Among the wave of British guitarists who grew up in the 1940s and ’50s, bluesmen like BB King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were the very embodiment of authenticity and skill. Blues and early rock ‘n’ roll served as an antidote to the seriousness of classical music and modal jazz. Where those abstract genres were designed to massage the brain, this new form of expression was rooted in the body. For ambitious young musicians like Eric Clapton, it was this untapped world of musical expression was all too tempting to resist.
Speaking to Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs, Clapton opened up about his early experience with blues music and how a surprise discovery that his parents were in fact his grandparents led to him being bought his first guitar, a steel-string Hoyer made in Germany. After the cheap fretboard proved too painful to play, he gave up, returning to the instrument when he was 13 years old. By the time he was in art school, practising the guitar was such an all-consuming pastime that he was nearly expelled for practising scales in class.
At that time, Clapton was listening to all the blues he could get his hands on, which, it should be said, wasn’t as much as we would’ve liked. “I was listening to a lot of blues,” Clapton said of his early adolescence, “As well as everything else you heard on Family Favourites. You’d hear the occasional Lead Belly song or Big Bill Broonzy or Check Berry, you know?” After being introduced to Berry on another family-friendly British radio programme, Uncle Mac, Clapton began hunting for R&B blues records in local record stores, where he eventually came across Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroad Blues’.
Describing the track, Clapton named it one of the “deepest of all the blues records in my life”. For the guitarist, Johnson was the “most disturbing and hardest to listen to of all the blues singers because it is such emotionally charged music. Although it may not sound like it to the uninitiated, it’s musically the most complicated style of blues playing there is I think.” That sense of unease Clapton picked up on was likely borne from the intense suffering Johnson experienced in his lifetime.
Raised in the Jim Crow era south, the singer and his family were frequently threatened by lynch mobs, with the history once becoming so pronounced that they were forced to relocate. Johnson lived hard, drank harder, and sang about subjects that tap into some of the most disturbing moments in America’s history, funnelling his experiences into music that continues to inspire to this very day.