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Tommy Johnson - Cool Drink of Water
October 17, 2007 11:21 PM   Subscribe

Tommy Johnson - Cool Drink of Water

From the accompanying entry on Mr. Dan Kelly's Blog:
Tommy Johnson was the original claimant to the legend of the bluesman who went down to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the blues. Perhaps the appellation stuck more to Robert Johnson (who, apparently, never made such a claim himself) because, despite Tommy Johnson's unearthly falsetto and occasionally alien-sounding guitar work, his subject matter had less to do with Satan, hellhounds, and Judgment Day, and more to do with the usual tropes of bad hootch, life on the road, loose women, and so on. Little matter: Tommy Johnson was a bluesmen of the first stripe. Also, unlike growling, shouting, and hollering bluesmen like Charley Patton and Son House (whose power was one of their great strengths, of course), Johnson had a sweet voice.
Here are many more links regarding Tommy Johnson.

Cool Drink Of Water is one of the masterpieces of 1920s Delta blues. The song is unearthly, the blend of his voice, his and Charlie McCoy's guitars is just sublime. This is the first time I have seen the song offered gratis online.

In terms of songs covered by the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Houston Stackhouse, Robert Nighhawk and other postwar Mississippi born bluesmen, Tommy was by far the Johnson who counted the most to them. Howlin' Wolf, for instance, recorded Cool Drink of Water in two variations--Smokestack Lightning and I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline), both of which are about the most downhome songs he ever cut.

Now if one were to get a free password for the Blues and Gospel from the 1920s and 1930s section of the Roots Music Listening Room, which the noble crunchland brought to our attention years ago, one could download a whole lot more of Tommy Johnson and Charlie McCoy.

McCoy's Last Time Blues, for instance, is a wonderful bit of slide guitar...
posted by y2karl (15 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, and for you guitar players out there, Johnson's guitar part consists of a B7 chord shape slid from the 3rd to 4th frets, followed by an E chord with a hammer on the B string on the 2nd fret. He slides from the 2nd to 4th on the A string and then makes an A7 when he makes the change. Two chords. That is just about it for his part. Very simple--but try making it sound like the way he does it...

McCoy's mandolin trill runs on the second guitar part, on the other hand, are a whole other story.

Johnson and a lot of other bluesmen from around Jackson, Mississippi played guitar with a certain loping, jingle jangly rhythm that no one else in the Delta had. There is a Yazoo vinyl LP of Jackson Blues that is well worth the purchase, should you ever run across it. It's a pity it is no longer out out on CD.
posted by y2karl at 11:47 PM on October 17, 2007


also he drank sterno, canned heat... i read that in a liner note at my friends house.
posted by MNDZ at 12:06 AM on October 18, 2007


I got chills listening to that. I sure love me some old time delta blues. Thanks y2karl!
posted by ooga_booga at 12:11 AM on October 18, 2007


Most people have probably heard of Tommy Johnson from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:23 AM on October 18, 2007


I think Tommy Johnson invented "a-wooooooooo". If he'd secured the patent, his heirs would be rich today!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:24 AM on October 18, 2007


also he drank sterno, canned heat... i read that in a liner note at my friends house.

Indeed, it's been written That Johnson was known to enjoy a little of the ol' canned heat now and again. And of course, he wrote a song about it. Here it is.

And here's another one of his tunes, the great Big Road Blues.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:11 AM on October 18, 2007


And don't forget the Tommy Johnson MySpace page, where the 3 Johnson tunes currently up for your listening pleasure are... Canned Heat Blues, Big Road Blues and... Cool Drink of Water!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:22 AM on October 18, 2007


If he'd secured the patent, his heirs would be rich today!

Slim Whitman has bought more of his own albums in every country of the world than all other artists combined.

Y2Karl, this shit is motherfucking awesome, it's almost supernatural. I love it.
posted by psmealey at 4:47 AM on October 18, 2007


*applauds*
posted by Wolof at 5:41 AM on October 18, 2007


And here's another one of his tunes...

The Here above was a link to a comment from the Falsettos post discussing Johnson and linking the Internet Archive's Canned Heat Blues and Big Road Blues, The Tommy Johnson Foundation, how his name was used for a character in O Brother and a number of discussions about his claim of selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads--including The Crossroads in Hoodoo Magic and The Ritual of Selling Yourself to the Devil by one Vatherine Yronwode and a whole lot of other Tommy Johnson linkage. That pretty much covered what Johnson related links were easily available online at the time and it seemed redundant to re-link them all here but I suppose I could have been more obvious about that link.

If he'd secured the patent, his heirs would be rich today!

Many people think that Johnson inspired the blue yodel of Jimmy Rodgers--also discussed and linked in that comment linked above--and, therefore, all of Rodger's yodeling country successors.

...this shit is motherfucking awesome, it's almost supernatural.

That seems to be the general consensus. It is a wonderful piece of music.
posted by y2karl at 6:17 AM on October 18, 2007


Awesome - this is one of my favorite blues songs - the first time I ever heard it was the Robert Nighthawk - Houston Stackhouse version, which is pretty faithful to the original. I love great blues vocals - can't get enough yodeling, hooping & hollering.

Also, how did I miss your falsettos post??!? Looks like I need to be getting more schoolin' in the y2karl archives.
posted by madamjujujive at 6:47 AM on October 18, 2007


Back when I was a wee young-un pretending to learn the blues, I discovered Tommy through Robert Johnson. In one of the RJ biographies I had read (sadly, I don't remember which) the writer claimed Son House had moved the legend of the devil from Tommy to Robert because he had a closer connection with RJ and wanted to hold Alan Lomax's attention. It's an interesting theory and based on this song, I'd believe that Tommy was the possessed man, hands down.

A side note: during the time I lived in Mississippi, being young and bored, I tried to replicate the crossroads feat, I found the intersection of two dirt roads, near a church and a cemetery that I thought would be the perfect place to meet up with Ol' Scratch in the flesh. On the next new moon, I packed up my guitar, went down to the crossroads and played for a couple of hours to the night birds and shadows. Satan never showed. Now there's several explanations for this, but I prefer to think I was too bad at the blues for even the Devil to help me...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:16 AM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sterno is safe to drink if you strain it through rye bread, but don't try it with white bread, that shit will kill you. (Yes, some people believe this.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:32 AM on October 18, 2007


Canned Heat related note: I used to work in a shelter for skid row alcoholics. Many of the older regulars had stories about riding the rails and drinking Sterno cocktails, along with more recent "creative" alternatives, such as Pruno. One fellow had gone blind from one of his Sterno-related home-brew concoctions, but that certainly hadn't slowed down his drinking. I don't guess Sterno would be all that much worse than Mad Dog 20, another street favorite.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:16 AM on October 18, 2007


I don't guess Sterno would be all that much worse than Mad Dog 20, another street favorite.

And don't forget Night Train and Thunderbird!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:55 PM on October 18, 2007


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