Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers
Released 1961

When it came to putting together the 60 list for afyccim I was torn as to whether “King of the Delta Blues Singers” by Robert Johnson should be included. Technically these songs are of the 30s where they were original released as 78-rpm singles. They were put together on this compilation and release in early 1961. This album deserves its place here because it was this release that sparked a whole new generation of blues players, as well as having a massive influence on the direction that blues would take as became this thing called rock.

Robert Johnson was an interesting character about which there is folklore abound. It is said that as a young lad he would go to see blues legends Son House and Charlie Patton play. He was a competent jaw harp player at the time but what he really wanted was to be a guitar player, despite appear to have little talent for it. Johnson went travelling for two years and came back a brilliant guitarist. Legend has it that he met the devil at an out of the way crossroads, and traded his soul to become the greatest blues guitarist of all time. Johnny Shines, who often accompanied Johnson at gigs is quoted as saying “some of the things that Robert did with the guitar affected the way everybody played. He’d do rundowns and turnbacks. He’d do repeats. None of this was being done. In the early 30’s, boogie on the guitar was rare, something to be heard. Because of Robert, people learned to complement  themselves, carrying their own bass as their own lead with this one instrument.” Whilst his guitar playing is astonishing he is also revered for his voice. He was known to use microtonality to slightly change the pitch of his voice as he sang. When Johnson played it sounded so much bigger than just one man with an acoustic guitar.

It was not until the release of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” that Johnson actually started to be really noticed. The thing I love most about this album is that it is obvious that Johnson was so far ahead of his time. There was no one else making music like this when he was. The release of the album in 1961 went on to have a big influence on the rock guys coming up at that time. When you listen to some of the tracks here you can hear how he went on to influence them. His influence on blues guys Muddy Waters to Howlin’Wolf and Elmore James is undeniable. And in turn they, alongside Johnson, went on to influence a whole new generation of artists, particularly the new rock scene that was developing. Without this Eric Clapton, Keith Richard and the Stones, Led Zeppelin…. They all would have sounded very different. Clapton called Johnson “The most important blues singer that ever lived”. But for me it’s Robert Plant of Led Zeppeling that put it best, “Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way.”

As a fan of blues music I thoroughly enjoyed this week’s offering.  This to me is the birthplace of blues. All of the blues artists I love wouldn’t exist without Robert Johnson. The songs are simple stripped down song but often sounds as if there are two guitars playing. The whole time Johnson sings in such an emotive way. It is at times hard to understand exactly what he is singing but I don’t think that really matters. He uses his voice as an instrument so you can tune out from the lyrics and just enjoy the music. The way he bangs on the body of his guitar and whoops and hollers is just something else. Favourite tracks for me included ‘Walkin’ Blues’, ’32-20 Blues’, ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ and ‘Hellhound on my Trail’. It appears there are many way in which one can have the blues. The thing I love most about this album though is that without it music as we know it today would be very different. I completely fell in love with this album this week. I’m so glad I had the sense to put it on the list.

So this album made feel very sleepy, even under normal circumstances. Now, as I’m writing this, I’m recovering from a very late night out with Ang and Clay. I’m listening to “King Of The Delta Blues Singers” as I wrote this, and it is not conducive to me writing the words out good. But we push on.
First thing’s first. I listened to this album on noise cancelling headphones, and the constant static noise going on during each track drove me nuts. I found the break between tracks a much needed respite. Maybe y’all brought up on vinyl can deal with it, but I’m a high definition kid, and struggle big style. Though, to be fair, this album was recorded in the freaking 1930s. They weren’t exactly recording in digital quadrophonic sound. And given the age of the recording, you’ve gotta give it to Robert Johnson. He was a fair dinkum pioneer of the southern blues style. You just can’t argue. He was before them all. All the other big blues albums – guys like Muddy Waters and Willy Dixon were all from the 60s (and fair enough, that’s what we’re focused on), but they weren’t the first. Robert Johnson is not my cup of tea, but you gotta give credit where credit’s due. I wish I could break the songs down, but they all sound so similar to me, I struggle to differentiate. I know I’ll be crucified by blues fans, and that’s cool, I’m happy to be enlightened. I will say that Johnson’s guitaring is timeless. It wouldn’t be out of place in modern blues at all, nearly eighty years later. I respect the hell out of you Robert Johnson. Without you we wouldn’t have the likes of Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix. And that world would suck.

Well, another member of the 27 club that I had never even heard of! But as with many significant musicians, it turns out that Robert Johnson’s work has found its way into many modern artists’ catalogues; imagine my surprise when after about 4 listens I realised that Crossroad blues has been re-worked on one of my recent purchases, John Mayer’s Battle Studies (coincidentally released on the same label as Johnson, Columbia), presented as simply ‘Crossroads’.  It’s almost unrecognisable with its funk bass line and upbeat tempo, but I picked it out when I heard the name of Willie Brown mentioned in the song. This opening track, believed to be the story of Johnson selling his soul to the devil in return for his guitar playing skills, became my favourite of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” because it pretty much epitomised everything contained on the album. Despite the fact that I didn’t overly like listening to this album it’s hard to ignore the obvious; Johnson’s distinctive blues-style wail, granted I couldn’t really understand what he was saying most of the time, but still, you can see his influence on other singers to follow him. The other thing notable of mention is of course his ‘devilishly-good’ guitar playing skills. It’s hard to tell, but there is only one guitar playing on this record, even though it sounds like more because of Johnson’s technique of playing a bass line on the bottom strings, while playing the lead guitar melody on the top strings. This boogie-woogie style was a technique that would revolutionise guitar technique from then on.  As you can probably gather, this album was not really my cup of tea, but it’s worthy of a listen due to its historical significance to the development of blues and ultimately rock music.

“‘If you have a good friend have him stay right by your side.’ Robert Johnson said that. ‘How many hairs on Rin Tin Tin?’ I said that.”

That’s how Paul Kelly introduces ‘Careless’ on his “Live, May 1992” album. Almost sixty years after ‘When You Got a Good Friend’ was recorded, it still resonated enough with Kelly to share the influence Robert Johnson had on him. An influence that can be heard across the decades and countries in many artists. This compilation contains many lyrics and innuendos that have gone on to become blues clichés and it can be seen as ground zero for the genre. Lines that I’d first heard in songs by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Muddy Waters all came from these recordings. Mr Johnson was a master of the blues euphemism, or if you will, ‘bluephemism’. It’s pretty hard to top “You can squeeze my lemon till/Juice run down my leg” from ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’ and I wonder how it was received in 1937. Despite being recorded back then, this album wasn’t put together and released until 1961, famously leaving its mark on Eric Clapton. When Cream performed a radical reworking of the record’s opening track ‘Cross Road Blues’ (and re-titled it ‘Crossroads’) they introduced Robert Johnson to a wider audience; although many musicians were already clued in. Johnson’s guitar work is pretty phenomenal and his ability to play bass notes along with little blues riffs and sing at the same time shows immense talent, particularly for that era. I’ve made no secret of my hatred of the blues, but I didn’t mind this too much. It gets a little monotonous for me after the eighth or ninth song, but I enjoyed this album more than the other afyccim blues albums put together.

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