I began listening to John Hammond at the Crossroads
at the same time as I was listening to Richard Goode’s long awaited completion of Bach’s Partitas for Keyboard
(Nonesuch, 2003). It struck me that the two recordings were very similar. Both are interpretations of a cultural canon. Bach’s Partitas for Keyboard
are considered among his best compositions and has been the subject of hundreds of recordings and performances. Like the Goldberg Variations
, the Partitas for Keyboard
exist as an artistic summit, the best the Austrian-German tradition has to offer. Likewise, the Robert Johnson songbook contains the indivisible subatomic particles making up all of popular music.
The performance of each set of compositions is personal, informed, and inventive. Goode’s precise treatments of the Partitas sparkle with a diamond-intense brilliance. John Hammond’s interpretation of Johnson’s blues, while more daring, still remain within the standards for rural blues performance—full of spontaneity, invention, and pathos. In terms of universal art, culture, and aesthetics, the two sets of compositions are equal.
John Hammond at the Crossroads
is Vanguard Records' collection of Hammond performances of Johnson tunes from the past 25 years, derived from eight releases ranging from 1965’s Country Blues
(Vanguard) through 1979’s Hot Tracks
(Vanguard). The majority of the collection consists of Hammond and guitar (and harmonica). From "Sweet Home Chicago" to the end of the collection reside the electric pieces (just as "Sweet Home Chicago" was meant to be). Joining Hammond are the likes of Jimmy Thackery, Charlie Musselwhite, Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson. The leader, however, is at his best on the acoustic pieces. He takes 32-20 blues at a languid, strutting half-time, adding drama and dread. On "Stones in my Passway" Hammond effects a Skip James falsetto that will make you start the piece over just to make sure who is singing. His voice is no mere caricature of a Caucasian performing in an African-American idiom. Hammond comes off as the authentic article, displaying the true ubiquity of the blues.
For more information, see John Hammond and Vanguard Records .