A hundred years after Johnson’s birth, this remains a landmark record.
Sean Egan 2011-04-28
Robert Johnson is a man enveloped in myth: until 1973 no photograph of him was known to exist; a legend persists that his extraordinary guitar style that sounds like two men playing at once was obtained when he exchanged technique for his eternal damnation at a lonely crossroads; there is a theory that he was fatally poisoned aged 27 via by the husband of a lover…
Yet though his output was restricted to a small catalogue of low-selling recordings in the mid-1930s, the esteem in which Johnson’s music was held by a generation of musicians is built on something more than mystique. Eric Clapton, Cream, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin are just some of the superstars to have covered Johnson’s material. Their lodestar was this album, first released in 1961 and containing about half of Johnson’s oeuvre. As a consequence, his type of disturbed and disturbing blues helped shape 60s rock, and everybody knows more Robert Johnson than they think they do.
Listening to this collection of some of his ‘sides’, many fans of the mainstream artists he inspired will find their debt to Johnson bewildering. This is not populist fare. It’s old blues. Almost every first verse line is repeated, the 12-bar structure is rigid, the instrumentation is simply voice-and-guitar and the sound quality is hardly sparkling. Only concentration yields the flourishes of lightning guitar work, inflection of vocal tone, sudden switches in tempo and sly humour that inspires such devotion that Keith Richards is the proud possessor of a copy of the artist’s birth certificate. This cuts both ways though. Close attention to 32-20 Blues reveals it to be a quite chillingly nasty promise of domestic abuse. Johnson at least seems to be acknowledging his flaws in his obsession with judgment in haunted songs like Me and the Devil Blues and Hellhound on My Trail. The sprightly Walkin' Blues and Preachin' Blues, with virtuoso guitar work, are probably the most immediately arresting tracks; but the rest, while marginally differentiated, possess a collective hypnotic, dark power.
Though this album is the one that made Johnson’s reputation, it lacks some of the compositions from Vol. II (1970) that became signature songs through interpretations by others, such as Love in Vain. A hundred years after Johnson’s birth, however, this remains a landmark record.