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A music blog by Mark Nishimura

Singer-songwriter Bad Heart performs ballads of aloneness and loneliness, keeping the ghosts of the no-no boys and Sleepy John Estes in his throat and more than a few card tricks up his sleeve. Originally from San Francisco, he currently is absorbing the city lights of Hollywood.

King of the Delta Blues Singers

The guitar shop stood blocks away from the campus of CSU Sacramento. It sold acoustic guitars, classical guitars, dobros, resonators, banjos, a couple of Fender electrics, a pedal steel, and stacks of music sheets. It was also known for its cheap guitar lessons. I first stepped into the shop back in the late 1980s. I wanted to play guitar. Not just any guitar, but blues guitar.

I met Paul, this tall lean fellow, at the counter. Paul was the consummate blues guitar teacher there, and to prove it, he greeted me with nothing but a grin and a gorgeous finger-picking version of the standard, “Hesitation Blues.”

“So you want to play the blues,” he finally said to me. “Any type of blues?”

I opened my backpack and took out a taped copy of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” by Robert Johnson. I handed him the tape and replied, “I want to play this.”

Paul put the cassette in a cheap Radio Shack recorder. The first couple bars of “Cross Road Blues” came on. He stopped the song and tried to copy the sound with his Martin. He shook his head, rewound the cassette, and played the two bars again, attempting to figure it out once more. He repeated the strategy again, and again, and again. After spending a half-hour picking apart the first verse, Paul stopped the recorder and gave the tape back to me. “Screw it,” he sighed. “I’ll just show you some Hot Tuna songs.”

So for the next few months I learned some picking styles, a bit of slide guitar, and a couple of Chuck Berry tunes. We never went back to Robert Johnson.

So many stories have been written about Mr. Johnson – the most famous (or infamous) one was how he sold his soul to the Devil in order to become the world’s greatest guitar player, and how the Devil later collected his dues by spiking his client’s drink with poison in 1938. That tale may be true, since the bluesman was full of mystery – the only proofs that he was ever alive on this good earth were two photographs, a death certificate, and 32 songs.

To musicians like Paul, the man was an impossibly complicated guitarist, who invented licks that defied time and rhythm and played them so fast that listeners believed there were two guitarists in the room. To blues singers, he was a soul singer from beyond, who made his voice both crawl in the gutter and soar into the heavens. To songwriters, he was the truest of originals, borrowing lines from others to create not only songs, but a whole persona – the ultimate sinner who refuses to be saved.

As for me, I never really wanted to copy Mr. Johnson’s style, but to reproduce an image. And not a real image like those two photographs, but a fake one, more specifically a drawing from the album cover of “King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume 2.” You see, the bluesman recorded his songs in the course of only three days – all done in a hotel room. And the album cover depicted that scene: In one room, engineers ran this reel-to-reel. Connected to the machine was a cord, which wandered under the door into another room and right up to a single microphone. In the latter room, Mr. Johnson sat in front of the mike with his guitar. He’s facing a corner of the room. It was to this corner that he preached his blues. And that was all I wanted – to have a corner to which to sing my songs. Does a corner hear our confessions? Probably not. But it feels good to tell our troubles to it. And isn’t that the whole point of the blues?

  1. In my early twenties listening to Lead Belly I swore I would one day learn to play the guitar in order to put my soul out on display and purge myself of all the demons that plagued me. Tonight I renew that vow and tomorrow I will buy a guitar. Thank you.

  2. What an amazing story and glimpse into not only your, but other songwriter’s souls.

  3. Robert Johnson, what an amazing musician…I learned about him for the first time in Martin Scorsese’s series “The Blues”, few years ago…I also discovered J.B. Lenoir in that series and bought “Vietnam Blues” CD and love it! I can’t believe he’s not very well known. We all need a corner once in a while….that’s very cool Mark…at least we can have a corner as BFF…it’s always there for us….I’m new so I’m still exploring The Whole 9 and BTW, love your blog!

  4. Thanks for the kind comments, gang. @ jonathanc — so did you buy that guitar?

  5. Awesome blog! There’s a whole education in the blues right here. I hope people realize that there’s a whole string of videos in each of the 2 windows you’ve put together (note: you have to get to the end of each song/video to see, scroll and select from all the others and some of the others lead you to additional strings of videos). RJ’s a genius. Son House too. Never realized how incredibly difficult what these guys were doing was. Just listening to Eric Clapton explain it and then strain to do it himself is humbling. Thanks Mark. You’re a fantastic storyteller and musician too.

  6. No, I’m having a hard time finding one for a lefty that is reasonable, but the search continues. I’ve been hitting the pawn shops and music stores for used ones.

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