I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction—themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them. I thought about Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience could have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation field hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.
Robert Johnson was a black delta bluesman, born in 1911, dead at the age of 27, in 1938. His guitar skills developed quickly, and he mastered many of the blues styles of his day. It is possible that his early death was caused by poison, administered by a jealous husband.
While Johnson’s rapid development and early, tragic death are the stuff of blues legend, in many ways his recorded work has had an entirely different and much more interesting life of its own.
His entire recorded legacy consists of 42 recordings of 29 songs, laid down at two different recording sessions in 1936 and 1937. Some of these recordings were released soon after they were made, and were moderately successful, selling a few thousand copies.
The first modern compilation of his work was released as an album, by Columbia Records, in 1961: King of the Delta Blues Singers. The emergence of this collection had a huge impact on a developing generation of rock musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and others.
A second album was released in 1970. By this time, many of those influenced by his first album had risen to stardom, had recorded his material (most successfully, “Crossroads” by The Cream), and were trying to educate their listeners on some of the roots of the music they were playing. Again, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The album sold in the hundreds of thousands, and college radio stations all across the country were calling Columbia Records, trying to arrange interviews with this new hit artist who had by now been dead, in an unknown grave, for some 32 years.
A complete two-CD box set was released in 1990, with expectations of modest sales. The package sold over a million units, the first blues recordings ever to do so.
In 2004, Eric Clapton released a tribute CD, consisting entirely of Robert Johnson compositions, called Me and Mr. Johnson.
Robert Johnson’s music had nothing to do with rock’n roll, had little influence on the development of the blues, but had a sizable impact on the development of rock.
For white teenagers listening to the blues in the early sixties, there was often a sense of eavesdropping on fragments of conversation being held by others. Recordings were brief samples of what could be heard more fully in live performances, small windows onto larger scenes, tokens of an entire, foreign culture that existed outside of the listener’s normal circle.
There was another, entirely different quality to Johnson’s recordings. These were not messages sent between different members of the same culture, accidentally intercepted by someone outside—Johnson was speaking from his culture, through a medium used by his culture, but he seemed to be speaking directly to the listener. It was as if an actor on a stage suddenly turned, looked directly into the audience, and spoke directly to you, conveying not just a line in the play, but a message indicating some intimate knowledge of you as a person. So while Johnson was clearly a product of his time and place, what he had to say was no more limited to the American deep South of the early 20th century than Shakespeare’s work was primarily about Elizabethan England.
This impact was amplified by the various accidents associated with Johnson’s legacy. Here was an artist, from another time and place, communicating directly and effectively with listeners decades later, across an ocean in some cases, simply through his recordings. There was literally nothing left of Johnson but a record or two, and yet those were enough. So if one wanted to convey to a new generation of musical artists the importance of a few minutes of vinyl, no more effective campaign could have been contrived.
Interestingly, the release of Johnson’s first album in 1961 failed to impress many blues experts. In many ways, his work was clearly derivative, and their judgment was that he had failed to contribute much of his own to the development of the music.
But what impressed others, like Dylan and Clapton, were not the individual elements of his craft that he had learned from others, but the way he used these to structure his songs. Each recorded track was a small masterwork, with lyrics, vocals and guitar all working together for a unified artistic effect.
The effect was stunning. Here were songs recorded thirty years earlier, under primitive conditions, by a man no one had heard of, a man who had apparently left no mark on the world. These were recordings that had no right to interest anyone but a few dedicated blues enthusiasts, and then only as a species of archaeological rarity, and yet, when listening to them, this man Johnson leapt from the grooves and stood before you like some holographic marvel, an image so real you would swear you could see his chest rising and falling.
For young musicians just learning their craft, these albums of Johnson’s were like stone tablets handed down from a mountain top, messages from some higher sphere. For these mere children pursuing some still shadowy, barely sensed dreams, Johnson’s music seemed proof that this land they envisioned must actually exist, for here were relics that were obviously not of this world, but tokens of some other. If one needed proof that a guitar was more than wood and string, that a song was more than notes and words, and that a man could be more than a name and a few faded pictures, then Robert Johnson’s recordings were all one could ask for.
Original Release Date: 1990
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
A two-CD box set with a total of 41 recordings, including 12 alternate takes.
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