Clapton on Robert Johnson: In the flow

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Tue, 2005-12-20 18:42

What an odd mix is Eric Clapton. A reserved, almost donnish Englishman, and still one of the world's great guitar heroes. Born and raised far from Mississippi or Chicago, yet he wields unquestionably one of the finest blues guitars the world has heard.

And he understands the psychology of creativity too, about which more below.

Clapton however has always been constrained by genre. Listening to much of his music over the years, his blues solos are the moments which are clearly and majestically him, the moments when he really stretches out, and his guitar gently aches and weeps -- at these moments he seems to be playing from and expressing his soul. But over the course of many years the number of solos has been too few, and the song structure within which those solos are contained has too often been too constraining, and to my ear often just too insipid to allow his soul to sing. Most of his albums -- including his latest dreary offering 'Back Down' -- have not unfortunately been crammed full of emotionally and technically challenging blues music, but too often have been mostly featureless terrains of musically- and emotionally-shallow mush-- stretching neither him nor his audience. They have however paid for an awful lot of fine living.

But just occasionally it's possible to hear the real Clapton -- and boy can he play when he wants to! A recent DVD/CD set in which Clapton plays songs from blues legend Robert Johnson (pictured right) is one recent and brilliant example: this captures the real Clapton, playing beautifully, expressively, and from the heart. The blues, it's sometimes said, ain't nothin' but the sound of a good man feelin' bad -- Johnson's songs are the real thing: they ache with emotion; Clapton clearly feels it, and when he does feel it you can hear it in his guitar.

He points out however in an interview on the DVD that playing these songs is by no means easy -- Johnson's seemingly simple songs are a mare's nest of difficulties and complexity. Clapton the guitar hero confesses he's not entirely able to play what Johnson played and recorded seventy years ago. Like pianist Art Tatum, listening to Johnson's recordings makes you convinced there's two people playing.

When I first heard him, [says Clapton], I think Keith Richards said this too, that we all thought there was, he was being accompanied by someone, it sounded like it. And it wasn't unusual in those days, I mean, you often had a piano player and a guitar player, or two guitar players. And it wasn't until later that I realized you could do it, what he does. But you have to really, I mean, I've had to, I've had to work really hard in the last few days, to try and do some of the things that I needed to do to play along.
And I, and, and, and my, my take on Robert Johnson so far is that it needs two people, to play what he plays and sing at the same time.

Clapton describes his struggle trying to get just one song right, and concludes that getting it exactly right, "I think to do that would be a life's work. I mean, it seriously would be a life's work for any musician." He has problems with one song in particular, Stones in My Passway, and despite never really mastering it, he's clearly relishing the artistic and technical challenge.

Until I and I still can't, I can't do it completely right, I can kind of get an approximation. But, I mean, it's almost one of those things where you listen to it, it just sounds so relaxed. And yet when you come to try it and do it, you find out how almost virtually impossible it is. And I've had to work on this every morning and every night for the last week, to try and just do one song like that. So that's pretty difficult.

"Pretty difficult" for Eric Clapton means well-nigh impossible for ordinary mortals --- this simple-sounding music is in fact fiendishly difficult to play, which is part of what offers Clapton his reward for playing it. In an interview for the DVD, Clapton describes what he feels when he's playing this difficult music; his description makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the psychology of creativity, and of what makes people truly happy, satisfied and fulfilled:

Well, it's the closest thing to being truly in the moment I can experience really, I think. If I'm, if I'm just in a social situation, and we're, I mean, me alone, part of me is there, a good deal of it. You know, maybe 75% part of my brain is off somewhere, thinking about what I'm gonna do tomorrow, will, have I got everything I need to make the journey I'm gonna make, etcetera, etcetera. Did I do, did I forget something about what we were supposed to do yesterday.

I mean, but doing that kind of work, especially the stuff that we're doing, with just me and the acoustic, requires such concentration that I am, I think this is close as I get to being really in the moment. And then everything, time just sort of stands still, and at the same time seems to go by very quickly. It's all, it's all like, a kind of roller, it's like being in a, in an accident. It's just a blur. But I love it, you know, I love, I love that kind of, when it feels like it's really going well, and, and, and I'm just in tune and in harmony with time. It's a great, it's a great feeling.

Anyone who's ever been fully absorbed in that creative moment will know exactly what he's talking about -- and we don't have to be a world class guitar hero to feel it. Hungarian-US psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes that state as one of "optimal experice, or flow," a state in which you are:

being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.

Csikszentmihalyi has studied creative and high-achieving individuals, and he describes the phenomenon of their 'being in the flow' in their work as both their defining attribute, and their reward. 'Flow' itself is a function of a person's skills and the challenge before them. "Optimal experience, or flow, occurs when both variables are high," says Csikszentmihalyi. Too simple a challenge for our skills and we feel bored; too much of a challenge and we feel anxiety. But like Red Riding Hood eating Baby Bear's porridge, if things are 'just right' and our skills are being challenged to the right degree, then we too find ourselves in 'flow' in just the way Clapton describes.

Ayn Rand described "productive work [as] the central purpose of a rational man's life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work – pride is the result." If our work is what integrates us, then being in 'flow' through our work is our psychological reward for doing it well.

There are a number of implications of Csikszentmihalyi's research, including important implications for career choice, for artistic creativity, for education, and even for how we choose to relax (see image at right). Productive and creative work can be seen not just as important existentially, but also psychologically, and selfishly.

Once we understand what 'flow' is and its importance to us, we can seek to maximise our time 'in the flow' rather than simply existing in a drone-lie manner, or engaging in mindless pleasure-seeking. Csikszentmihalyi for example contrasts enjoyment and pleasure, explaining "that the difference was that pleasure lacked a sense of achievement or active contribution to the result." Work or pleasure done 'in flow' need not be tiring; if done properly, it might instead be galvanising!

The North American Montessori Teachers Association have been working with Csikszentmihalyi to apply his model for education with children -- Montessorian David Kahn (who introduced me to the concept of flow in a lecture here in Auckland a few years back) lists eight conditions of "the flow experience," all of which he maintains are found in the Montessori classroom. His introduction to Montessori and Optimal Experience Research (PDF download) is a good place to start understanding the concept of flow, and one example of its concrete application. The 'Brain Channels Thinker of the Year Award - 2000' site also has some great links to find out more.

Linked Articles:
Brain Channels Thinker of the Year Award - 2000: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "Flow Theory"
Montessori and Optimal Experience Research (PDF download) - David Kahn
Eric Clapton interview about the CD/DVD "Sessions for Robert J"

Related: Music, Ethics, Objectivism, Science, Education

( categories: )


HWH's picture

Thanks for that pointer to Albert King. Found it on Youtube and loved it.

Jennifer, love cooking and eating just as much.( I used to be a Chef in charge of an army camp mess during the South African/Cuban border war in Angola/Namibia for 2 years) 

Just  Discovered "Cookwise" by Shirley O Corriher recently. If you aint read it yet (highly unlikely) I stronly suggest it. Just reading it puts me in the zone.


I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the starless night, -- blown and flared by passion's storm, -- and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish that, and nought remains.- - Robert Green Ingersoll

Most definitely.

Prima Donna's picture

Agreed on all points, Peter. I hope more people chime in on this discussion (my tangent comment referred to hijacking away from the topic of Clapton and music). I do love the idea of savoring existence in all things, which is part of the message I try to convey in my own work; now, if masses of people would catch on, we'd really be getting somewhere! Imagine what a different kind of world it would be.

I've always believed that that kind of work -- one where you can regularly get into the zone -- is the most fulfilling type possible. I can envision you at your drafting table in that same state, and it's inspiring. I get that way when I'm making site tweaks, cooking for a large party,'s all magnificent.


-- Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

No tangent

Peter Cresswell's picture

You'd surely place cooking in the "high-challenge-high skills" category, wouldn't you, PD -- at least your cooking, if not ours.

But this is no tangent. This is part of why I was sufficiently inspired by the concept to write about it back in 2005. It's a good way of seeing how we can really 'savour existence in all things' -- to enjoy every moment -- by harmonising those two ingredients of skills and challenge in all our activities; in work, in hobbies and in daily life.

Remember Rand's discussion of her stamp collecting hobby?

It's a related discussion, really, to the one Kelly started recently about work.


Missed this one!

Prima Donna's picture


I am heartened to discover that eating has been placed in the same high-challenge area as reading on this "flow" chart (now Luke Setzer is going to get all excited!), but I wonder to what type of eating he's referring there. The person seeking true gratification is definitely engaging all senses in tandem with the mind to appreciate a fine meal -- but I am willing to bet that most people eat on auto-pilot, putting that activity more in the realm of television watching. Which makes me sad.

I would definitely place cooking in that high-challenge area as well -- the adrenaline rush of being in the thick of it, with timing and stirring and plating -- is like nothing else.

:::end of tangent:::


-- Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Well said, Hilton!

mvardoulis's picture

"...these guys, while jamming in that zone get closer to 'heaven' than any saint could ever dream of." Brilliant, and accurate!

Though your selection of guitar heroes has a bit of a 'classic rock' bent, all have definitely reached the 'zone' (though I'm not sure what 'zone' Angus Young of AC/DC really enters when his head is perpetually bobbing up and down) PC speaks of.

One of my electric blues guitar favorites is Albert King's "I'll Play The Blues For You." While containing elements of cheesy lyrics and horns worthy of a 1970's porno movie, this track has UNREAL licks and extended solo which melts you right into the flow. A recommended listen, if you haven't heard it already. Smiling

Who do you love best?

HWH's picture

Good one Peter

Just this weekend I had a few friends over for a curry and when all were fairly pasted we started comparing some of our favourite tracks from Clapton, Knoppfler, Carlos Santana, JJ cale, BB King, Dave Gilmour, ACDC, and a couple of others to see who was best. No verdict could be reached.

In my view they all KASS and if you watch them, they all their best stuff was defintely done in that zone.

My dad was an excellent pianist as well, and even when he was old, his whole being would be transformed when he got behind the piano.

I have many times watched musicians, especially Jazz and Blues artists and have thought that these guys, while jamming in that zone get closer to "heaven" than any saint could ever dream of.

One of the clearest examples of being in flow is in this video of Jamie Cullum...see how he battles to come out of it at just before his refrain.


I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the starless night, -- blown and flared by passion's storm, -- and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish that, and nought remains.- - Robert Green Ingersoll

discovered this by accident

mvardoulis's picture

Figures almost all the kiwis I know and love are both Objectivists/libertarians AND blues fans. Still my favorite kind of emotional, soul-bearing music as well. And no doubt always will be. EXCELLENT READ, PETER! Smiling

Tim, if you buy Johnson's

Ross Elliot's picture

Tim, if you buy Johnson's recordings, all of which are contained on this boxset...

Robert Johnson Boxset

...then be prepared for an historical document and not a hi-fi masterpiece.

As I recall, all of Johnson's extant stuff was recorded in two sessions, the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, 1936 & in Dallas, 1937. They were originally made on wire recorders and then cut to disc so that accounts for the quality issues, methinks. But what you will hear through the streaky sonics is the voice of a young man who lived the life of a hard-living blues journeyman & the stripped down licks learned from many years of life on the dusty roads of the deep south. The story of Johnson selling his soul to Legba (the Devil) at the crossroads in return for having his guitar "tuned" by the Dark One is, of course, fictional. And I don't just mean metaphysically Smiling Makes a nice ghost story, though.

Someone said, maybe Keith Richards, that it's hard to imagine what Johnson would have done if he'd had an electric guitar, but it sure would have been amazing. I think he would have been far closer in style to the late R L Burnside's propulsive ferocity than Clapton's traditionalism. We'll never know.

A cult classic movie that evokes the Johnson story is Crossroads from '86. Terrific soundtrack by Ry Cooder and lots of references to deals with the Devil. Mu-hahaha!

"Clapton never had his

Peter Cresswell's picture

"Clapton never had his guitar tuned by the Devil at a dark Mississippi crossroads, did he?"

Sure'nuff, he didn't. Smiling

"It's hard to see flow taking place in a command & control environment "

No, you're right. Being 'in the zone' or in flow can only happen when the motivation for work comes from within. You can't force a man to think, and neither can you force 'optimal experience' upon someone, or plan for it from above.

"Although I rather think this has inspired me to go out and buy Robert Johnson than Eric Clapton."

Excellent. Now his guitar was tuned by the Devil at a dark Mississippi crossroads. Smiling I hope I also sold you on the importance of 'flow'?

Great article, thanks PC.

Tim S's picture

Great article, thanks PC. Although I rather think this has inspired me to go out and buy Robert Johnson than Eric Clapton.

Excellent, excellent

Ross Elliot's picture

Excellent, excellent article, Peter.

Kahn's paper was an interesting read. The concepts of normalcy & psychological health are vital to any understanding of what Montessori was aiming at in her pedagogy. The idea that that the child makes the man--wants to be the man--that all we need do is construct a rational environment for children and direct them thru it, and they will spontaneously seek solutions to problems & attempt to create order, was a pretty tasty idea on it's own, but to tie that in with flow, which seems to describe a virtuous feedback loop, is just as appetising.

There's no such thing as a "well-adjusted" Montessori child. That describes conformity to an artificiality (the whim of a bureaucrat, perhaps Smiling) whereas normalcy (partly) describes a child's ability to react with the discipline that reality demands, that dependent on the child having been directed to order & evaluate their world as opposed to the well-adjusted child who is simply taught to accept it. (witness the difference between word-picture & phonics) It's hard to see flow taking place in a command & control environment (witness a government department).

Also, flow seems to describe something akin to the free-market, except internalised.

Re Johnson & Clapton: perhaps old Eric never got over being called God. Or perhaps he believed it for a while. But when Robert faced into the corner of that room-cum-recording studio in the Gunter Hotel, San Antonio in 1936, it's always sounded to me like he was in confession & the microphone was his confessor. He certainly seems to be exorcising demons and flowing like Eric never could. But then, Clapton never had his guitar tuned by the Devil at a dark Mississippi crossroads, did he? Eye

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