Delta spirit

Boston Globe, February 18, 2011

One hundred years ago – the exact date was May 8, 1911 – Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Miss. He lived 27 years and left only 29 songs, but his impact on the blues and its progeny, rock ‘n’ roll, is immeasurable. The legend around Johnson – its crux his mythical encounter with the devil at a dusty Delta crossroads – only amplifies his aura.

The paradox is that Johnson is, in other ways, little known, as if the legend overwhelmed the facts of a man’s brief, hard life. Performed by everyone from Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to legions of anonymous players in nondescript bars, his songs – “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “Love in Vain,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” and more – are so tightly bound to the sinew of American culture as to feel like common property.

Johnson himself remains phantomatic, that thin voice and haunting guitar on scratchy original recordings that only got mass-market diffusion with a 1990 complete box set.

This year a centennial tour celebrates Johnson in a way that reconnects as closely as the years permit with the man himself, while testifying to the music’s ability to keep finding new fans. Perhaps appropriately, the tour, “Blues at the Crossroads,” which visits the Berklee Performance Center tonight, is helmed by a recent convert: Todd Park Mohr, leader of long-running Colorado-based rockers Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

Mohr has no personal tie to Johnson or Mississippi. Yet on the accompanying album, “100 Years of Robert Johnson” (due out March 1), his voicing of the master’s songs proves both deft and affecting. It doesn’t hurt that he’s playing with blues royalty: B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Charlie Musselwhite, as well as younger luminaries like Cedric Burnside, the grandson of R.L. Burnside and an heir to the hill-country tradition.

Better yet, several of these men are touring with Mohr in what’s been dubbed for the occasion the Big Head Blues Club. They include the 79-year-old Sumlin and, even more amazingly, Edwards, who is 94 – a Johnson friend and contemporary.

This makes for some remarkable talk on the tour bus.

“I can’t tell you what it’s like to listen to the two of them just pull a thread,” Mohr says of the two elders, on the phone from Chicago. Asked what they talk about, he says: “People getting killed. Knife fights. And a lot of Howlin’ Wolf stories.”

Mohr readily admits he felt like an interloper when first taking on this project. “I went in kicking and screaming,” he says. “I thought I didn’t have that direct connection to the Delta, and there were better people to do this. But when we cut the record it was such an encouraging experience, it made me feel that I had something to offer.”

He knew the blues, certainly – but of Johnson, just the basics. “I knew the mythical aspects that everybody knows. Those didn’t impress me so much. I had no idea of the complexity and the tenderness of his music. As Hubert Sumlin says, that boy had the blues bad. Something about him and his life is so tragic and sad.”

Studying Johnson for the project brought Mohr closer to the music of a whole generation – Son House, Charlie Patton, and more – and their bare-bones, plaintive songs. “I fell in love with his peers,” Mohr says. “It’s almost as if the blues made a bar-band turn; it’s this very macho vibe where a lot of the tenderness got lost.”

But it isn’t just an outsider like Mohr who has had to reconsider Johnson. So has Cedric Burnside, who plays drums and a spot of acoustic guitar on the album and tour.

“My granddad would play Robert Johnson music on the front porch with his friends, and at parties on the weekend,” Burnside says. “But I didn’t realize how special the music was, even though I was born into it. Being around the blues, I took him for granted.”

Burnside comes from Mississippi hill country, where the blues is folkier, more groovy and loose than in the Delta. “But we’ve all been through the same things,” he says.

Tonight’s Berklee performance also features a special guest in Steven Johnson – Robert’s grandson and a singer in his own right. Johnson was a teenager before he learned who his grandfather was. Now he runs the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation in Crystal Springs, Miss., and participates in a program that sends young people from Mississippi on summer scholarships to the Berklee College of Music.

But Mohr, in a sense, has made the opposite trip: back to Johnson, his peers, and the haunted land where they played, fought, drank, died. It’s a creative journey that can’t fail to make an impact. “I’m not going to be the same guy,” Mohr says. “It’s going to be hard to go back to rock and pop in the same way. I’m always going to be a blues person now.”

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