Robert Johnson

TrackFirst recording
Terraplane BluesVocalion 03416 (23 Nov 1936)
I Believe I'’ll Dust My BroomVocalion 03475 (23 Nov 1936)
Cross Road BluesVocalion 03519 (27 Nov 1936)
Come On In My KitchenVocalion 03563 (23 Nov 1936)
Walkin’' BluesVocalion 03601 (27 Nov 1936)
Hell Hound On My TrailVocalion 03623 (20 Jun 1937)
Me And The Devil BluesVocalion 04108 (20 Jun 1937)
Preachin'’ BluesVocalion 04630 (27 Nov 1936)
Travelling Riverside BluesReleased in 1961 (20 Jun 1937)
If I Had Possession Over Judgement DayReleased in 1961 (27 Nov 1936)

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Contributor: Cal Taylor

This top 10 is in chronological order of release and the last item in the list is Robert Johnson’s version of Roll & Tumble Blues – see narrative below.

I cannot think of a bigger ‘stepping stone’ in the history of rock and pop music than Robert Johnson – his importance cannot be overstated. The Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller Band, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Rolling Stones (to name but a few) have all recorded Robert Johnson records – yet, amazingly, he only recorded in two years; 1936 and 1937, over three quarters of a century ago.

Robert Johnson was hugely influential. Muddy Waters, who recorded Johnson’s Kind Hearted Woman in 1948, acknowledged in his 1941 interviews with Alan Lomax his awareness of Johnson’s guitar playing prowess, which he had heard on his records. Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf were contemporaries of Johnson and played with him in the 1930s – both later recorded Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, (as Dust My Broom). Elmore James died aged only 45 in 1963 and Johnson’s influence is clear to hear on most of James’ recordings. Howlin’ Wolf recorded his own classics in the 1950s and 1960s and was always indebted in part to Charley Patton and Robert Johnson.

However, Robert Johnson was not only influential – he was influenced, too. Although many modern artists owe much to Robert Johnson, in turn, he owed a lot to other artists that went before him – people such as Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr, Son House, Skip James, Lonnie Johnson, Hambone Willie Newbern, Charley Patton and Peetie Wheatstraw. You can tell that Johnson borrowed some of their music but there was something extra special about him – he was a bit more different, a bit more vibrant, a bit more strident and an unsurpassed virtuose guitarist. He also had an advantage compared with some of his forebears in that his 29 different recordings were well made and able to be reproduced with clarity for modern day consumption, unlike many earlier Blues artists whose original masters were lost and can only be heard from recordings of worn recordings.

I first heard Robert Johnson over fifty years ago – just a single track Preachin’ Blues (on an import LP The Country Blues compiled by Samuel Charters on the American RBF label, which was part of Folkways) before I speculatively purchased his iconic King Of The Delta Blues LP (on American CBS label) in 1964. It was a life-changing moment for me when I first heard these 16 unbelievable tracks and they’re still unbelievable today! You could say that I haven’t looked back since – but that would be the wrong phrase to use – as it heightened my interest in pre-war Blues and made me look back further into where this wonderful music came from!

It has been extremely difficult to choose a top 10 because the standard of his recordings was so consistently high. Kind Hearted Woman Blues, Sweet Home Chicago, Rambling On My Mind, Phonograph Blues, Stones In My Passway, From Four Till Late and Love In Vain could have all made my top 10 – plus maybe another different ten! But … the ones I have chosen are all classics. Take a listen and see where much of today’s music comes from.

Robert Johnson is a massive link in rock/pop history. Hambone Willie Newbern recorded Roll & Tumble Blues in 1929. Robert Johnson recorded it as If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day in 1936. Muddy Waters and Elmore James as Rollin’ And Tumblin’ recorded the same song in 1950 and 1960 respectively. Howlin’ Wolf recorded his version as Down In The Bottom in 1961. On this occasion these revered three did not copy Robert Johnson’s recording as it was not released before 1961 – but his influence was there in abundance. However, later that decade, Cream (1966), Canned Heat (1967), Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band as Sure ’nuff ‘n Yes I Do (1968) and Johnny Winter (1969), all did their versions – I’m sure all motivated by one or other of those illustrious predecessors. Through the 70s, 80s and 90s more renditions followed and even into this century Bob Dylan and Cyndi Lauper were reincarnating Roll & Tumble Blues.

Much is owed to that unsung hero, Hambone Willie Newbern, for recording Roll & Tumble. (Is this the original rock ‘n’ roll record?) However, nothing is straightforward in life and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers 1928 recording of Minglewood Blues includes traces of Roll & Tumble

These days it is very easy (and cheap) to obtain all of the recordings of Robert Johnson, including alternative takes. Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings can be found on Sony BMG (EAN no. 0886972967523) with several similar 2 CD box sets issued on other labels, including Charly and Not Now. For those interested in looking where Robert Johnson’s music came from there is a 23 track CD by various artists called Back To The Crossroads on Yazoo (YAZCD2070).

Much has been written about Robert Johnson but many hard facts still escape us. In 1961 when CBS (US) first re-released sixteen of his 1936/1937 recordings, the liner notes on the album contained several errors including implying that Robert might have been only 17 or 18 when he recorded, less than two years before his death. Subsequently, after much research by many people, definite facts have been established. He was born in 1911 and died at only 27 on 16th August 1938. The cause of his death is not absolutely certain but the most commonly-held view is that he was murdered by a jealous husband who poisoned his drink. What is not in dispute though is his legacy of the wonderful 29 different songs by which he will be remembered – all were recorded in Texas; 16 in San Antonio in November 1936 and 13 in Dallas seven months later in June 1937. They were, and are, magnificent.

Robert Johnson Blues Foundation

Robert Johnson biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #55

1 Comment

  1. Peter Viney
    Aug 29, 2013

    I enjoyed the article, Cal.

    Will Hodgkinson’s “Guitar Man” is an account of starting to learn guitar in his thirties, with lessons from Bert Jansch, Johnny Marr, Roger McGuinn and others. The chapter ‘Another Soul for Sale’ is on seeking out Robert Johnson’s original crossroads:

    “I expected a lonely, isolated spot surrounded by flat expanses of cotton fields, where every ten minutes or so a giant lorry would roar past and cut through the darkness and the chorus of chirping crickets. What I got was a brightly lit intersection with a garage on one side and a row of fast food chain restaurants on the other. There was a stream of traffic and a dirty tin sign featuring two guitars crossed together, under which, in case anyone was left in any doubt was the word “Crossroads.” (Will Hodgkinson, 2006)

    Hodgkinson stood there with his guitar and in no time a man arrived and said, ‘The devil’s done got tired of young men trying to skip on their guitar lessons,’ and then taught him Mannish Boy in exchange for a cigarette.

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