On June 19 and June 20, 1937, Robert Johnson recorded at 508 Park.
Marvin “Smokey” Montgomery who played with the Light Crust Doughboys, remembered running into a blues musician on June 20. In one memory, he said it was on the stairs. Now that we’ve been in 508 Park, the question that comes up is why weren’t they taking the elevator? 508 Park has a beautiful Art Deco elevator in the front of the building and a freight elevator in the back. Imagine all the records taken up and down that freight elevator during the years that Brunswick (which became the American Record Company) and then Decca were housed on the third floor. Some have speculated that Johnson was going up the back stairs because of Jim Crow laws. But, would record producers Don Law and Art Satherley − both from Britain − have held to the racist apartheid then prevailing in the South, and required Johnson to come up the stairs?
Well, however he got there, what happened on June 19th happened on the third floor. It was a Saturday. The hustle and bustle of the downstairs Warner Bros Film Exchange during the week was over, and perhaps Law and Satherley and their recording guys had the 24,000 square foot building to themselves. They had several musicians scheduled to record that weekend.
It must have been very hot. Some of us were in the building in early June (without air conditioning) and it was extremely uncomfortable inside. By the end of June, with the windows shut, probably, to keep the city noises from intruding, it must have been very hot.
On June 19, Johnson made three masters.
STONES IN MY PASSWAY
I'M A STEADY ROLLIN' MAN
FROM FOUR UNTIL LATE
He returned the next day, Sunday, and made ten more.
HELL HOUND ON MY TRAIL
LITTLE QUEEN OF SPADES
DRUNKEN HEARTED MAN
ME & THE DEVIL BLUES
STOP BREAKIN' DOWN BLUES
TRAVELING RIVERSIDE BLUES
LOVE IN VAIN BLUES
MILKCOW'S CALF BLUES
We will let Peter Guralnick's book, Searching for Robert Johnson explain about these recordings: "The recordings that Robert Johnson made at his second session were, if anything, superior even to the first. Actually, those last dates included both his most inspired and his most derivative recordings. ... 'Stones in My Passway,' like many of his most effective songs, is played with a slide, with the guitar tuned in 'Spanish' (open G) and the strings echoing the words almost as a second voice. Also, like a good many of Johnson's most ambitious compositions, it suggests both in its imagery and its language almost Biblical overtones (readily available through popular gospel recordings and preaching) which raise again the whole conflicted nature of Johnson's life and work. And, of course, like the rest of his most emotional expressive blues, the song suggests levels of real and metaphorical experience that can be extended indefinitely by the imagination of the listener, as he declares: "I got stones in my passway, and my road seems dark as night/ I have pains in my heart, they have taken my appetite... / My enemies have betrayed me,/ have overtaken poor Bob at last/ And there's one thing certain,/ they have stones all in my path."
Guralnick explains that with "Me And the Devil Blues," "Johnson raises the very questions that have been lurking in the background all along: the connection between pleasure and pain, the conflict between the satisfaction of music and its essentially sinful nature, the debt that must be paid for art and the Faustian bargain that Johnson sees at its core.
"Early this morning,/ when you knocked upon my door/ And I said, 'Hello, Satan,'/ I believe it's time to go.' Seldom has a number of such directly emotional impact been recorded, but then this is what the blues is supposed to be about.... What is almost breathtaking here is not simply the feeling but the artistry, an artistry not surprising in the tortuous poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins but virtually unique in the annals of the blues."
Elijah Wald in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, says that "Judging by his new lyrics, he had also become a good deal somber and introspective. The second sessions included very little upbeat material, no 'Sweet Home Chicago' and certainly nothing like 'They're Red Hot.' There were no seductive invitations, and some songs patterned on current hit formulas, but he often followed the model of 'Cross Road Blues,' limning the dark wanderings of a traveler in an unfriendly world."
On this video, Elijah explains how Robert Johnson's musicanship changed between recording in 1936 in San Antonio and recording in 1937 at 508 and in that change helped innovate blues and eventually usher in rock 'n roll:
And that’s why we are celebrating this June 19th what happened on that June 19th and June 20th as well as the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth with a free lunchtime concert at the 508 Amphitheater with two local blues artists, Rev KM Williams and Joel Foy.