Mark Twain, and early 20th-century American music, which I touch on below — and which led me to pick up the ol’ guitar myself recently — but for now, there’s this. At the end of the post, Crumb and the East River String Band play us out.

[“You just want to throw up your hands,” the original title of this post] is an appropriate response, I suppose, to so many things these days. But the quote comes from R. Crumb, as he attempted to explain the reaction to his enthusiasm for early 20th-century popular music:

You play old records for most people, and, if they listen at all, after the record’s over they turn to you and say, “So what is it you like about that old music?” You just want to throw up your hands.

Crumb may be best known as a cartoonist, of course, a prophet without honor in the land of his birth. His “A Short History of America” lithograph above says a great deal in a mere nine panels. A few years ago, Josh Jones wrote in a short essay about the lithograph: “Crumb’s love for simpler times is more than the passion of an aficionado. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that cannot flourish as a critique of the present without a corresponding vision of a golden age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-industrial, rural — a time … when ‘people could still express themselves.'” And “A Short History of America” also suggests that, like Mark Twain, Crumb is a moralist as well.

Crumb moved to France in 1991. That country has been somewhat more hospitable; in 2012, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris offered the first full retrospective of Crumb’s 50-year-long career (the catalog for the show will finally be published in the US later this year). He’s also been the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Germany, as well as the notorious 1994 documentary by Terry Zwigoff, available from the Criterion Collection.

As a teenager I was a great enthusiast of not only Crumb’s comic work but also his excavations of early American popular music with his band the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Crumb continues to play old records for people, most recently for John Heneghan’s “John’s Old Time Radio Show,” a periodic podcast. Recently he’s been featuring early recorded world music from South America, Africa, and other regions. Go there and he’ll play them for you, too. And below, Crumb plays ukelele on “Coney Island Baby” with Eden Brower and John Heneghan’s East River String Band, recorded in France late last year. A new album by the same title is promised soon.

“One Dime Blues”

Etta Baker.

Etta Baker (1913-2006) was one of the great practitioners of the Piedmont Blues guitar style; Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal sought her out at her North Carolina home for tips and advice about her thumb-and-forefinger technique. Below, she performs her signature “One Dime Blues” in a recording from 1991, when she was 78 years old. Her New York Times/ Associated Press obituary can be found here.

Matchbox Blues

R. Crumb’s portrait of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

These days I’ve been enjoying Samuel Charters’ groundbreaking 1959 study The Country Blues (reissued by Da Capo Press in 1975 with a new introduction by Charters); at the same time the companion LP of the same name, released by Folkways Records, has been getting some play around the house as I make my own efforts towards cultural appropriation by learning country blues guitar. The first cut on the LP is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues,” released by Paramount Records in 1927. The single is important for American popular music in a variety of ways. According to the Wikipedia page for Jefferson, it’s been selected as “one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Carl Perkins, the Beatles, and Jerry Lee Lewis also covered it.

Stephen Calt wrote the text on the back of Jefferson’s entry in R. Crumb’s “Heroes of the Blues Trading Cards.” It reads:

A native of Wortham, Texas, the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson worked as a street singer and visited several states in the course of his travels. His successful recording debut in 1926 launched the vogue for country blues. Before his mysterious death in 1929, Jefferson recorded 85 sides and established himself as the most popular blues guitarist of his era. An off-beat guitarist known for his free phrasing patterns, he was one of the most inspired singers found in blues.

Below, Jefferson’s “Matchbox Blues,” courtesy YouTube. You can find the lyrics here. It’s also the first cut on Yazoo’s 2007 compilation The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Blind Blake: “Early Morning Blues”

R. Crumb’s portrait of Blind Arthur Blake.

As my fingers wend my weary but increasingly accurate way into fingerstyle ragtime guitar, I’m boning up on the classics. Below is a lovely recording from October 1926 of Blind Blake’s “Early Morning Blues.” Jas Obrecht wrote this appreciation of the great blues singer and ragtime guitarist.