Saturday, May 2, 2009

May 2: Robert Johnson, "King Of The Delta Blues"

Artist: Robert Johnson
Album: King Of The Delta Blues
Year: Recorded: 1936/1937 Released: 1997
Label: Columbia/Legacy

When it comes to the best in blues music, there is honestly only one place you can start: the beginning. When it comes to the roots of blues music, they all converge on one mythic figure, Robert Johnson. An influence on everyone from John Lee Hooker to the Rolling Stones, Robert Johnson is to the blues what Charlie Parker is to jazz. However, due to how early he appears in the history of music, one can easily make the case that it is his influence that began the fusion of blues into what eventually became rock and roll. Recording up until his mysterious death in 1938, the only way to hear Johnson is on the multitude of compilations that have been gathered over the decades. Though there are many, in 1997, Columbia Records took the two finest collections (both called King Of The Delta Blues) and combined them into a single disc still titled King Of The Delta Blues. The collection is a focused group of Johnson's best recordings, leaving the "collectors only" type tracks out, and making this the perfect introduction into perhaps the most famous figure in the history of music.

When it comes to myths and legends of music, they nearly all started with Robert Johnson. He is, in fact, the man believed to have sold his soul to the devil at a barren Mississippi crossroads. As the legend goes, Johnson was a young man working on a plantation in the deep south. Wanting to be a famous musician, he was told to go to the crossroads near Dockery's plantation. The legend says that at the crossroads, Johnson met a huge black man who took his guitar, tuned it, and handed it back to him. From that point on, Johnson was able to write and play the greatest blues songs ever; allegedly in exchange for his soul. His death holds as much lore as his deal with the devil. Johnson was scheduled to play at Carnegie Hall, but just before the performance, news reached New York that Johnson was dead. As the story goes, he had been poisoned by a jealous girlfriend. That in itself is tragic, but the stories that still circulate, originally told by those at the show at which he died, add to the legend of Robert Johnson. Johnson was said to collapse to the floor, foaming at the mouth, crawling on all fours and hissing and acting like a crazed dog. His last words were said to be, "I pray that my redeemer will come and take me from my grave." Buried in an unmarked grave, in a simple pine box, many feel that the final days of his life solidify the truth behind the tale of his deal with the devil. His death was further pushed into legend with the FACT that there are three different headstones for Johnson, all on the outskirts of Greenwood, Mississippi. (NOTE: There are more "realistic" documentations of his final days, but the "romantic" version are far better, aren't they?)

When you study and consider the magnitude of the recordings of Robert Johnson, it is impossible to deny the massive impact he has had on nearly all of the music since his time. The influence of Robert Johnson was most clearly evident in the late 1960's blues-rock explosion. While many artists payed tribute to Johnson during this time, the most famous instances are when Led Zeppelin covered "Traveling Riverside Blues," the Rolling Stones covered "Love In Vain," and countless artists, most famously The Blues Brothers, have covered "Sweet Home Chicago." Perhaps the most iconic, and telling tale of Johnson, the simply titled "Crossroads" was turned into a Top 10 hit by blues-rock master, Eric Clapton. Nearly all of the great guitar players and bluesmen in history cite Johnson as a major influence, and most music lovers agree that Johnson's name belongs with names like Presley, Lennon, and Davis when it comes to lasting influence over the entire spectrum of musical genres. Truly, few artists have had as far reaching (in both time as well as range in musical styles) an impact in such a short time as a performer as did Robert Johnson.

Thanks in large part to the technology of the day, the release of King Of The Delta Blues features easily the best sounding and clearest re-masterings of the songs of Robert Johnson to date. When you listen to the recordings of Robert Johnson, you are treated to amazing blues in their purest form. The recordings are nothing more than Johnson, his guitar, and a microphone. From more standard, slow blues to early traces of what would become John Lee Hooker's trademark "boogie blues," Johnson laid down the basic elements for every incarnation of blues in just a few short years. In many cases, Johnson's voice is an instrument within itself, providing magnificent harmonies with his guitar. The songs themselves are clearly introspective, and the "demons" that haunted Johnson throughout his life are well documented within the lyrics. The beauty and emotion that characterize blues music is ever present on King Of The Delta Blues, and it is the unembellished honest that catapulted Johnson to the top of the list of great Delta Blues singers. From the woes of long travel to evil women to the myth-fueling "Hell Hounds On My Tail," every Johnson lyric is a perfectly constructed blues masterpiece.

Robert Johnson is a music legend in every sense of the word. From his stunning recordings, to the myriad of tales about his life and death, the influence of Robert Johnson is still felt to this day. Playing simple, soft acoustic blues and singing heartfelt, soul bearing lyrics over them, Robert Johnson shaped the basics of nearly every form of the blues that would follow, as well as the foundations for what became rock and roll. Countless compilations of the recordings of Robert Johnson have been released over the years, but the most focused and accessible of all these collections is the 1997 Columbia Records release, King Of The Delta Blues. This album is an unquestionable essential for anyone and everyone who loves music of any genre, style, or era. The reality is, without a comprehensive understanding of this album and artist, one simply cannot have a complete perspective on all of the music that has come since the time of Robert Johnson.

Standout tracks: "Cross Road Blues," "Hell Hound On My Tail," and "Love In Vain."

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