Robert Johnson, Steady Rollin' Man Page 3
As mind-boggling as it now sounds, the first obstacle Johnson's recordings had to clear just to survive were the pressures of capitalism and fascism run amok.
"There were two big bloodbaths in the vault at RCA, and probably Decca and Columbia," Brooks says. "In the Depression, they melted stuff down just to get some money in. And then WWII, for the scrap drive. What they did in WWII, they looked at sales figuresso blues, country, and a lot of jazz, it only sold 500 copies, who the hell's gonna want these? Out. How some of these survived, I don't know. It's arbitrary. I think what happened is that both John Hammond and George Avakian, who's still with us, came back on leave more or less at the same time, saw what was going on, and said, 'Oh no, you can't scrap these.' But by that time, an awful lot of stuff was gone. In the case of RCA, I've found over the years [that], very often, the alternate is there and the issued take isn't, even of something that was a big seller. So the alternate may have been on another shelf or another warehouse."
Another longstanding issue related to Robert Johnson's storied catalog that has ebbed and flowed over the years and recently flared anew, thanks to a very dodgy May 2010 article in the UK newspaper The Guardian, is the conspiracy theory that Johnson's recordings were deliberately cut and issued at a speed five to twenty percent faster than he actually played.
Berkowitz and Brooks, who expected this line of questioning that both are anxious to dismiss, smile and shake their heads. "What's cut is done, and everything after that is a mechanical process," Berkowitz says. "You don't alter that. Make a mold, then you plate, then you press it. Nothing changes. Nothing moves, nothing happens."
"This is nonsense," Brooks says with a wave of the hand. "When we decided to do the Also Playing disc, we said, 'Let's get in stuff that was done the same day. So we got stuff in; it was Mexican, it was country, it was gospel. The speed is constant throughout, on every session."
"Mobile recording in 1936 was not a very advanced science," exclaims the excitable and occasionally eloquent Berkowitz. "The idea that the record company or someone would speed it up for the purpose of a hit record is some kind of made-up, revisionist, antirecord-company rap. First of all, I don't think Uncle Art Satherly or Don Law in 1936 thought they were having a big hit record here" Berkowitz says. "I think they were both fans of music and big music aficionados, and they wanted to record all kinds of music and sell all kinds of music for Columbia Records. That was the goal.
"The idea that you would make it faster and it would be a hit? Do you really think someone was thinking of that with a record that they pressed 300 copies of? Since it's a guitar and voice only, there's no other way to check the pitch. He [Johnson] may have been tuned up, he may have been tuned down, you don't know. And was the lathe running a little bit slow or a little bit fast? Maybe, but I would say that about every record made in the '20s, '30s, and '40s.
"If it is sped up, what are we going to do? Discredit the artist, that he couldn't really play this great? That he really couldn't throw down in this manner? That the devil didn't do a good enough job? I mean, what's the story here? Isn't the art the piece that's made? The pitch of what's being reissued now is the same as the original 78s. And the original 78s and the original metal parts are the documents. After that, it's all conjecture."
One thing that all agree on is the odd timelessness of Johnson's music, what Peter Guralnick described, in his Searching for Robert Johnson, as "the unabashedly apocalyptic effect of the music, the still startling and contemporary vision, the selective artistry of the work."
Berkowitz and Brooks have their own words. "He's bluesy and soulful in a way that no one else is," Berkowitz enthuses. "His voice is accusing, direct, so completely full of what seems to be passion at that moment, his expression of the lyrics. And the lyrics, it's not typical blues lyrics, he had a whole other use of language. 'Love in Vain' is a beautiful poem. And he sings it like that. It has that swing and drag to it that's completely unique. He's as great as the Beatles. He's as great as Beethoven. He's as great as Led Zeppelin."
"It was out of its time," Brooks says. "It's something like Citizen Kane, which didn't do anything when it came out. Or a couple of books, maybe The Great Gatsby. Suddenly, it moves into its other time. The time frame was wrong when it happened. He was ahead of his genre."