Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings (1936-1937/1990)

Poor Robert Johnson. First he sold his soul to Satan at the crossroads to be a great musician and died young as a result, and then he becomes my go-to example for “influential, but difficult to digest” blues artist. Two tragedies of equal gravity and importance befall one man!

In my old review here, I tried to make a case for this collection being enjoyable in addition to important and admirable. Sadly, I really think I was just fooling myself, because Robert Johnson is just so wildly important that I wanted this collection to be as entertaining as, say, Blind Willie Johnson's. But it really just isn't the case.

Robert Johnson is probably the most important guitarist who ever lived, at least, in the fields of blues, rock, and all of its children, which includes most of popular music. He codified the “five man band” guitarist, playing rhythm, lead, and bass on one acoustic guitar while singing and tapping his foot. In addition, he set in stone many of the blues licks we take for granted today as pretty much always existing, not to mention, perhaps most importantly, the bass line. The prototypical rock and roll boogie bass line that just popped into your head when you read the first half of that sentence was, well, maybe not exactly invented by Robert Johnson, but first applied in this way to this type of music and served as the wellspring from which every other artist drew it.

Unfortunately, about half of his songs or more are set to the exact same blues melody, with licks that we in the modern world have heard ten thousand times, and that, combined with the stupid sequencing of this collection, makes this an excruciating listen. For some reason that I can't fathom, all of the alternate takes are placed right next to their “originals.” I can understand including them for historical purposes, but why not put them all on the second disc together or something? It makes an already monotonous listen even more monolithic.

None of this is Robert Johnson's fault. These were all released as singles and never meant to be listened to all at one time. The concept of a full length album was a barely cogent one at the time, certainly not for the likes of Delta blues artists. The playing on all of the tracks is immaculate, completely worthy of all of the adulation heaped upon him. It's too bad I can't listen to more than a couple of songs at a time without growing incredibly bored.

There are a few tracks which deviate from the standard Robert Johnson template, and taking the frantic “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” the folksy “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” or the goofy ragtime of “They're Red Hot” and combining them with a few of the other more interesting tracks could form a perfectly listenable and enjoyable single album, I'm sure. Overall, though, you're better off seeking out the innumerable covers people have done of these songs, as they tend to pull out the hidden beauty or power of the track in a way that Robert Johnson's single-minded musical philosophy tends to obfuscate.

My recommendation would be to take a listen to a few of the more important songs if you're so inclined, just to see where it all started, but don't force feed yourself this compilation just because you feel like you have to enjoy it out of some sort of objective musical integrity. Acknowledging the importance and influence of Robert Johnson's musical output and respecting it for what it is qualifies more than enough.

Rating: N/A


  1. You're a bit harsher on Robert than I expected; not that I disagree, but I often get this feeling listening to Blind Willie as well. I guess the whole reason behind Johnson's legendary nature to mid-'60s-'70s musicians is because this wasn't the original way his recordings were released. The two volumes of "King of the Delta Blues Singers", the first released in 1961 and the second in 1970, are a far better way to appreciate him, 16 tracks each, with minimal repeated tracks between the two, and although some alternate takes are used instead of the single versions, it doesn't make much difference.

    1. It's also probably because they were listening to the recordings as musicians. They were fascinated by the brand new (to their ears) techniques and innovations and wanted to learn, copy, and expand upon them. It's an enjoyment of its own, I'm sure - I can quite easily imagine the revelatory experience this must have been for, say, Keith Richards or Eric Clapton - but it's quite different from listening to them just for entertainment.

    2. I suppose that's plausible, but then it's kind of like treating Robert Johnson's works like those "Learn How to Play Guitar"-type albums from the Ventures.