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Robert Johnson and spectral timbre: what we hear, what we construct


The myth of the deal with the devil at the crossroads frames the reception of Robert Johnson's corpus, particularly lyrics that directly or indirectly reference otherworldly forces. Setting aside the myth, I analyse the uncanny sonic qualities in his performances that evoke a spectral presence. A close examination of vocal and guitar timbre that considers harmonic resonance, chimera effect and other ‘eerie’ qualities of the music breaks down musical elements other than lyrics that evoke the myth of supernatural power. Humming, mumbling and talking, corner loading, falsetto, simultaneous rhythm and lead, among other acoustic effects, contribute to a complex soundscape with spectral resonances. Taking a lead from Johnson's mentor Ike Zimmerman and his fondness for practising in the cemetery, my analysis of timbral quality informed by Freud's concept of the uncanny seeks to explore what we hear, how it is produced and the origin that we construct for the sounds.

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