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Music Reviews

Blues roots reviewed with a discerning ear.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers
Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume II
Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings

In the mythology surrounding the blues, one legend stands above them all. Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. This is such a pervasive legend that it is accepted as truth by people who only know Johnson on the surface. It is certainly the first thing many people think when you mention his name. The fact that he died at age 27 and left behind only 29 compositions only serves to perpetuate the mystery of the subject matter.

And his lyrics certainly give no reason to doubt. With songs like "Hellhound on my Tail," "Me and the Devil Blues," and the all-time classic "Cross Roads Blues," which begins:

I went to the cross roads
Fell down on my knees
I went to the cross roads
Fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy,
Save poor Bob, if you please."
But whatever you think about the legend, you can't deny Robert Johnson's influence on the blues world, and, consequently, modern rock and roll. Legendary blues guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page have long admitted their love of his music, especially in the myriad covers of his songs.

Columbia's first compilation of his works, King of the Delta Blues Singers, is still one of the best, not least because the newly remastered CD contains a newly discovered alternate take of "Traveling Riverside Blues" that was not around when The Complete Recordings was compiled. This is Johnson's "greatest hits," so to speak. It contains the most well-known of his songs. This is the ideal place for a newcomer to Johnson's legacy to begin his introduction.

The King's "sequel," King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II is just as good, and both volumes will be necessary for the completist. It contains the remaining songs left off the first, as well as some alternate takes of some of the songs that were included to fill out the running time. These two albums were the only Robert Johnson records I had for a very long time.

When my favorite uncle passed on, I raided his record collection and came up with Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. This is, to date, the most complete collection of Robert Johnson material available. Other than the recent discovery of the "Traveling Riverside Blues" alternate, this is it: 41 recordings of Johnson's 29 songs (the movie Crossroads is about the search for the fabled song number 30). Remastered for clarity, The Complete Recordings was the best Johnson had ever sounded. The remaster of the first album is the only release today that sounds better, due to the more recent technology.

The Complete Recordings is now the one most in my music player. Listening to the alternate takes one after the other gives a wonderfully complete portrait of the evolution of Johnson's music. However, a beginner would likely find this tedious. For the blues neophyte, King of the Delta Blues Singers (I) is the recommended purchase.

Any blues or rock fan should have at least one Johnson album in his/her collection. His legacy still lives on in modern music and his influence cannot be overstated.

  • ...more to come...