Whether Robert Johnson really did sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for fame and fortune, the fact remains that the guitarist is deemed to be one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th Century. And although he died in 1938, under what can only be described as mysterious circumstances, it wasn’t until 1961, when Columbia Records issued the King Of The Delta Blues Singers LP that the secret was out. But rather than America, it was mostly in The U.K. where his music appeared to have had the greatest impact. Both Eric Clapton and Keith Richards have often cited him as having had a profound effect on their lives, along with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. And even if you haven’t heard a single Johnson recording, you’ve certainly heard his songs; and what songs they are: “I believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Rambling On My Mind”, “Love In Vain”, and “Cross Road Blues”, just to name several. The man’s influence was indeed quite extraordinary, to the extent that one would be pretty hard pressed to come across a British blues band in the 1960’s which would not have covered or performed at least one of his tunes. Such was Johnson’s stature amongst many a young and aspiring blues musician in England.
Now some years ago, like any self-respecting music aficionado (or at least trying to be), I went out and bought myself a copy of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, assuming that this would forever be the final word on the man’s legacy. But lo and behold, in 2008, Columbia issued The Centennial Collection, a newly remastered compilation including an alternate version of “Travelin’ Riverside Blues”, which was not included on the previous anthology, raising the total number of recordings to 42 (as compared to 41). And not only that; the sound quality is vastly superior, so much so that it is almost like listening to Johnson in person, astonishing if one considers the age of the music we’re dealing with, and the technology employed at the time it was recorded.
Johnson’s journey as a musician began in 1930, when he befriended a guitarist by the name of Willie Brown, in Robinsonville, someone whom Robert immortalised in his song “Crossroads”. Brown was a good friend of Charlie Patton, at the time the undisputed king of the Delta blues, and who was known for his six-string dexterity, even playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs, long before Jimi Hendrix was even born. Brown introduced Johnson to Son House, whose technique on the slide guitar would become one of Robert’s greatest influences. Often ridiculed by his elders, he disappeared for a while; however when he returned Johnson’s ability on the guitar was so impressive that some claimed he had made a Faustian bargain at a crossroad at midnight.
One thing I must say is that this is incredibly powerful stuff, and I’m not just stating that based on other people’s comments. In this age of over-digitalisation and pop sanitation, hearing Robert Johnson is like sitting around a Ouija board and summoning the spirit of a long deceased soul – which is exactly what these recordings resemble.
None of these tunes last for longer than a couple of minutes or more, but somehow Johnson manages to express in two or three minutes what few can convey in ten. And that voice. Whether he’s singing about “mean things all on my mind”, on “Rambling On My Mind”, or asking his woman to “squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice run down my leg”, this is the blues equivalent to Chaucer, where each song is comparable to a whole chapter in itself, because this is story-telling at its best. Nearly everything you need to know about the art form is all contained here, in the comfort of your living room, and without having to keep swapping over all those 78 records every few minutes.
There’s no doubt that Robert Johnson is more popular today than he was when he was alive. Though one has to wonder what Johnson himself would have made of Clapton’s version of “Crossroads” had he lived. Though one thing’s for sure, without H C Speir, none of these recordings would even exist.
We’ll never truly know if Johnson actually believed in the Devil, but based on these extant recordings, the man was clearly haunted by something. Just listening to songs such as “Hellhound On My Trail” and “Me and the Devil”, speak volumes about the man’s psyche, and help perpetuate the legend of someone who was tortured by demons of some kind or another. And when he died, at the age of 27, some say by poisoning after befriending another man’s wife, even where he was buried remains a mystery. So many things we’ll never know. Except all that we do know, is that hearing Robert Johnson is about the most emotive and haunting experience one can have on a late night when you’re all alone, well for me anyway, especially if it’s during a full moon.