One hundred years ago, a boy-child was born in Mississippi – a dirt-poor, African-American who would grow up, learn to sing and play the blues, and eventually achieve worldwide renown. In the decades after his death, he has become known as the King of the Delta Blues Singers, his music expanding in influence to the point that rock stars of the greatest magnitude – the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers – all sing his praise and have recorded his songs.
That boy-child was Robert Johnson, an itinerant blues singer and guitarist who lived from 1911 to 1938. He recorded 29 songs between 1936 and ‘37 for the American Record Corporation, which released eleven 78rpm records on their Vocalion label during Johnson¹s lifetime, and one after his death.
Most of these tunes have attained canonical status, and are now considered enduring anthems of the genre: “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I¹ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Like many bluesmen of his day, Johnson plied his craft on street corners and in jook joints, ever rambling and ever lonely – and writing songs that romanticized that existence. But Johnson accomplished this with such an unprecedented intensity, marrying his starkly expressive vocals with a guitar mastery, that his music has endured long after the heyday of country blues and his own short life.
Never had the hardships of the world been transformed into such a poetic height; never had the blues plumbed such an emotional depth. Johnson took the intense loneliness, terrors and tortuous lifestyle that came with being an African-American in the South during the Great Depression, and transformed that specific and very personal experience into music of universal relevance and global reach. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” Keith Richards once asked, answering his own question: “Well, this is it.” Eric Clapton put it more plainly: “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”
The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by the fact that so little about him is known and what little biographical information we now have only revealed itself at an almost glacial pace. Myths surrounding his life took over: that he was a country boy turned ladies’ man; that he only achieved his uncanny musical mastery after selling his soul to the devil. Even the tragedy of his death seemed to grow to mythic proportion: being poisoned by a jealous boyfriend then taking three days to expire, even as the legendary talent scout John Hammond was searching him out to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
In 1990, Sony Legacy produced and released the 2-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings to widespread critical acclaim and, for a country blues reissue, unprecedented sales. The Complete Recordings proved the existence of a potential market for music from the deepest reaches of Sony¹s catalog, especially if buoyed by a strong story with mainstream appeal. Johnson¹s legend continues to attract an ever-widening audience, with no sign of abating. If, in today¹s world of hip-hop and heavy metal, a person knows of only one country blues artist, odds are it is Robert Johnson. (robertjohnsonbluesfoundation.org)
The Complete Recordings is a compilation album by American blues musician Robert Johnson, released August 28, 1990 on Columbia Records. The album’s recordings were recorded in two sessions in Dallas and San Antonio, Texas for the American Record Company (ARC) during 1936 and 1937. Most of the songs were first released on 78rpm records in 1937. The Complete Recordings contains every recording Johnson is known to have made, with the exception of an alternate take of “Travelling Riverside Blues”.
The Complete Recordings peaked at number 80 on the Billboard 200 chart. The album has sold more than a million copies, and won a Grammy Award in 1991 for “Best Historical Album.” In 1992, the Blues Foundation inducted the album into the Blues Hall of Fame. It also was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2003. The board selects recordings in an annual basis that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Prior to his death in 1938, through the help of H. C. Speir Johnson recorded 29 songs for the American Record Company (ARC). His complete canon of recordings includes these 29 masters, plus 13 surviving alternate takes, all recorded at two ARC sessions held in San Antonio and Dallas, Texas. The Mississippi Delta—two hundred miles of fertile lowlands stretching from Memphis, Tennessee in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south—was one of the primary locales in which the blues originated and developed. He is said to have been heavily influenced by early blues artists like Skip James, who was recorded in 1931, around the same time that Johnson amazed his elders with his mastery of the guitar. James’s eerie, distinctive style is reflected throughout Johnson’s recordings, most notably in “32-20 Blues,” which he adapted from James’s “22-20 Blues.”
Johnson’s first session in San Antonio, Texas lasted three days, on the 23rd, 26th, and 27th of November 1936, sixteen songs were recorded in the Gunter Hotel, where ARC had set up equipment to record a number of musical acts. “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” was the first song recorded. Also captured in San Antonio were “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” both of which became post-war blues standards. “Terraplane Blues,” known for its metaphoric lyrics, became a regional hit and Johnson’s signature song. Most of the selections were released on Vocalion 78s, but three songs and several interesting alternate takes remained unissued until they appeared on the Columbia albums. Six months later, on the 19th and 20th of June 1937, other recording sessions took place in a Dallas, Texas warehouse where, once again, ARC had set up its recording equipment to capture many different acts. This time 13 songs were recorded and 10 were released during the following year.
The song “Cross Road Blues” is one of his most popular, thanks to Eric Clapton and Cream (Wheels of Fire), whose interpretation popularized the song in the late 1960s. Johnson’s recordings became popular in the early ’60s when Columbia Records released a collection of called King of the Delta Blues Singers. Bluesmen like Clapton and Keith Richards viewed the release as something of a blues bible, considered by some to be the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” The Rolling Stones recorded “Love in Vain” on their 1969 album, Let It Bleed, and “Stop Breakin’ Down” on their Exile on Main St. (1972) album.
While Robert Johnson’s professional recording career can be measured in months, his musical legacy has survived more than 70 years. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, two prominent Chicago bluesmen, have their roots in the Delta: both knew Robert Johnson, and were heavily influenced by him. Johnson’s emotive vocals, combined with his varied and masterful guitar playing, continue to influence blues and popular music performers to this day. In 2004, Eric Clapton recorded Me and Mr. Johnson as a tribute to legendary bluesman; the album reached number 6 on the Billboard 200 and has sold more than 563,000 copies in the United States. The Chicago Tribune ’s Greg Kot wrote that The Complete Recordings, along with Clapton’s The Layla Sessions (1990), survive as “monuments of 20th Century music that will rarely, if ever, be equaled”. (by wikipedia)
A double-disc box set containing everything Robert Johnson ever recorded, The Complete Recordings is essential listening, but it is also slightly problematic. The problems aren’t in the music itself, of course, which is stunning and the fidelity of the recordings is the best it ever has been or ever will be. Instead, it’s in the track sequencing. As the title implies, The Complete Recordings contains all of Johnson’s recorded material, including a generous selection of alternate takes. All of the alternates are sequenced directly after the master, which can make listening to the album a little intimidating and tedious for novices. Certainly, the alternates can be programmed out with a CD player or mp3 player, but the set would have been more palatable if the alternate takes were presented on a separate disc. Nevertheless, this is a minor complaint — Johnson’s music retains its power no matter what context it is presented in. He, without question, deserves this kind of deluxe box set treatment. (by Stephen Thomas Erlewine)
01. Kind Hearted Woman Blues 2.49
02. Kind Hearted Woman Blues (alternate take) 2.31
03. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom 2.56
04. Sweet Home Chicago 2.59
05. Ramblin’ On My Mind (alternate take) 2.51
06. Ramblin’ On My Mind 2.20
07. When You Got A Good Friend 2.37
08. When You Got A Good Friend (alternate take) 2.50
09. Come On In My Kitchen (alternate take) 2.47
10. Come On In My Kitchen 2.35
11. Terraplane Blues 3.00
12. Phonograph Blues 2.37
13. Phonograph Blues (alternate take) 2.35
14. 32-20 Blues 2.51
15. They’re Red Hot 2.56
16. Dead Shrimp Blues 2.30
17. Cross Road Blues 2.39
18. Cross Road Blues (alternate take) 2.29
19. Walkin’ Blues 2.28
20. Last Fair Deal Gone Down 2.39
01. Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) 2.50
02. If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day 2.34
03. Stones In My Passway 2.27
04. I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man 2.35
05. From Four Till Late 2.23
06. Hellhound On My Trail 2.35
07. Little Queen Of Spades 2.11
08. Little Queen Of Spades (alternate take) 2.15
09. Malted Milk 2.17
10. Drunken Hearted Man 2.24
11. Drunken Hearted Man (alternate take) 2.19
12. Me And The Devil Blues 2.37
13. Me And The Devil Blues (alternate take) 2.29
14. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues (alternate take) 2.16
15. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues 2.21
16. Traveling Riverside Blues 2.47
17. Honeymoon Blues 2.16
18, Love In Vain (alternate take) 2.28
19. Love In Vain 2.19
20. Milkcow’s Calf Blues (alternate take) 2.14
21. Milkcow’s Calf Blues 2.20
All songs written by Robert Johnson