Tommy Johnson is a highlight of the National Blues Museum and one of the many early blues musicians whose life—given the lack of mainstream interest in early blues recordings until the postwar—is shrouded in mystery and leaves listeners with questions. Some of the most common are…
- 1. Are Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson related?
No, they are not. But fans of the Coen Brothers’ Film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) may find themselves asking this question after meeting Tommy Johnson’s onscreen homage in the film, “Tommy Johnson,” who tells of selling his soul to the devil, an act famously associated with Robert Johnson. But, as we will see, there are many who claim that Tommy was the first Blues guitarist to sell his soul in exchange for incredible musical talent. The Tommy Johnson of the film is portrayed by Chris Thomas King, the renowned blues musician whose 2021 book The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture sheds light on the urban origins of blues music in New Orleans, doing important work to separate the style from its rural associations in pop culture which exoticize and downplay a more comprehensive musical tradition. King also contributed a song to the film’s soundtrack, one of the most acclaimed and best-selling film soundtracks in history, which won Album of the Year at the 2002 Grammys.
Tommy Johnson himself was an astounding musician. People often associate the blues with a particular sound, but Tommy Johnson’s artistry as a songwriter and performer reflects how varied and unique blues music can truly be. Tommy Johnson stands as a pillar of the Delta blues style, which, from a variety of influences, emerged in Mississippi during the early twentieth century. A hat and can of Sterno “Canned Heat” cooking fuel which belonged to Johnson is among the most unique pieces in the National Blues Museum’s collection:
- 2. Who wrote On the Road Again by Canned Heat?
Sterno “Canned Heat” cooking fluid was the inspiration for Tommy Johnson’s composition “Canned Heat Blues,” which graced the California blues-rock band Canned Heat with their name. During the prohibition, Americans without easy access to illegal liquor frequently found substitutes for alcohol. In Tommy Johnson’s community and many others throughout the nation, Sterno cooking fluid and its source of methanol were among the most common. The practice can even be seen in Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking, Oscar-nominated documentary On the Bowery (1956), a neorealist film that follows unhoused and drifting alcoholics in New York’s lower east side. BUT this practice was highly unsafe, as the alcohol in Sterno is denatured. Even with different DIY filtering and safety precautions taken at the time, drinking Sterno caused permanent blindness by destroying the optic nerves in many of its users.
The band Canned Heat also got their biggest hit from Tommy Johnson. Their “On the Road Again” is a musical descendant of Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues.” Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones adapted Johnson’s piece into “On the Road Again,” which the band then turned into a top 10 radio hit in 1968 with pervasive psychedelic influences. You can compare the three artists’ versions below:
- 3. Which blues guitarist first sold their soul to the devil?
Johnson sits at the intersection of the most famous myth in blues popular culture. While he has no relation to fellow legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson (Cross Road Blues, Hellhound On My Trail, Come On In My Kitchen), Tommy Johnson is often credited as being the first Mississippi Bluesman to have sold his soul to the devil. The Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? tells the film’s characters this as well, causing further confusion around the relation of Robert to Tommy. An essential symbol in blues lore, African, and American culture, a deal with the devil is most often associated with Robert. You can learn more about Robert Johnson and his deal with the devil at the National Blues Museum, or in the piece we wrote exploring his famous meeting at the crossroads. Despite this, multiple relatives of Tommy Johnson and other Delta musicians say it was Tommy who was first reported to have taken part in this ritual.
With a powerful high falsetto that makes the yodeling cowboys of his era like Jimmie Rogers seem soft and out of step, Tommy Johnson brought all of his individuality to the creative framework of the blues. He is credited with some of blues music’s most foundational lines such as “I asked her for water, and she gave me gasoline,” (Cool Drink of Water Blues) and his recorded output speaks to the beautiful variety that exists in early blues music. Tommy Johnson proves that the blues contains incredibly diverse possibilities for sound, with a moaning voice that would still be considered groundbreaking today and was invaluably influential to future blues musicians.
If you want to see Tommy Johnson’s hat and canned heat in the flesh, visit the National Blues Museum, one of the best things to do in St. Louis, Missouri!! Here you can learn more about Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Johnnie Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, and many many more foundational figures in the history of blues music whose last names aren’t Johnson. The National Blues Museum is one of the best places for live music in St. Louis. We host concerts all year long and have a weekly blues jam session where you can cut your teeth playing this vital form of music. We hope to see you soon for some high-quality blues in St. Louis!