Forgive me if this sounds pretentious; I tend to find that the first law of thermodynamics is as appropriate to music as physics. The law states that energy is a constant. It can be transformed from one form to another but can be neither created nor destroyed — music functions in much the same way.
It is constantly being passed from artist to artist, transforming in their hands into something new before being passed on once again. It’s an ending cycle of reinterpretation, adaptation and creative generosity. But before I get too carried away, all of this is to make one simple point: nobody comes from nothing, not even the great Bob Dylan. There’s one guitarist who had an overarching impact on his career.
The influences behind the legendary songwriter’s music are as important as the songs themselves because they also tell a story. They tell us where Bob Dylan came from, who he was in those early day’s before he’d heard of Woody Guthrie, and who he was afterwards.
If you’re a fan of Dylan’s, you’ll already have heard of how Woody Guthrie changed the young musician’s life. But, for Dylan, Guthrie’s magic lay in his songcraft. What about guitarists? Dylan has always been a singer and songwriter, but he’s also always performed and written those songs with a guitar. And there’s one artist who we can see clearly influenced Dylan’s guitar style. He, like Dylan, was more myth than man. He had a supernatural talent for guitar playing. He is, of course, Robert Johnson.
The story goes that Johnson, a uniquely talented guitarist from the Mississippi Delta, went down to the railroad tracks one day and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical ability. Johnson’s guitar laying was characteristic of the Delta Blues style. Making heavy use of a bottleneck, Johnson’s music evokes a life spent on the road, performing on street corners, in juke joints, and in nightclubs all across America. It’s a style that can be heard in everyone from BB King to Gary Clarke Jr.
That supernatural guitar playing certainly wasn’t lost on Dylan, who first heard Johnson after an executive from Columbia Records handed him one of his records. He would later recall that first experience, describing how “From the first note, the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armour.
“I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard.”
Johnson’s guitar style stayed with Dylan for some time, soaking into him without him even being aware of it. In his autobiography, Dylan describes how the record “that didn’t grab Dave [Van Ronk] very much had left me numb, like I’d been hit by a tranquillizer bullet…Over the next few weeks, I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting staring at the record player. Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition.”
But it would seem that Dylan was inspired by more than Johnson’s guitar playing. As a folk singer, Dylan wasn’t that interested in being a virtuoso. He was more interested in Johnson’s mythological status, of the story of a man who meets the devil on a crossroads and takes control of his own fate.
For a small-town 20-year-old trying to make a new life for himself, that must have sounded like an intoxicating prospect.