The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Collection

Robert Johnson

Columbia / Legacy, 2011

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The entire recorded catalogue of seminal blues musician Robert Johnson consists of 29 songs, spare, primitive recordings featuring just his voice and acoustic guitar, collected here and supplemented by 13 alternate takes and a pair of fragments that still survive. There’s nothing especially impressive about the recordings themselves, made under modest conditions in 1936 and 1937 and still a bit rough around the edges even after decades of work to optimize them with modern sound technology. But don’t let any of that fool you; this collection is the Rosetta Stone of modern popular music, the single most important and influential set of musical recordings of the 20th century.

What’s most remarkable about hearing Robert Johnson’s songs—which would provide both musical foundation and inspiration for artists from BB King to Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin—is the way your mind rebels and wants to reverse the direction that the influence flowed. “Oh, he sings that line like Muddy Waters.” “Hey, that song is structured like early rock—Chuck or Elvis.” “Damn, his falsetto sounds so much like Little Richard.” Except all of that is precisely backwards—they all sound like him.

At the time, Robert Johnson sounded like no one else. Yes, there were plenty of blues artists working the same Mississippi Delta street corners, house parties, and juke joints that Johnson did—Son House, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Elmore James, Johnny Shines and Hound Dog Taylor, to name a few—but his approach to song structure, vocal performance, and especially guitar playing were so far ahead of their time that it seems impossible these recordings date from the 1930s. (Indeed, part of Johnson’s legend—possibly self-invented—involves a supposed deal with the devil that allowed him to go from a relative beginner to a string-bending guitar hero in the space of a couple of years.)

This album takes the 16 tracks originally released on Columbia Records in 1961 as King Of The Delta Blues Singers and adds every single Johnson recording still in existence, including 13 alternate takes and two fragments. If you knew nothing about music history, it might not sound like much—just a rather haunted-sounding man singing the blues, accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar. But this set of recordings has inspired generations of musical artists and played a foundational role in the formation of genres from rhythm and blues and boogie to rock and roll and hip-hop.

The most familiar songs jump out first. Anyone alive who has listened to more than one blues album has probably heard someone’s version of “Sweet Home Chicago”; Johnson’s song has been a standard for nearly a century now, covered by artists too numerous to list. “Love In Vain Blues” was covered by the Rolling Stones when they played the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, and Keb’ Mo’ more recently. And Eric Clapton made “Crossroads Blues” famous enough to name his own festival after it, though Robert Johnson wrote it.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A clean listen front to back reveals so much more, though. When Johnson goes into falsetto on the opening track “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” every hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. People have literally been imitating that sound for 85 years since. When he ramps up the tempo on “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” you’re hearing the birth of rhythm and blues (and eventually also rock and roll). When you hear how he sings “Terraplane Blues”—the cadence and emphasis and phrasing—you hear Muddy Waters, BB King, John Lee Hooker. Except Johnson came first; he created the template for every major blues artist since—a template that they’ve built on and embellished and evolved, yes, but this is what they were building on and embellishing and evolving, right here.

From there it’s a straight line to Clapton, who recorded an entire album of Johnson songs (Me and Mr. Johnson, 2004) after years of covering them; “Walkin’ Blues” and “Malted Milk” both appear on MTV Unplugged, on which Clapton pays extended homage to the acoustic Delta blues of Johnson and his peers. (Clapton has called Johnson “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”) In a similar vein, if “Traveling Riverside Blues” sounds familiar, it’s probably because Led Zeppelin covered it. As Robert Plant admits, “A lot of English musicians were very fired up by Robert Johnson, [to] whom we all owe more or less our existence.” (Both quotes from Johnson’s Wikipedia page, as well as the following one.) Even folk-rock icon Bob Dylan took something from Johnson’s work: “In about 1964 and '65, I probably used about five or six of Robert Johnson's blues song forms, too, unconsciously, but more on the lyrical imagery side of things… [His] code of language was like nothing I'd heard before or since.”

Moving on, when you get to “They’re Red Hot,” you hear Johnson using different vocal registers and inflections to portray different characters, and then switching to spoken word on the bridge, all strategies that others would employ and expand upon over the years to come. When you hear the original recording of “Crossroads Blues,” you understand immediately why it grabbed Clapton and never let go—the urgency and emotion in Johnson’s voice is remarkable and compelling. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” along with “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Kindhearted Women Blues,” have all been memorably covered by Keb’ Mo’, who was drafted to portray Johnson in the 1997 docudrama Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl.

Over the 30 years following these recording sessions, Johnson’s songs would be covered by Elmore James, BB King, Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, Cream and more. But Johnson didn’t survive to learn what an influence his work would have. He was, in fact, the founding member of popular music’s infamous 27 Club, dying before his 28th birthday after being poisoned by a man whose wife he had been romancing (or at least, so the legend goes).

There can be no argument that Johnson was a major figure in the blues tradition. One thing critics do still argue over is the degree of influence that Johnson had on rock and roll. But the facts on this point seem clear to this listener: you can’t dismiss the significance of Johnson to rock and roll without doing the same for Chuck Berry, who openly acknowledged how his early attempts at the new sound were essentially amped-up variations on Robert Johnson’s unique approach to the guitar.

Robert Johnson’s The Complete Collection is essentially unratable, given that most of the popular music that every person alive today grew up listening to is in some fashion derived from it. It’s tempting to give it an “E” for Essential, but that feels much too cute for a collection this fundamental, instrumental, and indeed monumental in the history of recorded music.

Rating: A

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