Yesterday (May 8) was the 108th birthday of blues shaman Robert Johnson (1911–1939). To celebrate, here’s a slinky, sultry, spooky version of RJ’s “Hellhound on My trail,” performed a few years ago by the inimitable, highly original modern bluesman/singer/songwriter/guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps. By the way, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Phelps’ first album, Lead Me On.
Here’s a cool quote from Phelps’ website: “I’d always had an attraction to folk-based music forms. So, I was listening to a lot of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis and some of the newer people like Leo Kottke and John Fahey. My music is a reflection of all the music I loved and steeped myself in. There’s a space and openness in rural music that makes sense to me.”
And if you’re looking to learn more about the elusive, mysterioso Robert Johnson, a good place to start is the brand-new new biography Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow (Chicago Review Press), coming out on June 4. It’s the most comprehensive biography yet of this fascinating figure, talking in depth about his life, his milieu, his influences, his songs (including “Hellhound on My Trail”), and his legacy. Its meticulously researched, well-written, and includes many photographs, maps, and reproductions of documents that really add to our knowledge of Johnson’s world. (Click on the link above to order through Amazon.) —Blair Jackson