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Music Review: Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings

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I am now 28 album reviews into my exploration of the Eric Clapton catalog for Blogcritics. However, if you want to truly understand the music of Eric Clapton, it all flows through the delta blues, and the delta blues flow through Robert Johnson.

There are many legends surrounding Robert Johnson. One has him selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads. It was collected at the age of 27 when he died of poisoning in a night club. He left behind a very small catalog of material. He only released eleven 78rpm records during his lifetime and one more after his death. His total output was forty-one tracks which includes alternate takes.

The Complete Recordings, released in 1990, is a two disc box set which gathers all of his recorded material into one place. The sound takes some getting used to, as it was originally recorded in the 1930’s. Yet his technical virtuosity with the guitar and the emotional power of his vocals shine through.

Johnson’s sound was primitive and his stories were grounded in the black culture of the early twentieth century southern United States. The devil, death, religion, and loss are all presented in a haunting and many times terrifying manner.

Johnson’s releases did not sell well during his lifetime, yet today many are instantly recognizable through their being covered by hundreds of artists. “Cross Road Blues” received a classic rendition by Eric Clapton and Cream. Johnson’s version is stripped to basics, but is a fine example of his guitar prowess as you swear it is two people playing instead of one.

“Love In Vain” is best known today for its performance by The Rolling Stones, but here we have the simple and wistful original. “Hellhound On My Trail” is what the delta blues are all about as Johnson takes you on a painful journey through the dark places of the mind. “Sweet Home Chicago” remains one of the best known blues songs of all time.

The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson is not an easy journey but an essential one for any fan of the blues and the roots of American music.

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About David Bowling

  • Bob Hudson

    Really good overview of the Robert Johnson set — one of my own favorite box sets. As an added bonus, note that “Complete” is not quite accurate. Two years after the Columbia box set was put together, an additional alternate take of “Travelin’ Riverside Blues” was discovered in an old sales person’s kit bag. The track was included on the 1998 reissue of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” (volume 1), but has never been retroactively added to the “Complete” recordings. The added track is not much different than the other take, but your completist readers would want to know. Bob Hudson