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Robert Johnson
King of the Delta Blues Singers


5.0
classic

Review

by John Paul Harrison USER (7 Reviews)
June 2nd, 2006 | 51 replies


Release Date: 1961 | Tracklist


The 1930’s were not kind years. As fertile Midwestern cropland dried up from careless farming techniques, the American economy disintegrated with the 1929 Wall Street Crash- leaving the United States in the throes of turmoil and uncertain about her future. In Europe, Adolph Hitler began fooling his followers whilst Comrade Stalin was busy fooling himself. By 1930 it was official- after a decade of loose behavior and carefree decadence in which America indulged following the wake of the First World War; the West would have to endure the strenuous purgatory of a global depression. With mass food shortages, rampant unemployment, and another armed world conflict looming on the horizon, the American people were in for hard times.

And nobody knew this better than delta-bluesman Robert Johnson.

****************************

You can attach virtually any superlative onto Robert Johnson’s name, and generally it will hole true. He was the greatest bluesman of all time, the most influential black guitarist, the most soulful delta singer, and ultimately- the most tragic figure in blues.

Yet, for all his talent and influence, much of Robert’s life is shrouded in mystery. For starters, only two photographs are known to exist of Johnson, and his premature death has long been speculated to be the result of a poisoning attempt by a jealous lover. The mythic figure is also somewhat of an enigma to understand personally- Robert sung with a flamboyant confidence while on record, yet he once was so frightened that he played an entire show with his back towards the audience- just so he wouldn't have to face them.

Nearly all details on his short life have been gathered from friends and acquaintances, thus calling into question the validity of nearly everything Johnson-related. What is known for certain, however, is that he was a master at his craft- he could play the delta blues better than any one else- past or present, and he possessed the single-most hauntingly lonesome voice in all music of the past century.

And of course, there’s the pact with the Devil.

It has long been rumored that Robert Johnson’s incredible talent had been obtained at the expense of his soul by a fabled encounter with Lucifer. As the legend holds, a young Robert- (who had been laughed out of town for his lacking musical aptitude), went to the crossing of Highways 61 and 49 near Clarksdale, Mississippi with his guitar- arriving just before midnight. From out of the darkness, a well-dressed man with a dark face strolled up to Johnson, tuned the guitar, and then returned it to Robert’s hands. This, it is said, was the transaction that made Johnson the blues virtuoso that he was. While Johnson never directly acknowledged the story to be true, many of his epic songs deal with his strange fascination with (or fear of) the Devil, and his chilling lyrics seem to suggest that he was forever aware that his time on Earth was always in danger of sudden expiration.

(Take for example, Me And the Devil Blues:)

Early this mornin',
Oh, when you knocked upon my door?
And I said, "Hello, Satan,"
I believe it's time to go?


Whether or not the words that he sings have any truth to them, the stories of his contract with Satan- coupled with his unclear death at the age of 28, have only helped solidify his status as the immortal king of the delta blues singers?


************************************************** *********

Robert Johnson took all of the pains and sufferings of these times and reflected them in his immortal music. Wonderfully simple, Johnson omitted intricate details from his playing- leaving us with a stark glimpse at his naked emotions. Deeply personal and often confrontational, Robert Johnson’s played with only his low-budget model guitar- revealing his immense loneliness with eerie precision as he plucked away miserably at the instrument. (And he was fairly good with it, too. Upon first hearing these records, Keith Richards had mistakenly guessed that there were two guitarists playing.)

To describe Robert Johnson’s sound presents quite a challenge, however. His guitar playing is not rhythmic like Muddy Water’s, nor is it flashy like Otis Rush. Instead, Johnson coaxes out a hypnotic kind of swagger in his style, as if encompassing both a rhythm guitarist and a lead player simultaneously. His strength is not in complex melodic leads, but rather the feel he has for his instrument. Many of Robert’s slide riffs are well within the reach of novice players- yet the way he handles them points to a hidden complexity Johnson possessed. After all, there is a reason why Eric Clapton (infamous for inspiring “Clapton is God” graffiti around Britain) calls Robert Johnson ”the most important blues musician who ever lived."

It is completely clear, however, why Johnson’s singing is classic. Unlike any of the talented frontmen who tried to emulate him in the 1960’s, Robert Johnson had a voice that can only be accurately described with one word: pure. When you get right down to it, Johnson led the quintessential bluesman life- and all of that depression, loneliness, and despair is manifest in his recordings. With a “high-lonesome” howl that would come to define the entire genre of county-blues, Johnson would force out high, yodel-like croons about sorrow like nobody else could. Gritty, raw, and powerful- Robert Johnson’s world-weary voice was made for the blues, and rightly do justice to his dark lyrics.

Occasionally he would groan so passionately you’d think life itself had grabbed Robert by the throat- but the true highlights of his music occur when he takes the listener by surprise and speaks to you through your speakers. It is here, when he talks to you from 60 years ago, that you get the sense that there was something more complex lying behind the music- something secret about him. Though his strained voice, you can tell that there’s a secret Johnson’s keeping from us.

These eternal secrets, however, are known to only Robert himself- and the Devil?
__________________________________________________ _______________


Released in 1961, King of the Delta Blues Singers is the record that fired up the imaginations of Clapton, Page, and Richards- and perhaps can be pointed to as the culprit for igniting the British rock explosion of the mid-sixties. True, this album doesn’t include the entire body of Robert’s blues work, (all 29 of his known songs can be found on more inclusive compilations, such as the double-disc set, ?Complete Recordings?)- but if you want to experience the same chilling excitement and wonder that seized your favorite guitar-wielding rock-gods when they were mere teens, then you need to obtain King of The Delta Blues Singers. (If you’re a completionist, the follow-up disc “Vol. 2” will give you Robert’s entire catalogue).

Now, even though I made Johnson out to be the greatest bluesman of all time, he is not without flaw. First-time listeners will be, to say the least, disgruntled by the lack of sound quality to these recordings. To boot, one has to get over the fact that Johnson often slips in and out of time- making it nearly impossible to “groove” with the first few listens. And, as with (honestly) any blues music, there is a danger of repetition. It can take months before an average listener can discern the subtle differences in most of these songs. But, with that being said, this album is a mandatory acquisition for anyone who likes good music. It really is that powerful.

Why? Quite simply, that’s just how Robert Johnson rolls.


Standin? at the crossroads-
I tired to flag a ride?
Aint? nobody seem to know me-
Everybody jus? pass me by?




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user ratings (137)
4.4
superb


Comments:Add a Comment 
John Paul Harrison
June 3rd 2006


1014 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I apologize for not touching on the music more. You know how it is with the blues, though.



Im puzzled as to why this hasnt been reviewed yet.



Jimmy
June 3rd 2006


730 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Fantastic review. I love how at the beginning you set the time period that Robert Johnson was part of. There were only a few sentence structure mistakes, for example...



yet he once was so frightened that he played an entire show with his back towards the audience- just so he would have to face them.



change that to "wouldn't have to face them"



you also said "hole" in there instead of "hold."



Overall, a fantastic review. Robert Johnson is extremely difficult to get into initially. I tried to listen to him when I was 14 or so and it was too difficult for me to listen to the piss poor recordings back then. Once you get over that, this is some of the most powerful music ever recorded.

Zebra
Moderator
June 3rd 2006


2647 Comments


This review was excellent, it was lengthy but there was enough detail to keep me interested. As for Robert Johnson, I haven't heard any of his stuff so I can't really comment.

John Paul Harrison
June 3rd 2006


1014 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Well, thank you Mr. Jimmy. Forgive me for being on crack- I'll tend to the grammar at once.



And it is kind of bizzare that Robert is so hard to get into...

Jimmy
June 3rd 2006


730 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

I guess it's one of those things. I'm surprised that Love in Vain isn't on this compilation. It's my favorite Robert Johnson song.

John Paul Harrison
June 3rd 2006


1014 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

You...don't like Robert?

Bron-Yr-Aur
June 3rd 2006


4405 Comments


Excellent job, John Paul.

person777
June 3rd 2006


20 Comments


Would you recommend this or The Complete Recordings? I liked the review too.This Message Edited On 06.02.06

John Paul Harrison
June 3rd 2006


1014 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Would you recommend this or The Complete Recordings? Awesome review to, I really liked your intro paragraph.




It would your choice- Complete Recordings gives you twice the blues for twice the price. If you're not sure, I'd go with this. Robert Johnson is an aquired taste.

Jimmy
June 3rd 2006


730 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

That's tough. The complete recordings is even more difficult to listen to than this compilation because of how there are multiple versions of many of Robert Johnson's songs. On the complete recordings all of these multiple versions are played directly after the other. I would recommend that you get a compilation first, then if you feel the need to complete your collection to go for the Complete Recordings.

person777
June 3rd 2006


20 Comments


Okay, thanks both of you for the advice.

Bron-Yr-Aur
June 3rd 2006


4405 Comments


In Europe, Adolph Hitler began fooling his followers whilst Comrade Stalin was busy fooling himself.


Greatest sentence ever.

Bron-Yr-Aur
June 3rd 2006


4405 Comments


Comrade. The Ruskies term for "Mr." you know. And they (Hitler and Ol' Josef) were friendly at the beginning of WWII, though apprehensively so. But whatever. Off-topic. By friendly, I mean co-operated and took actions of "friendship". Hitler's intent all along was to capture the Soviet Union for it's resources and to build a greater German empire.This Message Edited On 06.02.06

John Paul Harrison
June 3rd 2006


1014 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Mr. Iluvatar, "Ruskie" is a word for Russian. I think it's a product from the whole "commie bastards", Cold War mentality.



And I didn't intend to sugest that Stalin was a comrade of hitler's, but rather I was using it mockingly as a title for "Uncle Joe".



As a point of intrest, however, this Stalin biography I'm reading tells me that through some sort of half-baked plan to defeat Stalin's rivals, the Soviet Union actually gave small amounts of aid and support to the Nazis. Bit Stalin in the arse, didn't it?

Bron-Yr-Aur
June 3rd 2006


4405 Comments


Did you ever return that biography?

masada
June 3rd 2006


2733 Comments


This is a great review. It could do without all the breakup between paragraphs though.

nukinator
June 3rd 2006


20 Comments


Great review!
I think you covered most of the things you could say about his sound too.

superjoe
June 3rd 2006


8 Comments


good job...this shouldve been done a long time ago.

pattern_recognition
June 3rd 2006


950 Comments


Actually it's spelt 'Russkie'.
Excellent review. Hellhound On My Trail is one of the greatest blues songs ever, IMO.

Two-Headed Boy
June 3rd 2006


4527 Comments


Awesome review, mate. Blues owns, especially roots. I always listen to a bunch of blues in my dad's car, and this, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf take all.



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