Tommy Johnson


photograph of Tommy Johnson

Tommy Johnson (1896 – November 1, 1956) was an influential American delta blues musician, who recorded in the late 1920s, and was known for his eerie falsetto voice and intricate guitar playing.

Johnson was born near Terry, Mississippi, and moved around 1910 to Crystal Springs where he lived for most of his life. He learned to play the guitar and, by 1914, was supplementing his income by playing at local parties with his brothers Major and LeDell. In 1916 he married and moved to Webb Jennings' Plantation near Drew, Mississippi, close to the Dockery Plantation. There he met other musicians including Charley Patton and Willie Brown.
By 1920 he had become an alcoholic and itinerant musician, based in Crystal Springs but traveling widely around the South, sometimes accompanied by Papa Charlie McCoy.

In 1928 he made his first recordings with McCoy for Victor Records.The recordings included "Canned Heat Blues", in which he sang of drinking methanol from the cooking fuel Sterno. The song features the refrain "canned heat, mama, sure, Lord, killing me." The blues group Canned Heat took their name from this song. Johnson's "Big Road Blues" inspired Canned Heat's song, "On the Road Again". A significantly different version of the song appears as "Canned Heat" on the "Big Road Blues" album by K.C. Douglas.
He recorded two further sessions, in August 1928, and for Paramount Records in December 1929. He did not record again, mistakenly believing that he had signed away his right to record. This resulted in a legal settlement with The Mississippi Sheiks who had used Johnson's "Big Road Blues" melody in their successful "Stop and Listen". Johnson was party to the copyright settlement, but was too drunk at the time to understand what he had signed to.
Johnson's recordings established him as the premier Delta blues vocalist of his day, with a powerful voice that could go from a growl to a falsetto. He was also an accomplished guitarist. His style influenced later blues singers such as Robert Nighthawk and Howlin' Wolf, whose song "I Asked for Water (She Brought Me Gasoline)" was based on Johnson's "Cool Water Blues". He was a talented composer, blending fragments of folk poetry and personalized lyrics into set guitar accompaniments to craft striking blues compositions such as "Maggie Campbell".
To enhance his fame, Johnson cultivated a sinister persona. According to his brother LeDell, he claimed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his mastery of the guitar. This story was later also associated with Robert Johnson, to whom Tommy Johnson was unrelated. Tommy Johnson also played tricks with his guitar, playing it between his legs and behind his head, and throwing it in the air while playing.
Johnson remained a popular performer in the Jackson area through the 1930s and 1940s, sometimes performing with Ishman Bracey. He was highly influential on other performers, partly because he was willing to teach his style and his repertoire.

He died of a heart attack after playing at a party in 1956. He is buried in the Warm Springs Methodist Church Cemetery outside of Crystal Springs, Mississippi. In 2001 a headstone was commissioned through the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a Mississippi non-profit corporation, by the family of Tommy Johnson and paid for by musician Bonnie Raitt. The large, granite memorial engraved with Johnson's portrait was not placed on Johnson's grave for several years afterward, however, due to an ongoing dispute between Tommy Johnson's family (led by his niece, Vera Johnson Collins), the owners of farm property encircling the cemetery, and the Copiah County Board of Supervisors in regard to a deteriorated road preventing access to the burial site. This issue was resolved in October 2012, when it was announced that the headstone would reach its final destination on October 26. The headstone had been on public display in the Crystal Springs, Mississippi Public Library since being unveiled on October 20, 2001. On the night of Saturday, February 2, 2013, the headstone was desecrated, apparently smashed by a sledge hammer or some similar device.
An annual Tommy Johnson Blues Festival is now held in Crystal Springs, on every third weekend in October. The inaugural edition was held in Jackson and Crystal Springs in 2006.

Tommy Johnson's influence on local traditions is discussed by David Evans in Tommy Johnson and ''Big Road Blues. Tradition & Creativity in the Folk Blues.

In the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), a character named Tommy Johnson is played by Chris Thomas King. This character describes selling his soul to the devil to play guitar. In the film, Tommy Johnson plays a number of songs originally recorded by blues musician Skip James, and also accompanies the Soggy Bottom Boys, a fictitious band consisting of the film's three main protagonists plus Johnson, on "Man of Constant Sorrow". The story of Tommy Johnson selling his soul to the devil was first told by Tommy Johnson's brother, LaDell Johnson, and reported by David Evans in his 1971 biography of Johnson. Read more about Tommy Johnson on User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.

Gear used by Tommy Johnson

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