The 1961 blues record King of the Delta Blues Singers by Robert Johnson is a legendary recording that was released at just the right time. Johnson had been dead for over twenty years by the time this LP was put out, but it became one of the most influential recordings for some of the biggest names in music. There was a growing interest in folk and blues music at the time, and owning a copy of this record was a badge of being hip. Musicians from America and England studied this music intensely, namely Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Steve Miller, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and so many more.
Many of the details of Robert Johnson’s life are vague and surrounded in mystery. This has just added to the legend of this Delta Bluesman. He was born in Mississippi in 1911, and started out on harmonica. Also, in the beginning he was a lousy guitar player. He disappeared for a while, and when he was seen again, he had a ferocious guitar technique. This has led to the story that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar skills, while standing at the “crossroads”. Johnson was very protective of his musical style, and if he saw someone in the audience studying him too hard, he would pack up and leave before someone stole his tricks. Some of his original compositions have added to the devilish legend, with titles like “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Hellhound On My Trail”, and some the lyrics of “Cross Road Blues”.
Research into Robert Johnson’s life is a frustratingly impossible task. He traveled constantly, from Memphis, Tennessee to Helena, Arkansas and all through the Mississippi Delta. He would stay sometimes with extended family members, and often times with women with whom he cultivated a relationship. He used at least eight different surnames as he traveled, and the woman in the current town surely didn’t know of the woman in the next. He would play on the street corner, in juke joints, in bars and anywhere he could make some money playing. He often played popular songs and whatever people wanted to hear, but he’s best known today for his original compositions. They come from two recording sessions, one in 1936 and the other in 1937. The first, in November of 1936, was set up by Brunswick Records in a makeshift recording studio in a room at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. Robert Johnson played into a corner of the room (for added reverberation) and recorded his original songs. The raw emotion and authentic despair in the singing is so powerful. He accompanies himself on guitar with a complex and difficult finger style technique. Just one man, his guitar, his songs, on recordings made to fit the limits of one side of a 78 rpm record — but more emotion is packed into each song than you could find in a 45 minute Mahler Symphony. This is the raw, real output of a musician who had mastered his style. Many feel they are the sounds of a tortured soul.
Robert Johnson died in 1938. He has at least three gravestones throughout Mississippi, with no one knowing for sure which is the real grave. The story is that he was murdered by a jealous husband who took offense to Robert flirting with his wife. Sonny Boy Williamson, another blues giant, had warned Johnson not to drink from a bottle he had not personally seen opened. Williamson went so far as to knock a bottle of whiskey from Johnson’s hand, but Johnson did not heed the warnings. He eventually drank from a bottle that was poisoned by the jealous husband, and took three long days to die, at the young age of 27. Without those recordings, we might never even know the name Robert Johnson, or any of his songs. There are only two known photographs of the man, and 29 songs that were recorded. Those 29 songs have gone on to influence rock and roll in ways no one at the time could have imagined. I’ve always listened to Johnson’s songs from a re-release of The Complete Recordings. Today, I would recommend The Centennial Collection: The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson, a 2011 remastering of the recordings that is the best sound available. It is essential listening, and devilishly good stuff.