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This cd is perhaps the finest collection of recorded works (featuring a single artist) that I have ever heard. The first 8 songs are Victor Recordings. They are well documented (date, location of recording session, performers involved, etc.) and preserved very nicely. Songs 9-17 were recorded by Paramount, and the sound quality suggests that the masters were used at one time to line chicken coops. The Paramount Company did good for recording Johnson, but the surviving masters and documentation on the recording sessions are disappointing to say the least. The sound flaws can't diminish the spirit of Johnson's music though, and should do little to deter the serious listener from enjoying them immensely.
I consider this Document Record an abolute must listen, as well as an indispensible piece in the cd collection of any serious blues fan and/or musician. In 17 tracks (roughly three minutes long each), the listener is not only treated to sincere and spontaneous performances (each one a classic), he/she is also given an intimate glimpse into the life of an absolutely incredible songwriter, guitarist, and performer.
Thomas Johnson was born in 1896 down in the Mississippi Delta, and though his name is not as well known as those of Charlie Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson (no relation), he was one of the most important prewar bluesmen, and certainly one of the most talented.
He was also an uncontrolled alcoholic, and the fact that he lived to see sixty is something of a miracle. His "Canned Heat Blues" is certainly autobiographical, and his contemporaries have told about Johnson straining shoe polish through a slice of white bread in order to extract the alcohol.
But his music is something to behold. Johnson sounds totally immersed in it, his voice possessing an eerie quality enhanched by his occational falsetto moans, and this disc includes the original versions of "Maggie Campbell Blues", "Big Road Blues", and "Cool Drink Of Water Blues" (later recorded by Howlin' Wolf as "I Asked For Water (she gave me gasoline)").
Johnson plays alone on a few songs, but on most of these seventeen sides (which comprise his entire recorded legacy) he is backed by one or more additional musicians, most often a second guitarist. The first eight sides, Tommy Johnson's Victor sides from 1928, boast amazing sound quality...much (much!) better than Charlie Patton's or Son House's contemporary recordings, they're clean and crisp with just a little static, and every phrase and every instrument is clearly heard. Johnson was a talented and quite original guitar player, and it is a delight to be able to hear him so well.
The Paramount sides, on the other hand, are...well, Paramount sides. Much inferior in sound quality to the Victor sides, they are nevertheless well worth a listen, particularly "Alcohol And Jake Blues" and the battered "Lonesome House Blues".
On the best of these songs, Johnson's voice is positively frightening, and his "Cool Drink Of Water" is the sound of pure despair. This is some of the starkest, most powerful music you'll ever hear.
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