"Music is a higher revelation than philosophy."

-- composer Ludwig van Beethoven

Music reviews


Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings


Artist Robert Johnson
Title The Complete Recordings
Dates 1937 - 1938
Label Columbia (Roots'n'Blues series)

Not everyone knows about Robert Johnson, but almost everyone knows about this 1930s bluesman's songs. His works can be found recreated by Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and numerous other artists. Unfortunately, the only recorded legacy of this master is from a handful of 1936 and 1937 sessions and fits on two CDs.

Columbia has put together this collection of all 41 known Robert Johnson recordings, including second takes, as part of its Roots'n'Blues Series. The songs come from 1936 and 1937 Texas sessions for the American Record Company (ARC), which released eleven of the songs on the Vocalion label.

The first thing that strikes the modern ear upon playing this set is the poor quality of recordings. At the time, the height of technology was the microphone, and over the many decades since, the original source recording has deteriorated somewhat.

Once you overcome the distraction of the hiss and poor sound, you enter a mystical world seeming to mark the connection between earth and hell. Johnson's voice is a banshee's wail, and his guitar a restless demon.

Johnson's recordings are some of the most original in known blues history. Despite borrowing a few lines or riffs here and there, Johnson lends a profoundly distinctive sound and lyricism to the genre. His songs formed the basis for future schools of blues, soul and rock musicians. Many of the songs here have been redone by more well-known artists -- "Crossroad Blues" (Eric Clapton), "Dust My Broom" (Elmore James, Z.Z. Top), "Love in Vain" (Rolling Stones), "Traveling Riverside Blues" (Led Zeppelin), "Sweet Home Chicago" (Blues Brothers) and "They're Red Hot" (Red Hot Chili Peppers), for example. Robert Plant still borrows a few Johnson lyrics now and then.

Strangely enough, eye trouble seems to be positively correlated with blues talent. Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, not to mention Ray Charles, were all completely blind. Johnson dropped out of school because of poor vision and reportedly had one bad eye.

I'm going to hoist your hood mama
I'm bound to check your oil

Automobiles as sexual metaphor are a recurrent theme in modern music, and Johnson helped start the show with "Terraplane Blues." Shades of this song would reappear in Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Underfoot."

I got to keep movin', I got to keep movin'
Blues falling down like hail, Blues falling down like hail
And the days keep worrying me
There's a hellhound on my trail

Robert Johnson's short life was one of rambling and playing music. According to legend, Johnson was poisoned by a bar owner when Johnson spent a little too much time with the bar owner's wife.

The word that blues added to the vocabulary appears in this blues album as well. In "Little Queen of Spades," Robert sings, "Everybody say she got a mojo, cause she's been using that stuff."

You can bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can catch a Greyhound bus, and ride