King of the Delta Punk Singers

King of the Delta Punk Singers

“Who was the first Punk?” asked a reader of Slash Magazine, around 1978.

The columnist responded (I’m paraphrasing here), “I could probably say it was Plato and justify myself, but I’d have to say it was Robert Johnson.” And from there he made his case – the rest of which I can’t recall. [See update below]

I was maybe 16 when I read that, and I was intrigued. Blues? Ordinarily you couldn’t have paid me to listen to Blues – but now I had it on the authority of Slash that some now-dead black guy was playing Punk in 1936. So I special ordered King of the Delta Blues Singers from Rolling Stone Records.

Like a Loitering Stone

Rolling Stone Records, incidentally, was a store formerly in Phoenix that played an embarrassingly significant role in my life as a teenager. I went there whenever I was bored or lonely, and just hung out and made the store clerks even less productive (if that were possible). I was still too young to get into clubs when Punk began spreading around the world in 1977. I wanted to see live music more than just about anything. (About half as much as I wanted to have sex. Ever. Please, God.) Instead I had to satisfy myself, so to speak, with buying records and magazines at Rolling Stone.

What the Punk?

The record arrived. I picked it up at the store, took it home, and played it. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I know I was disappointed. Whatever the Slash columnist thought was Punk about this music, I wasn’t hearing it. But it grew on me. I even attempted to mimic some of Johnson’s guitar playing. My friend Tommy and I snickered over the famous lyrics, “squeeze my lemon, let the juice run down my leg.”

My life as a wanna-be ethnomusicologist had begun.

I recently purchased King of the Delta Blues Singers again, this time on CD. I’ve been listening to it repeatedly for a couple of days now.

Volumes have been written about Robert Johnson. I don’t think I have anything new to add to the over-analysis of his music, legacy, or mythology.

Rock musicians such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page made Robert Johnson posthumously famous – so famous that at least one punk writer tried to claim him as one of theirs.

If you are unfamiliar with the music, it’s at turns beautiful, haunting, and even funny. But it’s Blues – not Punk – performed with one guitar and one voice.

This time I think I get it. I’m not expecting Punk now, but thanks anyway, Slash.

Update: Jan 30, 2020

I’ve discovered the author of that piece: Phast Phreddie Patterson, a maven of the LA punk scene. A full archive of all issues of Slash has been put online by Ryan Richardson at CIRCULATION ZERO. It’s a fat PDF – more than half-a-gigabyte – but it’s a national treasure.

Here is the passage where Patterson responds with information about Robert Johnson:

Jimmy Harvest of Encino asks the Fastest: “I understand that you are a real Rock’n’Roll historian. Who would you say was the first Punk Rocker?” An excellent question and one that I’ve been hoping someone would ask me for years. I can probably argue that it was someone like Socrates and be correct, but I will limit myself to people of this century and only people who made records. With this in mind, the answer is unquestionably Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson was the greatest blues guitarist/singer who ever walked this planet. He recorded some tunes in a hotel room in November of 1936. And again in June of 1937. Before l go on I should define my terms in order for them to make sense Punk Rock is the purest, most honest, most extreme form of Rock’n’Roll. That is if you count all the other garbage to be Rock’n’Roll at all. If you don’t then there’s no difference. “Be-Bop-Alula” was Punk Rock. So was “Tutti Frutti,” “Hound Dog,” “Talk Talk,” “I’m a Man” (Yardbirds OR Bo Diddley), “Satisfaction,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “Personality Crisis,” “Anarchy in the UK” and “Nothing Means Nothing Anymore.” Plenty more, too. But not too many. In other words, the joke bands are not Punk Rock. They are jerks. But you knew that. Another thing must be kept in mind. Music, lyrics and image are equally important. I can write a book on the topic. If I’m pressed I will go into greater depth next ish. Anyway, Robert Johnson was Punk Rock in 1936 because he was a great delta-styled bottle-neck guitarist. According to his lyrics, life was really no fun – he had to put up with cheating women, women who didn’t return their love, women who ripped you off, women who were cruel (don’t think I got anything against women. l’m sure if Robert was a girl she’d say the same things about men); there was always a devil after him; and the only time he was happy was when he was on a train, leaving a mess behind. He spent time in jail. He owed girls money. He was killed by either a jealous lover or some girl’s husband, nobody knows. There are two fine recordings available of his entire career: KING OF THE DELTA BLUES SINGERS Vol. 1 & 2. Both are recommended.

Phreddy, P, ‘Faster Than You’, 2/10 Slash November , 1979; 7 – 7 (emphasis added)

1 comment

  1. Anonymous Reply
    May 8, 2008 at 5:03 am

    I had always thought of John Lennon singing with a toilet seat around his neck in German night clubs as posibly the first true “punk” rocker.

    Interesting take… looking forward to seeing you Monday at the book club.

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