The Inconvenient Lonnie Johnson

Inconvenient because he recorded in such a profusion of styles and roles that it's not clear he was an authentic blues musician

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Author, musician and academic Julia Simon argues the case in her book that Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson is inconvenient for scholars for a variety of reasons; not least of which is the vast catalogue of recordings he made during his lifetime. Her study addresses this body of work and not the biography of the man, although it is hard to completely separate one from the other. In an interview with Paul Oliver in 1960, Johnson claims to have recorded 572 songs. Simon has managed to take that count to 724 songs.

But what really complicates any analysis of Johnson as a blues musician is the fact that he recorded as a soloist and featured artist, as a backing musician and as a member of ensembles. He played both blues and jazz, but also vaudeville, popular and ballads. He is best known as a guitarist but he was also proficient on the violin, piano, harmonica, kazoo and banjo. So the question posed by Simon is whether Johnson is really a blues musician and is his music “authentic” blues? The paradox being that whilst Johnson clearly influenced numerous blues singers and blues and jazz guitarists who have come after him, the significance of his own work remains “vexing and elusive”.

Johnson’s early years certainly did not conform to the conventional upbringing for many blues musicians. He was born in 1899 in New Orleans and Simon argues that this is significant due to the different racial culture that existed in that city. Instead of the clear binary or polarised society that existed in the Mississippi, New Orleans was much more complex with the existence of three racial categories – Black, White and Creole (free people of colour) – and with greater mobility across districts (especially for musicians) than elsewhere. New Orleans also had more diverse musical traditions.

Nor did Johnson come from a sharecropping tradition. Instead he was born into a large family of musicians. Interviewed in 1967, Johnson said: “My father played music, my mother played music, my five brothers played music and I had two sisters played music. And I just bought an instrument and in six months I was holding a good job.” In 1917 Johnson joined a revue that almost certainly toured England. Tragically, on returning home in 1919, he found that all of his family, with the exception of his brother James, had died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. He and James subsequently settled in St. Louis where they performed as a duo. Johnson also worked the riverboats and played with a couple of orchestras.

Johnson recalled: ‘I guess I would have done anything to get recorded – it just happened to be a blues contest, so I sang the blues’

The association with the blues came with Johnson winning a blues contest at the Booker T. Washington Theatre in St. Louis in 1925. The prize was a recording contract with Okeh Records and thereafter he was promoted as a blues musician. Johnson recalled later: “I guess I would have done anything to get recorded – it just happened to be a blues contest, so I sang the blues”. Whilst with Okeh he recorded with Victoria Spivey and Bessie Smith but in 1927 he also got the chance to record in Chicago as a guest artist with the young Louis Armstrong. Johnson was subsequently invited to sit in with other jazz musicians, including Duke Ellington, and it was his creativity and improvisations when playing 12-string guitar solos that later influenced jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. But his style also influenced other musicians such as BB King, T-Bone Walker and Eric Clapton, which undoubtedly makes Johnson the creator of the “note-by-note” guitar solo – now the standard in many modern genres.

The Great Depression brought a temporary halt to Johnson’s career and he was forced to work outside the music industry. Now based in Chicago, he made a slow and gradual return to the music scene. Whilst working for Decca he worked with Blind John Davis and Roosevelt Sykes. But his big break came after the after World War II when, like many other blues musicians, he made the transition to R&B. He signed to King Records and had a seven-week spell at the top of the Billboard Race Records chart with the song Tomorrow Night (later recorded by Elvin Presley). Other R&B chart success followed. A tour to the UK in the early 1950s had a mixed reception, but a young British musician by the name of Tony Donegan was sufficiently impressed to adopt the name Lonnie. Returning to the USA, Johnson once again dropped out of the music scene until he was rediscovered by a younger, white audience as the 1960s blues revolution took off. Johnson later moved to Canada, playing and recording spasmodically until his death in June 1970.

There is little doubt that Johnson stands out as as someone who has influenced several generations of blues guitarists, whose “one-string” solos have developed into the modern electric blues guitar style we take for granted today. But what of his legacy as a singer and composer of hundreds of blues songs? In a skilfully researched but academically orientated book, Simon takes a closer look at Johnson’s musical legacy, with a detailed analysis of his lyrics, technique and style and with particular attention to its socio-historical context. She introduces us to a musical innovator and a performer keenly aware of himself and his audience, and the social categories of race, class and gender that conditioned the music of his time.

Johnson was different to others and didn’t conform to any of the social stereotypes of his musical contemporaries. He was a professional musician, sophisticated, self-conscious, and capable of crossing musical and social boundaries; the “blues” was not in his DNA the way it was for many of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, his catalogue of songs is vast and certainly worthy of re-examination as they contain a content more relevant, more critical of racism and more contemporary than is generally acknowledged. Simon concludes: “Lonnie Johnson’s music challenges us to think about not only what we recognise and value in ‘the blues’, but also what we leave unexamined, cannot account for, or choose not to hear.”

Johnson’s legacy as a guitarist is unimpeachable, and this book (including full discography) goes some way to restoring his credibility as an “authentic bluesman”. It just requires the reader to think a lot harder about the concept of blues, race and identity. However, at a price close to £100, it’s likely to remain the preserve of academics and music historians.

The Inconvenient Lonnie Johnson by Julia Simon. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 227pp, hb. ISBN 9780271092553