ďRobert Johnson is the most important blues musician who ever lived. I have never found more deeply soulful. His music remains the most power cry that I think you can find in a human voice.Ē
ďÖRavi Shankar and Robert Johnson are the only two guitar players I listen to.Ē
Such is Robert Johnsonís influence on music. Just about all musicians have been influenced by Robert Johnson, whether directly or indirectly. He may have been blues, but rock music owes as much to Robert Johnson as it does to any other single musician. Bands such as Cream, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Led Zeppelin, Elmore James, and even Elvis count him as a main influence and inspiration. What if Eric Clapton never heard Robert Johnson? Nobody can answer that, but you can be sure that music would be a lot different. In short, Robert Johnsonís influence on music is simply incalculable.
But despite how important he is to music, Robert Johnson gets frequently overlooked. Those who have heard him look to him as a mythic god of blues. And as the years go by, the myths about Johnson just keep growing and growing. There is very little known about his short life, and his obvious fascination with the occult in his songwriting has led to many rumors and made Robert Johnson out to be kind of half-man and half-myth. The main rumor is that he sold his soul to the devil for his guitar playing skills. So the story goes, Robert desperately wanted to be a great blues magician and so he went down to the crossroads (hence the song) at midnight with his guitar and met the devil. He handed over his guitar to the devil, and the devil fixed it up and gave it back to Johnson in exchange for his soul. Of course this rumor may be hard to believe, but it is undeniable that Johnson had some fascination with the occult: just look at the lyrics for Crossroads, Me and the Devil Blues or Hellhound on my Tail. Robert Johnson managed to do record just 41 songs in a hotel room before he was poisoned by a jealous girlfriend when he was just 27 years old. As a result of his quick and suspicious death, his legacy has been shrouded in more mystery. There are more rumors about Johnson out there, but the rumor of selling his soul to the devil for his guitar-playing skills is the most important one and I wonít get into any other ones.
Now back to the music. And what incredible music it was. Itís hard to change the fate of music forever with just a handful of recordings. But thatís exactly what Robert Johnson was able to do. He was an incredible, singer, songwriter, and of course a fabulous guitarist. Weíll start by talking about his voice. What soul. He had the perfect blues/country voice filled with pure emotion and he does a great job moaniní and groaniní the blues. Perhaps the most overlooked talent of Robert Johnson is his songwriting. Everyone knows that heís a great guitarist, and his voice is pretty distinctive, but people fail to notice his songwriting talent. Itís easy to see why people thought he sold his soul to the devil for guitar skills just by examining his lyrics. The devil is recurring theme in his writing and is the main topic in a bunch of these recordings. Weíll never be able to prove whether he did or didnít make a deal with the devil, but this man was clearly haunted by some demons. In addition to his interesting lyrics, his composition is amazing. On first listen it might seem like standard delta blues, but there are subtleties in his playing that make him unique.
And now Iíll just talk about his great guitar skills. Some of his techniques were so advanced and revolutionary for his time that youíd almost believe he sold his soul to the devil. Apparently, he played guitar for a little bit with some blues guys like Son House and wasnít very good. Then he went away for a year and when he came back, Son House was amazed at how skilled he had suddenly become and how much he knew about the instrument. Johnson had gotten so good in such a short time, that Son House suspected there were other forces helping him (the devil). But the alternative to the devil rumor is that Johnson supposedly traveled for a year with a man named Ike Zimmerman who never recorded anything but apparently was a great guitar player and taught Johnson everything he knew. And what fine tricks Zimmerman taught him. Robert Johnson is primarily known for his distinctive style of playing boogie basslines on the bottom strings while playing lead at the same time. As Johnny Shines, who played with Johnson back in the day, said, ďSome of the things that Robert did on the guitar affected the way everybody played. Heíd do rundowns and turnbacks. None of this was being done. In the early Ď30s, boogie on the guitar was rare, something to be heard. Because of Robert, people learned to complement themselves, carrying their own bass as their lead with this one instrument.Ē Keith Richards said, ďWhen I first heard [Robert Johnson], I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.Ē His guitar work is truly distinctive and revolutionary. It really is hard to believe that itís just him solo sometimes.
Overall, this is the Robert Johnson album to get. Iím not going to bother to describe all the songs not just because Iím lazy but because his songs are just magic. Itís really hard to describe him; either youíve heard Robert Johnson or you havenít. If youíve heard him, you know what Iím talking about. Everything about the songs just has a crazy magical feeling to it. So distinctive, his playing, his singing, his songs are just gold. If you donít know what Iím talking about, youíre in for a treat the first time you hear him. He left me speechless the first time I heard him, he left Eric Clapton speechless, and it seems like most people who hear me are left speechless. I mean, Clapton made a whole album covering Robert. That's got to mean something as far as how much Robert's music has meant to him. So everybody needs to hear some Robert Johnson, and since this has everything that he ever recorded, itís certainly the best thing to get. There is only one weakness with the cd: It has his complete recordings, but he only had 29 original songs, which means the remaining 12 songs are alternate versions of songs on the album. For some reason, the alternate versions of songs are placed right after the regular versions. I donít mind, because all the alternate versions are great and comparable to the regular versions. But to a first time listener, it might seem a little repetitive to listen to pretty much the same song twice in a row. So that marks my grade down from a 5 to a 4.5/5. The actual music on this album is undoubtedly 5/5 but the track ordering knocks the album down a notch. So final grade: 4.5/5
Kind Hearted Woman
I Believe Iíll Dust My Broom
Sweet Home Chicago
Cross Road Blues
If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day
Iím a Steady Rolliní Man
Stop Breakiní Down Blues
Love in Vain
Yes, I do realize that when most people recommend songs, they only recommend around 3. But this album is just so good I had to recommend a few more.
This is the first time I've tried reviewing in this kind of writing style or form instead of track by track. So feedback on what you think of the review would be appreciated.