At the Crossroads: The Blues of Robert Johnson – John Hammond
Vanguard Records 79751-2
Traditional blues music is all but lost in modern blues. With it now being
more of a happy-go-lucky soundtrack for white America rather than a
painfully honest and gripping music born out of a culture of oppressed
people, authentic blues music is drifting towards a cultural death. It is
by no means right to say that blues should be enjoyed or played by black
people only, but when blues is being so drastically altered from the
traditional form into a music more appropriate for white audiences' tastes,
it is hard to be optimistic about the hope of preserving the idiom as a
powerful voice of black America.
However, the voices and souls of many traditional blues artists still live
on through the efforts of the genre's most adept interpreters, and with John
Hammond's At The Crossroads, he brings back the very soul of one of
the blues' most innovative and influential voices — Robert Johnson. On this
collection of songs from Hammond's many blues albums, he takes us through
Robert Johnson's music with striking authority and grace. One of Johnson's
most defining characteristics was his uncanny ability to blend his guitar
and vocals into a unified voice. Hammond manages this task with a kind of
rustic grace and soulful passion that is rarely heard in modern blues.
From the dreary and slippery "Stones In My Passway" to the freight train
stomp of "Walkin' Blues," Hammond captures different sides of the blues with
a masterful touch. With commanding slide work on the unassailably emphatic
"Cross Road Blues" and the much-covered "Come On In My Kitchen," he uses the
slide in juxtaposition with his incredibly lonesome vocals with an attack
that is simply devastating.
While most of this collection is Hammond singing alone with his acoustic,
the last four tracks showcase him with electric guitar and a full band.
After being engrossed in the lonesome sound of Hammond playing solo, they
seem ill-placed at first, but manage to win you over when you hear just how
tight the band is and how little of Hammond's soulful and rugged guitar
sound is lost when he plugs in.
This collection should not be a replacement for an introduction to the real
thing, but it does serve as a clear and present reminder of just how
brilliant Johnson's all-too-short, 29-song career was. Hammond not only
reminds us of Johnson's brilliance, but helps us relive it, and that is the
sign of an interpreter not only adept at illuminating someone else's genius,
but at keeping a treasured art form alive for just a little longer.