Seventy five years ago this week, guitarist Robert Johnson came to Dallas to record songs that would become landmarks in the history of popular music. To mark the occasion, fans of Johnson gathered on Tuesday to celebrate his influence and play some of his music. And at this celebration, Johnson would have been right at home:
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Robert Johnson influenced everyone from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton to Led Zeppelin. But in his time, he was just another Delta blues musician trying to scratch out a living.
He lived an itinerant life, traveling around the country with no real place to call home.
And so it was fitting that his legacy was remembered on Tuesday at the Stewpot in Downtown Dallas. It’s run by First Presbyterian Church and provides meals, medical care and job training for the homeless.
And it’s also located across the street from 508 Park Ave. Johnson recorded only 29 songs in his life, and 13 of them were made there on June 19 and 20, 1937.
To mark the occasion, the Stewpot held a Robert Johnson sound-alike contest. Jim Weiss and David Dennard – a couple of pros – warmed up the crowd with a few Johnson favorites, including “Cross Road Blues.”
And then, it was time for the contest, which would net the winner $200. None of the contestants played a Johnson tune – some even confessed to not really knowing who Johnson was. But his influence could be heard in the jazz, gospel and R&B songs they performed
Charles Oliver, who is blind, looked like a blues musician straight out of central casting with his jet black shades and toothy smile.
Another favorite was Gerald Williams, who ignited the crowd with his guitar playing.
After the eight contestants performed, the judges huddled in the front row and made a decision.
ANNOUNCER BRUCE BUCHANON: “The first place winner in the Robert Johnson sound-alike contest … is Gerald!”
The win was big for Williams, who’s been playing the guitar for 35 years. Like all the contestants, he relies on the Stewpot. He says he’s been coming here for about six months.
WILLIAMS: “I come by the Stewpot on a daily basis. The Stewpot has been a blessing to a lot of people. Especially me.”
One of the folks in the crowd was Elliot Wald. He’s the author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. And he says he could hear flashes of Johnson in Gerald Williams’ playing.
WALD: “The guitar player who won, what he was playing was a style that certainly relates to Robert Johnson. And honestly had Robert Johnson lived another 10 years, I think he would have been playing more or less like T-Bone Walker. Which is exactly what this man was playing.”
Wald also says the significance of having a Robert Johnson event in a homeless center wasn’t lost on him.
WALD: “He was a street guitar player. And the fact that it’s connected with this ministry is perfect. Because Robert Johnson was a guy who lived on the street and hopped freight trains and hitchhiked from town to town and played music on the street for whatever people threw him. So this is the perfect connection to remember that the world he came out of sadly is all too much with us today.”