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Gerald Carpenter: UCSB Arts & Lectures to Celebrate Robert Johnson with ‘Blues at Crossroads’

Monday evening's concert will mark the centennial of the blues musician's birth

2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great blues musician Robert Johnson, and in observance of the centennial, UCSB Arts & Lectures will present a concert called “Blues at the Crossroads” at 8 p.m. Monday in UCSB’s Campbell Hall.

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

The concert will feature modern blues artists Big Head Todd & The Monsters, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, and Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm.

The “Crossroads” portion of the concert’s title refers to one of the more lugubrious myths about Johnson — that as an ambitious youngster, he met the devil at a crossroads and bartered his soul to the fiend in exchange for becoming the greatest blues singer ever. It’s also a reference to one of Johnson’s most famous songs.

Modern blues players make a cult of Johnson (1911-38), who died of strychnine-laced whiskey at age 27, in pretty much the same way country singers make a cult of Hank Williams (1923-53), who died of alcohol- and drug-induced heart failure at age 29. In both cases, the cult is mainly about the music and the all-but-religious conversion the songs effected in the young musicians hearing them for the first time. For truly, Johnson and Williams have rarely been equaled, and never surpassed, in their contributions to their respective genres.

But the reverence also includes, inevitably, the notion that the lifestyle that killed them was in some way instrumental in bringing forth the music of genius — what Bob Dylan called “Living the Blues.” There may be some truth in it; I certainly hope not. It’s possible that if Johnson had stayed away from the bottle and other men’s wives, he also would have stayed away from guitars and honky-tonks — but the one, I suppose, is as hard to imagine as the other.

It is, in any case, easy to see a little of Johnson in the booze- and dope-related death of the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan at age 28, or of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Janis Joplin at 27. (There was a whole lot of Williams in the booze- and dope-related death of Gram Parsons at 27.)

It seems that if you could live past your 30th birthday, you were significantly out the other side. One who did so, Waylon Jennings — the greatest male voice in country music ever — paid many tributes to Williams in his songs, but the most telling appeared on his 1992 album Too Dumb for New York City, Too Ugly for L.A. In the song “The Hank Williams Syndrome,” Waylon wrote: “Hank, you were my inspiration/ I was obsessed with your way/ But to tell you the truth, it’s no thanks to you/ That I am still living today.”

Perhaps the life and times of Johnson are too remote from our own experience for us to connect with anything but the great, great music and a few of the melodramatic legends.

Tickets to “Blues at the Crossroads” are $40 for the general public and $19 for UCSB students, and are available from the Arts & Lectures box office outside Campbell Hall, by phone at 805.893.3535 or click here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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