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Music

What Eric Clapton thinks about the Robert Johnson myth

Love him or loathe him, you cannot doubt that Eric Clapton is a master of the blues. He once told the late Larry King that in the early 1960s – a time when his future friends The Beatles broke through – that he wasn’t “at all” interested in their “poppy” music because he was too busy “deeply ensconced in hardcore blues”.

This gives you a measure of the man’s musical taste. For him, and particularly in the early days, it was all about the blues, and he developed his skills by almost-exclusively listening to the swaggering records of American blues heroes such as Muddy Waters, B. B. King, and Buddy Guy, and it shows. If you listen to any of his most important cuts from ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ to ‘Layla’, you can hear the emotional power of the aforementioned blues heroes coursing through his licks.

However, there is one bluesman that had more of an impact on Clapton than any other: Robert Johnson. Whilst the king of the Delta blues inspired many in Clapton’s generation, the effect his small body of work had on Clapton is undoubtedly the most consequential.

In an essay for a 1990 boxset of Johnson’s recordings, Clapton said: “Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived. He was true, absolutely, to his own vision, and as deep as I have gotten into the music over the last 30 years, I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice, really … it seemed to echo something I had always felt.”

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Given that Johnson is such an authority on Robert Johnson, during an interview with Music Radar in 2004, he weighed in on the mystery surrounding the musician and the legend that claims he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for creative success. 

Asked if the story of the Devil interested him, particularly on tracks such as ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ and ‘Me and The Devil Blues’, Clapton offered up a different take on what Johnson meant by using hellish imagery: “More likely he was speaking about a girlfriend, or trouble in general. I think ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ is like that. When I was younger, Hellhound… used to frighten me when I listened to it. The idea that he was really singing about being pursued by demons was too much for me. For a while I really couldn’t deal with it.”

He continued: “Then I began thinking of it as a metaphor for trouble. I believe in the presence of evil. I think it’s possible to conceive of something so bad that it can lead into a whole other world – a world where there is little hope. And I think that’s what he was going after. And when he sang about the crossroads… the crossroads is about choosing which path to go down. It’s about the moral decisions you make every day.”

Elsewhere in that interview, Clapton was asked if there’s anything in Johnson’s work that he understands now that he’s older. Despite his maturity, he claimed that there are many things in Johnson’s songs that still perplex him: “Take ‘Kindhearted Woman Blues’. There’s an instance in one of the verses where he plays an odd single-note kind of accompaniment on the IV chord. I can’t do it. I can’t see how anybody could do it [laughs].”

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