It seems odd, but probably wise, that nowhere in this definitive collection of Robert Johnson’s forty-one surviving blues recordings is there a single mention of the Robert Johnson Myth. We all know it by now: the young amateur who made a deal with the devil at a dark Mississippi Delta crossroads, disappeared for a year and then returned home to astound all the more seasoned performers who had laughed at him with music of almost supernatural power and presence and an undercurrent of impending doom.
What we have in Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings are solid facts in Stephen C. LaVere’s meticulously researched liner notes, brief appreciations of Johnson by Keith Richards (“He was like a comet or a meteor that came along and, BOOM, suddenly he raised the ante, suddenly you just had to aim that much higher”) and Eric Clapton (“I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice, really”), lyrics and photos. And, of course, we have the songs — digitally clarified and, as expected, at least as powerful and affecting as ever.
Robert Johnson recorded twenty-nine songs in 1936 and 1937 — alternate takes, previously bootlegged and only rarely revelatory, bring the total here to forty-one — and then vanished into the murky Mississippi Delta world of juke joints, voodoo lore, violence, grand plantation houses for whites and perpetually indentured black sharecroppers who worked in the cotton fields all week and were serious about their Saturday nights. Johnson was fatally poisoned by a jealous husband or boyfriend shortly before fame caught up with him in the person of Columbia’s John Hammond, who wanted him for the historic 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert, at Carnegie Hall, in New York, Fame, finding nothing left but a legend, passed him by, but only for a while. Even in these last prosaic facts, the Myth lurks. In “Sweet Home Chicago,” Johnson played and sang as if anticipating the effect his music would have on the electric-blues scene in Chicago ten years later, and the last line he sang at his last session posed a question to which he would soon find the terminal answer: “Well, now, can you suck on some other man’s bull cow … in this strange man’s town?”
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The Robert Johnson recordings are musical art of the highest order, as rich and transcendent as anything produced by an American musician in this century — surely only a racist or classist would argue otherwise. Was he really the greatest blues singer-guitarist-songwriter of all? Listening to Johnson in Frank Abbey’s lovingly restored and remastered new versions, the question seems almost irrelevant. Johnson was a great one, all right, and a bluesman to the bottom of his soul. But at his most original, when he is also most chilling, Johnson blows genre considerations and invidious comparisons right out the window.
“Hellhound on My Trail” and “Love in Vain,” both from his last session, are idiosyncratic constructions that defy time in their musical daring and emotional immediacy. “Hellhound,” with its moving inner voices and dissonant, nontempered chords in the guitar accompaniment, is so vivid it’s as much life as art. So are “Cross Road Blues” and “Me and the Devil Blues,” but unlike the formally singular “Hellhound,” these are blues to the marrow. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” asks Keith Richards. “Well, this is it.”
Technically, Johnson the guitarist was an anomaly. He could sing and play cross-rhythms on the guitar, relating the parts in such complex syncopations that, as Richards notes, “You think, ‘This guy must have three brains!'” Johnson also occasionally “breaks time,” dropping a half beat or a half bar, apparently without realizing it (“Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Honeymoon Blues”), which caused more technically conventional bluesmen to snicker. Yet could any of them have brought off the hesitations, sprung the offbeat accents and other polyrhythmic byplay — mercurial figures derived from sources as diverse as Son House, the recordings of Kokomo Arnold and Johnson’s own teeming imagination — that Johnson had mastered? More important, could any of his contemporaries have come close to equaling the sheer force and the haunted immediacy Johnson communicated? This, finally, is his bid for status as “the greatest”: No other bluesman left a studio portrait that seems to come moaning and howling from the darkest recesses of his soul. The music has a power that age cannot dim. Familiarity with his work, even over many years, breeds only a finer appreciation and a more acute sense of awe.
Johnson left his mark on popular music primarily during two eras. On steady-rocking dance tunes like “Sweet Home Chicago,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man,” he crafted complete orchestral guitar accompaniments that set a driving shuffle rhythm, accented with stinging treble-string bottleneck leads, sketched in a bass line and even suggested figures suitable for piano chording. In Chicago in the Forties and early Fifties, Muddy Waters and Elmore James, among others, realized these arrangements-in-embryo as full band numbers and made “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Dust My Broom” postwar standards. These songs had their effect on rock & roll, but they did not equal the impact of the first Johnson LP reissue, King of the Delta Blues Singers, on the first generation of Sixties blues-based white rockers. Whether you’re talking about the Stones, the Yardbirds or Led Zeppelin, Johnson gave them all a fright, encouraged them, pushed them to play more than they knew and perhaps to find out things they did not need to know. But the last bit is part of the Myth, and every listener will finally have to come to terms with that myth in an individual, intuitively personal way.
The Myth cannot be ignored; the music can’t be beat. Except for one or two questionable transcriptions that are of no great import, this singularly important reissue can’t be beat, either. As Johnson sings on “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” “The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby, hoo hoo, it’ll make you lose your mind.”