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The Devil with 12 Fingers

Who is your guitar hero? Is it Jimmy Page–a guitarist cum magician, Eric Clapton–called ‘Eric is God’, Keith Richards–dirty playing technique maverick, or maybe the one that stood above them all, the one who broke all the musical canons–namely Jimmy Hendrix. Yeah, the list goes on and on and on. But that’s not the point. The point is that:

Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans,
way back up in the woods, among the evergreens,
there stood a cabin made of earth and wood,
where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode,
aka Robert Johnson–the devil with 12 fingers.


Robert Johnson, whose life is little known, was born in 1911 somewhere in Mississippi. Johnson was ill suited for sharecropping so he went city to city to play his music. He picked up the guitar in his teens and numbered among his tutors such esteemed blues figures as Charlie Patton and Son House. During the Depression years of the early Thirties, Johnson lit out with his guitar and earned his keep as an entertainer– not only as a master of the blues but of the popular tunes and styles of the day. His travels took him throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, where he performed at jook joints, country suppers and levee camps.

He was known to be a loner and to play alone. He would just pick up a local girl, stay at her house and play around. He loved playing blues songs for hours telling stories about his girls, adventures and human conditions. His lyrics were simple and straightforward but at the same time shrewd and cutting as a razor’s edge. Tangled was his lot and tangled were his words.

But why a devil with 12 fingers? As the legend has it, he was once told by his teachers to give up playing the guitar and concentrate on the harmonica. He then disappeared for months and months only to return and amaze them with his newfound prowess. He said: “If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn to make songs yourself, you take you guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ‘fore midnight that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself... A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.” No surprise people started saying that his skills in playing came from an extra, sixth finger on each hand.

Soon after that he was discovered by a talent scout and recorded in two sessions 29 songs. Today they constitute one of the best training sources for modern guitar heroes. The aforementioned guitarists have all been under his spell with Jimmy Hendrix putting him as his greatest teacher and Eric Clapton recording an album composed of Johnson’s tracks just a few years back. By the way, does it have anything to do with Johnson and Hendrix dying at the age of 27?

His death, as life, is still shrouded by mystery. He was poisoned for getting too close to somebody else’s woman one time too many.

As black blues men had it in those days, Johnson’s songs were written in “coon slang,” therefore white people couldn’t understand many of their hidden messages. Here’s his “Kindhearted Woman Blues”. I’ll leave the interpretation of it up to you…

Marcin Lasota
FELBERG branch in Warsaw (Sienna)
 

GLOSSARY

cum plus
maverick odszczepieniec
evergreens rośliny iglaste
aka znany także jako
sharecropping system rolny po zniesieniu niewolnictwa
jook joint knajpa z jukebox
levee camp obóz robotników rzecznych
loner samotnik
shrewd przenikliwy
lot los
tangled pogmatwany
prowess zręczność
talent scout łowca talentów
track piosenka
shroud zasłaniać
coon (obraźliwie) Murzyn
 
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Kindhearted Woman Blues

I got a kindhearted woman
do anything in this world for me
I got a kindhearted woman
do anything in this world for me
But these evil hearted women,
man they will not let me be
I love my baby
my baby don’t love me
I love my baby, oooohhh
my baby don’t love me
But I really love that woman,
can’t stand to leave her be
Ain’t but one thing
makes Mr Johnson drink
Its worried ‘bout how you treat me baby
I begin to think
Oh my babe, my life don’t feel the same
You breaks my heart,
When you call me Mr So and So’s name

She’s a kindhearted woman
she studies evil all the time
She’s a kindhearted woman
she studies evil all the time
You well’s to kill me
as to have it on your mind
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