Tox Tunes #12 – Canned Heat Blues (Tommy Johnson)

March 22, 2010, 12:47 am

Tommy Johnson — along with Son House and Charley Patton — was one of the key figures in the development of early Delta blues.  According to Robert Palmer’s indispensable book Deep Blues, Johnson (1896-1956) played guitar with “a slippery, danceable swing that derived from his superbly controlled mixing of duple- and triple-meter picking and strumming patterns, and his voice had a unique crying quality that was particularly effective when he slid into his eerie falsetto, echoing the archaic sound of the field holler.”

Johnson was also an alcoholic. Palmer notes that “after a couple of years in the Delta, he was already well settled into a pattern of acute alcoholism and would drink almost anything — Sterno, shoe polish, denatured alcohol.” Sterno (“canned heat”) contained ethanol that had been denatured — made poisonous — by the addition of methanol.  The lyrics to “Canned Heat Blues” paint a frightening picture of obsession, addiction to alcohol, and utter ruin from which the singer is unable to escape:

“Woked up this morning, with canned heat, Lord, on mg mind/Crying, Lord,Lord, I wonder, canned heat, Lord, killing me.”

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