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Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings

January 3, 2008

Almost exactly seventy years ago, a man who was then known as Robert Johnson passed away. He was poisoned, presumably by a houseman/barkeep whose wife had been flirting with him on an August Evening. Around the same time, a king pin of the then small, homely music industry sent out a middle man to find Johnson, in hopes of striking a record deal. It took until almost a year after Johnson’s death for word to get back to the industry that Johnson was, in fact, deceased. This is not a surprise, considering that the spread of news at the time, let alone in poor black Mississippi (or really, where ever he may have taken up residence at the time), was reserved to word of mouth.

Why then, does this fact interest me so much? I don’t know. I almost find it a little bit funny. It took almost an entire year for word to get back to New York that one of blues’ most popular artists had died. Today, it would have taken the better part of five minutes, for two phone calls to have been made, at quickest. Back when America wasn’t heavily wound in telephone lines, we could apparently have fascinating folklore like this. That kind of distant, legendary intimacy is no longer present.

Robert Johnson is arguably the most important, influential, and respected blues artist of all time. Back in the days when Johnson was still with us, recording equipment was sparse. Johnson recorded a grand total of forty one cuts, twelve of them alternate takes. All forty one cuts are included in this box set, in the highest quality that they could possibly be in. Along with the two disks of music is a very nice booklet containing a factual essay outlining the events of Johnson’s life with as much accuracy and objectivity as possible, and including details of his relationships and musical repertoire. A small essay on the style and spirit of his music is also here, but I contend that it is mostly opinionated trash. Also included are two short essays by Keith Richards and Eric Clapton regarding Robert Johnson, and complete lyrics to each recording. The booklet is altogether rather nice. It also contains both known photographs of Johnson, one of which is on the cover which depicts the man posing rather nicely for the camera, his somehow appreciable lazy eye punctuating his generally handsome face, and his long fingers grasping his guitar. The other picture is arguably the better one. It depicts Johnson once again grasping a guitar, this time very close to the camera, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

Even considering all this, it almost seems extravagant to have made The Complete Recordings a box set. The release could have easily been packaged into a double compact disk format, and released that way. In any case, this box set is bar none the most complete means of getting to know Robert Johnson and his repertoire, or at least what remains of it in the public knowledge today. It’s rare that you can gain such a complete portrait of an artist in one fell swoop. You drop fifteen dollars on this collection, as it costs on amazon.com, and bam, you are a Robert Johnson fan. That’s all it takes. Unbelievable.

What I learned about Robert Johnson in the weeks since I received The Complete Recordings for Christmas is that I have never owned a more important, rewarding box set in my life. That may be a rather premature statement, considering I have only ever owned four other box sets in the first place. Those are the 1990 Led Zeppelin box set, the James Brown Star Time box set, The Complete Studio Recordings of Led Zeppelin box set, and the Nirvana box set With The Lights Out. All of these other box sets would cost a pretty penny on the market today. And yet, this one for a Delta blues singer who was born nearly one hundred years earlier and is no where close to a household name like the other said artists are is better. It just is. And it costs fifteen dollars.

What the fuck?

The surprise is that, essentially, Robert Johnson is one of the most important American musical artists of the past one hundred years, and you know him already whether or not you recognize his name. From what these recordings play, there is and probably never was a more respectable blues singer in the business. What you hear here is his deceptively complex guitarwork and versatile and soulful voice, on all forty one tracks. Highlights are not few. Kindhearted Woman, Sweet Home Chicago, They’re Red Hot, Terraplane Blues, Phonograph Blues, Walking Blues, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, and Me And The Devil Blues are my personal favorites, but this collection is a treasure trove. When I try to tilt my head and look in at the music from as outside of a perspective as I can give it, this music should bore me utterly. Most all of the songs are made in the same twelve bar structure, and yet on my first straight through listen, I was never bored. Johnson’s unique switchups and naked guitar style enough to keep each cut fresh, even the alternate takes. For a music fan who for the most part isn’t into blues at all, I find myself in awe at what I hear in Johnson’s recordings.

And what I find even more interesting is that upon listening, I can pick many riffs and lyrics from other songs that I already know. As Keith Richards and Eric Clapton indicate, Johnson had an immense influence on The Rolling Stones and Cream, but I hear both of my Led Zeppelin box sets in this music as well. I marveled at Led Zep’s Traveling Riverside Blues for many years, and I always wondered what gave it so much power and energy. I now realize that it mostly comes from Robert Johnson, with John Bonhams crushing beats added. I know a wealth of Red Hot Chili Peppers fans. I mean, almost too many. They would be happy to hear the original cut of They’re Red Hot, which makes the humorous cover seem like a sin to modern recording.

On any given listen, these recordings can be seen in a wealth of different lights. On one listen they may sound happy and uplifting, fiery on another, and solemn and breaking on another. This is blues music at it’s finest.

Basically, you owe it to yourself to acquire the recordings of Robert Johnson somehow, and this is the best way. Fifteen dollars. That’s it. That’s all it takes, and then you have the complete recorded works of one of the single most important musical artists of the past one hundred years. Johnson is indirectly responsible for the development of blues and the creation and development of rock and roll since the 1950s. Robert Johnson is an essential figure to American music and culture. You owe it to yourself to save your lunch money for this one.

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