There are few musicians as legendary, as essential to the history of their genre as Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson is to the blues. Perhaps only Hank Williams (country), Elvis Presley (rock 'n' roll), and Charlie Parker (jazz) cast as long a shadow on their respective musical styles as does Johnson. It doesn't hurt his legacy that a larger-than-life mythology has grown up around the enigmatic Delta bluesman, or that his life is largely shrouded in mystery, and that his youthful death at the age of 27 remains a subject of academic and historic controversy.
What is certain is that Johnson seemingly emerged out of nowhere as a great blues vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist that reportedly shook hands with the devil in a Faustian bargain to obtain his immense talents. Only two known photographs exist of the guitarist, and in spite of the general confusion about the specifics of Johnson's life as a wandering blues troubadour, we know that in 1936 and 1937, Johnson made his way westward to San Antonio and Dallas, Texas to record 29 songs that were destined to change the course of blues music history.
King Of The Delta Blues Singers
Because of his itinerant ways, wandering from town to town across the southeast and performing in juke-joints and on street corners, Johnson experienced little commercial success during the brief six years (1932-38) that he plied his trade. Although he sometimes traveled with bluesmen like the younger Johnny Shines or Robert Lockwood Jr., Johnson would disappear from an area for months, and his music had little impact, at the time, on but a few musicians that he had personal contact with like David "Honeyboy" Edwards.
In 1961, Columbia Records released King of the Delta Blues Singers on vinyl, the album representing the first modern-era release of Johnson's performances. To say that the 16 songs included on the album had a major impact would be an understatement, King of the Delta Singers firing the imagination of young British musicians like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Keith Richards and others, jump-starting the British blues-rock boom of the 1960s. The album would have a profound effect on American musicians like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix as well, and would go on to be successfully reissued in various incarnations in the decades to come, including a second volume in 1970 with unreleased songs. Digging up every extant Johnson recording, Sony Music released The Complete Recordings as a two-disc set in 1990, earning the producers a Grammy™ Award and selling a truckload of copies.
Robert Johnson's The Centennial Collection
The Centennial Collection was released as a celebration of what would have been Johnson's 100th birthday. Truth is, Johnson only ever cut 29 original songs in his lifetime, with a handful of alternate takes pushing the number of performances up to 42, and The Centennial Collection differs from The Complete Recordings set only in sequencing and in slightly improved sound...there's only so much you can do when sourcing from antique 78rpm shellac recordings. Throw some interesting new liner notes from historians Ted Gioia and Stephen C. LaVere into a lavishly-illustrated CD booklet and you've accomplished putting a modern sheen on the same old songs....
These are some great old songs, however, regardless of the format in which they're preserved. The Centennial Collection shuffles the song sequencing somewhat and sticks the alternate takes at the end of each disc, behind the original versions, which makes for smoother listening. The improved re-mastering doesn't seem compressed, and the songs are heard with a nice flow. The first CD, taken from the 1936 San Antonio sessions, offers up some of Johnson's most popular material among its 16 songs, from the often-recorded "Kind Hearted Woman Blues," which offers up sweetly warbled vocals and laid-back fretwork, to the blues standard "Sweet Home Chicago," a spry stomp with soulful vocals and a vamping rhythm.
Hell Hound On My Trail
Johnson's sly "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," with an incredible descending guitar riff, would later be re-worked into a hit by the Johnson-influenced slide-guitar master Elmore James, while the up-tempo rocker "Terraplane Blues," the closest Johnson ever came to a hit song during his short career, is an overlooked gem in the bluesman's catalog. The well-trodden "Cross Road Blues" loses not a lick of its emotional power due to familiarity, Johnson's arcane tale as potent today as it was in 1936. "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" is equally strong, Johnson sounding like Blind Willie Johnson with his apocalyptic lyrics, haunting vocals, and energetic guitarplay.
The second CD of The Centennial Collection documents the 13 song 1937 Dallas sessions and includes some of Johnson's most moving and lasting work. Most notable, of course, is Johnson's "Hell Hound On My Trail," the singer's chilling voice wrapped around darkly poetic lyrics, accompanied by imaginative fretwork. In the same vein, "Me And The Devil Blues" offers a taut performance, Johnson's voice often rising to a spine-tingling high falsetto. "Love In Vain Blues" is another often-covered Johnson song, and here it's delivered as an almost unbearable romantic lament while "I'm A Steady Rollin' Man" is a tale of lonely life on the road.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
There's not much that can be said about Johnson's life and these 29 original songs that hasn't been rehashed and worn out by critics, academics, and historians for 50 years since the release of King Of The Delta Blues Singers. If you don't already have a copy of Johnson's The Complete Recordings on your shelf, then get thee hence to a record store (or online) and get your copy of The Centennial Collection, the latest and greatest reissuing of these blues classics. These are the songs that modern blues and rock music were built on, and if you're a blues fan and have never heard Robert Johnson, you've only been hearing half of the story. (Sony Legacy Recordings, released April 26, 2011)
Guide Disclosure: A review copy of this CD, DVD, or book was provided by the record label, publisher, or publicist. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.