Tommy Johnson

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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


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 Mager 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 Charlie Patton and Willie Brown.

By 1920 he had become an alcoholic and itinerant musician, based in Crystal Springs but

travelling 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 he 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. 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.


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 has not been placed on

Johnson's grave, however, due to a bitter, 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. The headstone has remained on public display in the Crystal

Springs, Mississippi Public Library since being unveiled on October 20, 2001. An annual Tommy Johnson Blues Festival is now held in Crystal

Springs, on every third weekend in October.

Canned Heat Blues

Canned Heat Blues Tommy Johnson Recordingdate : Friday 31 Aug. 1928, Memphis Tenn., Vi V38535, Victor, B-side : Big Fat Mama Blues Note :

Tommy Johnson was a great country blues singer in Mississippi, in the 20:th and 30:th. It's difficult to reconcile Johnson's drunkenness and

his difficult .


The Forum post is edited by bninna Aug 12 '15
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