Tommy Johnson helped create the Delta blues sound and its accompanying mythology. Ever the entertainer, Johnson claimed to have sold his soul to the devil, showboated on stage by playing his guitar behind his head and between his legs, and used a falsetto voice that is unmistakable to contemporary blues fans.
Born on George Miller’s plantation in Terry, Mississippi, in 1896, Johnson was one of thirteen children. His uncles and two of his brothers, Mager and LeDell, played guitar, while other family members played various instruments in a brass band. After his family relocated to Crystal Springs around 1910, Johnson’s brother LeDell taught Tommy the basics of the guitar, and by the time he turned eighteen, he and his brothers were playing gigs across Copiah County and beyond. In 1916 Johnson moved to Webb Jennings’s plantation near Drew with his first wife, Maggie Bidwell Johnson. There he fell under the artistic influence of the Mississippi Delta’s first blues superstar, Charley Patton, who lived at nearby Dockery Farms. Johnson nevertheless developed his own unique sound, complete with syncopated bass notes. After a year of playing in the Delta with Patton, Dick Bankston, and Willie Brown, Johnson began playing jukes across Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Johnson moved back to Crystal Springs in 1920 and resumed sharecropping, traveling to the Delta to play with Patton after the season’s crops were in.
By this time Johnson had developed an alcohol addiction along with a reputation as a notorious gambler and womanizer. His drinking was the subject of one of his most well-known songs, “Canned Heat Blues,” which Johnson recorded along with eight other tracks for the Victor label in Memphis in February 1928. In the song he lamented his habit of drinking Sterno, a denatured and jellied alcohol used as fuel that he mixed with water and drank when alcoholic beverages were unavailable or too expensive: “Crying, canned heat, canned heat, mama, crying, sure, Lord, killing me. / Crying, canned heat, mama, sure, Lord, killing me. / Takes alcorub to take these canned heat blues.” Other tracks recorded at this session include “Big Road Blues,” “Maggie Campbell Blues,” and “Cool Drink of Water Blues.”
In 1930 Johnson traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, for a Paramount session at which he recorded eleven more tracks, among them “Slidin’ Delta” and another song that refers to his alcoholism, “Alcohol and Jake Blues”: “I woke up, up this morning, crying, alcohol on my mind. / Woke up this morning, alcohol was on my mind. / I got them alcohol blues and I can’t rest easy here.” Once the economic hardships of the Great Depression set in, limiting the record-buying public’s expendable income, Johnson’s short recording career abruptly ended.
Until his alcoholism-related death on 1 November 1956 in Crystal Springs, Johnson continued playing the blues in his signature style, mainly at local dances, juke joints, and fish fries around South Mississippi. Although demand for his records had waned, interest in seeing and hearing his dynamic performances had not.
Johnson started and publicized the rumor that he had sold his soul to the devil, mystifying himself and enhancing his reputation much in the way that the similar legend regarding Robert Johnson (no relation) did. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen revived the legend of deal-making Tommy Johnson, played by contemporary musician Chris Thomas King, in their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? His music was a powerful influence on other bluesmen of his day, including Robert Nighthawk, Houston Stackhouse, Howlin’ Wolf, Floyd Jones, and Otis Spann, and it continues to shape the sound of the blues today.
- David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in Folk Blues (1982)
- David Evans, “The Blues of Tommy Johnson: A Study of a Tradition” (PhD dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles, 1967)
- David Evans, The Legacy of Tommy Johnson (1972); Stefan Grossman, Delta Blues Guitar (1969)
- Gérard Herzhaft, Encyclopedia of the Blues (1997)
- Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1982)
- Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis (1977)
- Gayle Dean Wardlow and Edward M. Komara, Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues (1998)