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Music Review: Robert Johnson – The Centennial Collection

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Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938) would have been 100 years old on May 8, 2011. To commemorate the event, Columbia Legacy have just released The Centennial Collection. This two-CD set contains all 42 extant Johnson recordings, exquisitely remastered and sounding better than ever.

Considering the ongoing impact of the legendary bluesman’s life and music over the years, it is a welcome tribute. It is certainly not the first time these legendary sides have been reissued, though. After being initially released on the heavy shellac format of 78 rpm singles, Johnson’s music sat in the vaults for over 20 years.

In 1961 Columbia released the King Of The Delta Blues Singers LP, and the secret was out. Young English blues aficionados such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck heard it, and the British Blues Boom was on. Johnson may not have been the sole instigator of the movement, but he was incredibly influential, as a cursory look at the sheer number of cover versions of his songs reveals. In response to demand, a second volume was issued in 1970.

Then in 1990, the unprecedented occurred. Robert Johnson became a bona fide superstar with music that had been recorded over 50 years earlier. During the initial CD box-set craze, Columbia cleared the vaults with Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. The double-disc set held 41 tracks (Centennial adds an alternate version of “Travelin’ Riverside Blues”), and went on to win a Grammy and sell over a million copies.

As mentioned in the accompanying booklet to Centennial, the remastering process has undergone dramatic improvements in the past two decades. These 1936-1937 sessions have never sounded so good. I also very much appreciate the sequencing. Where the first collection placed the “final” version of a track side by side with the alternate take, Centennial presents the alternates separately. This makes for a much more appealing listening experience. And while the inherent pops and crackles of decaying masters may have added a historical flavor to the earlier releases, they are gone now. All that remains is the music, which at times sounds so clear it is as if we are in the same room as Johnson and his guitar.

This is incredibly moving music. One of the reasons the whole tale of selling his soul emerged is just how far ahead of his contemporaries Johnson was. He manages to accompany himself on the bass strings of his guitar while pulling off incredible licks and riffs and singing dark, dark tales of Delta life.

A full listing of the artists who have covered these songs would fill pages, but here are a few of them: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Patti Smith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rush, and The Grateful Dead. It goes without saying that probably every blues musician since 1960 has recorded (or at least played) a few Robert Johnson tunes in their day.

Another huge benefit of the intense scrutiny of Johnson over the past 20 years is the wealth of new information about his life. These, along with discussions of his continuing impact on music and a bit of insight into the remastering process are included in the booklet.

There are very few artists whose music stands the test of time as deeply as Robert Johnson’s has. He just seems to get more popular as the years go by. The Centennial Collection is a brilliant commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

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About Greg Barbrick