Music Interviews
4:00 pm
Wed November 23, 2011

Robert Johnson And Pablo Casals' Game-Changers Turn 75

Originally published on Fri November 25, 2011 3:45 pm

Nov. 23, 1936, was a good day for recorded music. Two men, an ocean apart, each stepped up to a microphone and began to play. One was a cello prodigy who had performed for the queen of Spain; the other was a guitar player in the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta. But on that day, Pablo Casals and Robert Johnson each made recordings that would change music history.

Honeyboy Edwards, who died this year, not long after being interviewed for this story, says he first met Robert Johnson in those juke joints: "He wasn't famous then," Edwards says. "He was just a quiet man who played guitar."

75 years ago, Johnson walked into the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. He had been brought there by Ernie Oertle, an executive with the American Record Company, which had refashioned a hotel room into a makeshift studio. The company had brought people from all over the country to record, and the range of artists in the hotel that day was startling. Blues musician and writer Scott Ainslie lists them: "Gospel musicians, polka bands, string bands."

An Unassuming Hour

"Johnson's session was sandwiched between a hillbilly band and a group of sisters who played Spanish guitar music," Ainslie says. Johnson walked into the recording room and settled down, facing into a corner. He tuned up his guitar and began to play.

Billy Gibbons, the guitarist for ZZ Top, is a big fan of the recordings Johnson made that day. He says he's particularly impressed by the way Johnson's hands struck the strings of his guitar.

"This was just one guy, " he says. "Meat on metal on wood. But what he came with was fierce."

Johnson was playing walk-downs, turnarounds, a thumping boogie-woogie piano bass line and chiming high chords on top — all by himself. "Where other guitarists might need a drummer and a bass player," says Ainslie, "Johnson figured out how to do it all.

"He had mastered a way of playing that went far beyond what anyone else was doing in the Delta at that time," Gibbons says. "It was downright befuddling."

That expert playing — and the speed with which he developed his style — helped lay the groundwork for the later iconic myth: Johnson met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul to play guitar.

Johnson also knew how to put together a song. His recordings were done on wax discs, three minutes per side. Some earlier blues performers went into recording sessions and recorded a slice of a live performance meant to go on for 12 minutes — only to have the recording cut off partway through because they'd run out of wax.

According to Ainslie, Johnson had listened to a lot of 78s. He knew how long a record was. So he crafted his songs with tighter lyrics and narrative structure, and a greater sense of telling a story. As author Paul Elie says, "In three minutes, Robert Johnson can sketch these incredible dramas of sin and redemption, struggle and loss, and you feel a world being drawn before your eyes."

Meanwhile, Across The Atlantic

That same day, Pablo Casals walked into Abbey Road Studios in London. Abbey Road was one of the most advanced studios in the world at the time. It had the air of a hospital — technicians in white lab coats, the equipment stainless and polished.

Casals was 60 years old. He'd discovered Bach's cello suites as a boy in Barcelona, in an old music store, and had been amazed that he had never heard of them before. At that time, the suites weren't thought of as great works of music, or worthy of performance — they were too methodical, too logical, too cold. Cellists considered them exercises, a way to learn to play the cello better. But to Casals, they were music of the highest order.

Bernard Greenhouse (who also died this year, shortly after being interviewed) studied with Casals in Spain. He says that Casals was able to find something in the suites that no other musician had found before.

"He's the one who made it into a language," Greenhouse says, "and that's what music is: a language which transcends all people and all parts of the world. A language which is almost understandable word for word."

By the end of the day on Nov. 23, 1936, Pablo Casals had recorded two of Bach's cello suites. Robert Johnson had recorded eight different songs, with multiple takes of each one. The two hours of music put to wax that day, Elie says, "are as perfect a two hours of music as anyone has ever recorded."

Two Originals Whose Stories Ended Differently

Johnson recorded again later that week, and then a final time in 1937 in Dallas. He had one minor hit with "Terraplane Blues," but his impact was largely regional and confined to the Delta. The American Record Company wanted to record him again, but Johnson was killed in 1938 — poisoned, allegedly, by the husband of a woman with whom he'd been having an affair. Johnson's recordings, and Johnson himself, were pretty much forgotten.

Meanwhile, Casals became more famous then ever. He played at the White House, became a darling of the Kennedy administration and died in his 90s, a beloved figure in classical music. But if there was one recording for which he was known, it was his Bach cello suites.

In 1961, the first reissue of Robert Johnson's recordings came out on Columbia Records. "Everybody stopped in their tracks," Gibbons says. Johnson's songs were covered by Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and a host of other artists.

His influence went beyond covers, though; it actually changed the way rock was played. Gibbons says that ZZ Top's "La Grange" was influenced by Johnson's work, especially its iconic turnaround line.

"But as many times as a Robert Johnson number has been covered and rerecorded and reinterpreted, no one has yet recaptured what guitar players would refer to as that internal DNA of Robert Johnson," Gibbons says. "You can get the same guitar, you can probably go back to the same hotel room, but delivering it like R.J. did in 1936 — forget about it. It's not going to happen."

Produced for All Things Considered by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries with editors Deborah George and Ben Shapiro.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

In the history of recorded music, November 23rd, 1936 was a very good day. Two men, an ocean apart, each sat before a microphone and began to play. One was a cello prodigy who had performed for the queen of Spain; the other played guitar and was a regular in the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta.

Seventy-five years ago today, Pablo Casals and Robert Johnson both made recordings that changed music history. And it was pure coincidence.

Producers Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries, take us back to that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ROBERT JOHNSON: (Singing) I went to the crossroads, knelt down on my knees...

HONEYBOY EDWARDS: At first, me and Robert in 1936, same year he recorded. He wasn't famous at the time. Just a quiet man who played guitar. My name is Honeyboy Edwards. I'm a guitar player and I play the blues. Back in them days, on a Saturday night, everybody would go over to that roadhouse, right down 61 Highway. Have music and have barbecue, white whiskey, and we all started playing blues together.

That old boy sure could play a guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JOHNSON: (Singing) I don't have no sweet woman (unintelligible)...

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

BERNARD GREENHOUSE: My name is Bernard Greenhouse. I'm a cellist. I was one of the early students of Casals' and I spent a lot of time working on the Bach suites with him. Pablo Casals was one of the greatest musicians of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

PAUL ELI: My name is Paul Eli and I'm the author of "Sound About: Reinventing Bach."

SCOTT AINSLIE: My name is Scott Ainslie. I'm a blues guitarist and I wrote a book on Robert Johnson's work called "Robert Johnson at the Crossroads."

BILLY GIBBONS: My name is Billy Gibbons. I'm the guitar player for ZZ Top.

ELI: November 23rd, 1936, Robert Johnson goes into a hotel room which has been fashioned into recording studio in.

GIBBONS: They recorded in the Gunther Hotel, San Antonio, Texas.

AINSLIE: The record companies brought people from all over the West and Southeast to come and record - gospel musicians, string bands, polka bands. I mean, they were just recording everybody. And so, Robert Johnson's recording session was sandwiched in between a bunch of hillbillies and a bunch of sisters who played Mexican guitar music.

GIBBONS: As the story goes, Robert Johnson was so shy, they allowed him to turn his back to the engineers, so that he wouldn't be intimidated by the whole procedure.

AINSLIE: He settled down, facing into a corner; tuned up his guitar and at some point they give him a signal to begin. And Robert Johnson starts to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JOHNSON: (Singing) I got kind hearted woman...

GIBBONS: The way his hands struck the strings, this was just one guy, one guitar and meat on metal on wood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JOHNSON: (Singing) I got a kind hearted woman, do anything in this world for me...

ELI: On that same day, Pablo Casals walked into a studio in London. Abbey Road Studios was billed as the most advanced recording studio in the world. The technicians wore white lab coats. All the equipment with stainless and polished. So there he was sitting in a chair. He was 60 years old and ready to make the recordings that in some respects he'd been waiting all his life to make.

He put his bow to the strings and began to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

GREENHOUSE: It was very difficult to get a recording in those days. They were on wax, the old recordings. There was no tape which could be cut. You couldn't patch a bad place. You couldn't play a run and have one note in the run missing and put it in later. You were alone with your cello.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC AND BLUES GUITAR)

AINSLIE: There was an electronic light that they would turn on when you have to tie up the tune, before they ran out of wax. Three minutes, that's how much time you gone on a 10-inch wax disc. Earlier recordings made by other bluesmen, record a slice of a juke joint performance that might go on for 12 or 15 minutes. Verse, verse, verse, verse, verse, verse and then cut off part-way through because they'd run out of wax.

Johnson had listened to enough and 78s, so he knew how long a record was. And so, he crafted his songs with tighter lyrics and a better sense of telling the story.

ELI: Three minutes songs and Robert Johnson and can sketch these incredible dramas of sin and redemption, struggle and loss. And you feel a world being drawn before your eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

JOHNSON: (Singing) You better come on in my kitchen 'cause there's going to be raining outdoor...

EDWARDS: Blues is like a story. You say I woke up this morning and my baby was gone. Say, I wonder which way did my baby go? You know what I mean? It's a simple thing but you got to understand music. If you don't understand you'll never be nothing good.

ELI: Pablo Casals discovered the cello suites as a boy in a dusty music store in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

ELI: For long time the suites were not an important work, a concert work. They were considered exercises, a way for cellists to learn how to play the cello better. There was something methodical about them. Casals was astonished by this. He played the cello suites and said, these were supposed to be so cold, how could anyone consider this music cold? Nobody thinks that anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUES GUITAR)

EDWARDS: Back in them days, the musicians, they just picked up a guitar and played just like a mule trotting down the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS: But they didn't have nothing to sweeten the song up, nothing at all. But Robert, he had a different style with the guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUES GUITAR)

AINSLIE: That thumping boogie-woogie bass - (Singing) dun-da-dun-da-dun-da-dun. And the chiming chords in the high part over a sustained boogie-woogie bass line, Robert Johnson figured out how to do that with one guitar rather than two. Whereas, everybody else might have rhythm guitarist banging along, and then play the fancy stuff on top and sing, Robert could do it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

JOHNSON: (Singing) I love my baby. My baby don't love me. I love my baby...

GIBBONS: He had mastered a way of playing that went far beyond what anybody else was in was doing from the Delta at that time. It's downright befuddling. And this leads to the famous tale of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads. 'Cause, man, he must've gone somewhere and did something.

ELI: November 23rd, 1936 was a good day for recorded music. Pablo Casals had recorded two Bach cello suites. Robert Johnson had recorded two takes of eight different songs. An hour London, an hour in Texas, and those two hours are as perfect a two hours of music as anyone has ever recorded.

EDWARDS: After he recorded, his record was on every jukebox in the city. You could hear "Terraplane Blues," "Hellhounds On My Trail," and "Come On In My Kitchen." His stuff was out everywhere and he had a lot of hit numbers at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

JOHNSON: (Singing) I believe. I believe my time ain't long...

AINSLIE: A couple of years later, in 1938, he got killed. He had been messing around with a juke joint owner's wife, in a joint outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, and somebody passes him some kind of poison in a bottle of whiskey. And that's the end of Robert Johnson. He was 27.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

ELI: Pablo Casals, who was already famous, became more famous than ever. He played at the White House, became the darling of the Kennedy administration. He lived into his 90s. And if there was one work by which he was known, it was his recording of the Bach cello suites; in some ways, the iconic classical recording of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

ELI: Meanwhile, Robert Johnson's recordings were pretty much forgotten.

AINSLIE: Almost nobody knew who Robert Johnson was until 1961, when the first reissue came out on Columbia records.

GIBBONS: Everybody stopped in their tracks - just like, whoa.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

JOHNSON: (Singing) I went to the crossroads...

GIBBONS: Robert Johnson's songs were covered by Eric Clapton...

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ERIC CLAPTON: (Singing) I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride...

AINSLIE: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.

GIBBONS: And, of course, the Rolling Stones. The list goes on and on. Robert Johnson's small handful of recordings inspired everybody at that time. Well, it's what inspired ZZ Top's "La Grange."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GIBBONS: You know what I'm talking about. But, as many times as a Robert Johnson number has been covered and re-recorded and re-interpreted, no one has yet recaptured what guitar players would refer to as that internal DNA. You can get the same guitar, you can probably go back to the same hotel room, but delivering it like Robert Johnson did in 1936, forget about. It's not gonna happen. That's what Robert Johnson left us with. Yeah.

GREENHOUSE: I have been playing the Bach suites for pretty close to 80 years. I've played them this morning. But as old as I am, and as much success as I've had, when I turn that record on and I listen to the old recording of Casal's I can still realize my own failings because he was the one who made it into a language. And that's what music is, it's a language which transcends all people and all parts of the world. And it doesn't make any difference whether it's Robert Johnson or Pablo Casal's, whether you do it with the Bach suites or you do it with the guitar. That's what we all try to do, make a language of music, a language which is almost understandable word-for-word.

RAZ: Cellist Bernard Greenhouse and blues guitarist Honeyboy Edwards both died this year, not long after they were interviewed for this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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