To many people, the name Robert Johnson is synonymous with the blues.
The mythic guitarist and singer —who died prematurely and violently in August 1938 at 27— recorded only 42 sides in two separate recording sessions before dying of pneumonia brought on by poisoning (supposedly at the hands of a jealous man whose wife or girlfriend Johnson had been carrying on with).
However, those tracks of Johnson alone with his guitar, his voice and his personal demons have captivated the hearts of most who have taken the time to seek them out.The singer’s haunted, eerie vocal delivery and unorthodox fretwork had a profound influence on countless subsequent artists.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin cribbed plenty of Johnson’s attitude and technique for their updating of his “Traveling Riverside Blues,” The Rolling Stones did justice to Johnson’s classic “Love In Vain,” and Eric Clapton —a longtime devotee and champion of Johnson’s who once described him as “the most important blues musician who ever lived”— helped turn Robert’s “Cross Road Blues” into a massive acid-rock hit for Cream in 1969. A few years back, Clapton released a full album of his take on Johnson’s compositions entitled Me and Mr. Johnson.
Which brings us to Rory Block.
Hailed as one of the finest living bottleneck slide guitarists alive today, Ms. Block has —like Clapton, John Hammond and others— devoted herself to soaking up as much of Johnson’s mojo as possible. In fact, over the course of her forty-plus year career, she has made it her business to dig deep into Delta blues history and culture, fueling her own accomplished songwriting skills with an uncanny knack the rural, country blues of the ‘20s through the ‘60s.
Imagine the 5-time W.C. Handy Award-winner’s surprise, then, to learn in 2006 (along with the rest of the world) that genealogical research had helped to authenticate the late bluesman’s living descendants!
After meeting and befriending the late singer’s son and grandsons (who still reside in the Mississippi Delta), Block learned that they were quite active in their church and choir, which may seem at odds with the age-old notion of blues being “the Devil’s music.” However, his relatives embraced their legacy —and Block— warmly.
“Rory should have a Doctorate in my grandfather’s music,” says Steven Johnson. Brother Greg adds, “When I hear her, it’s as if my grandfather is here all over again.”
Spurred on by this mutual appreciation (and Block’s love of traditional Southern gospel), Elder Steven Johnson took his Straightway Ministries Choir to New York City to perform alongside Block at the release of her latest CD, The Lady & Mr. Johnson (named 2007 Acoustic Blues Album of The Year), on which she interprets nothing but Johnson tunes.
The overwhelmingly positive response that pairing received resulted in a joint tour, which has been dubbed “Down At The Crossroads/Blues Meets Gospel.” It’s that double-bill that stops in Savannah this Friday for a rare appearance. It combines an opening solo set by Block, followed by a fiery, full-on set of roof-raising spirituals by the 30-plus member choir and band. For the finale, Block joins the choir for a handful of unique, “gospel-ized” arrangements of Robert Johnson blues classics.
Tiny Team presents Rory Block & The Straightway Ministries Choir 8 pm, Friday at Trustees Theater. $22 ALL-AGES tickets available at www.trusteestheater.com and their Box Office, or by calling 525-5050. Co-sponsored by Connect Savannah.