Tommy Johnson “Canned Heat Blues”
In the film O Brother Where Art Thou Chris Thomas King plays traveling bluesman Tommy Johnson.
[Tommy Johnson Clip—O Brother Where Art Thou]
The movie got it right. It wasn’t Robert Johnson, but Tommy Johnson who sold his soul to the Devil. Or at least that’s what he claimed.
Thanks to that deal, Tommy wrote some of the Delta’s best music, including Canned Heat Blues, a song about the consumption of canned heat—also known as Sterno, or cooking fluid.
It was that love of heat, of hard—and I do mean hard—liquor, that took up most of his time. Mama, he’d sing, that heat is always on my mind.
David Evans wrote Tommy Johnsons biography.
“If anything, actually, in respect to his personality, the most outstanding characteristic was his drinking. He was a prodigious drinker, and he composed a couple of songs directly about his drinking. He would drink things liked Canned Heat. Canned Heat Blues was one of his famous songs, and that, of course, is cooking fluid. It has an alcohol content, but it’s pretty rough stuff. His brother gave me a recipe for making Canned Heat.”
“Yes, you take a can of this canned heat and it’s got a paraffin base with alcohol in it. Of course, you don’t want to ingest the paraffin, you want to strain the alcohol out of it, so you strain it through a cheesecloth or a few slices of bread and then you put some sugar in it and add some water to dilute it a little bit and bottoms up. As his brother said, not the preacher, although he had ingested his share of canned heat in his blues days, but his other brother said it’s a good drink. It makes you want to run. I think you sweat a lot from it.”
[Tommy Johnson—Canned Heat Blues][soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/114783060" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]
Tommy Johnson was born in 1898 in Terry, Mississippi. He learned to play guitar as a teenager, and by 1914 was supplementing his income as a musician. By 1920 he’d become an itinerant musician. A talented guitar player and songwriter with a powerful voice, his career was held back by his penchant for hard liquor. He made his first recordings in 1928 for Victor Records. He recorded only twice more, but those recordings yielded some great blues standards like Canned Heat and Big Road Blues. The melody for Big Road Blues was taken up by the Mississippi Sheiks for their wildly successful “Stop and Listen” which resulted in a legal settlement. Although Johnson was party to the copyright settlement, the liquor got him again, and he was too drunk to understand what he had signed.
Tommy Johnson’s major talent and bad luck gave credence to the legend he spread himself–that he sold his soul to the devil to be able to play guitar.
Tommy Johnson died in 1956 after playing at a party. He is buried outside of Crystal Springs. His headstone was commissioned and paid for by Bonnie Raitt. But Johnson could have no peace even in death. After ongoing legal battles with his family, the headstone was finally erected in October 2012. By February 2013 it had been desecrated with a sledgehammer.