This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
Cream Of The Crate Reviews 1 to 50 were vinyl album reviews. The following fifty reviews (51 - 100) were originally marked as CD Reviews 1 - 10 and this numbering has been kept to keep consistency with the published CD reviews.
This is number two in the series of albums I’m featuring as part of an on-going retrospective of CD’s in my personal collection.
The series is called, “Cream of The Crate (CD’s)”, and they represent CD albums that I believe are of significant musical value, either because of their rarity, because they represent the best of a style or styles of music or because their is something unique about the group or the music.
There could be no greater difference between any two artists than featured on the review of CD #1 (The Fugs), and this review that is #2 – Robert Johnson.
The CD’s are from the boxed set “Robert Johnson – The Complete recordings“,which was released in 1990 on the Columbia Label (C2K 46233).
It has 41 tracks that represents every known track and every alternate version of a track, ever recorded by Robert Johnson.
Born over 100 years ago, on May 8th, 1911s ‘dirt-poor’ Afro-American boy grew up to become the “King of the Delta Blues“.
There have been many, many fantastic ‘delta blues‘ singers and some of them were legends such as, Muddy Waters, Son House and Charlie Musselwhite, to name just three of so many.
But it is Robert Johnson who remains the legend among the legends.
His story is far too fascinating to try and summarise here, and frankly, I have too much respect for him to try and do what others have done better than I could.
One of the great things about the beautiful boxed set is the booklet. It has been thought out very well and not just been ‘thrown’ together by some A&R hack!
Twenty three large pages of notes and transcripts, dotted with pictures of other notable delta-blues men, and significant people to Robert Johnson, it totally enhances the music contained within it. However, if you are interested in reading more of his bio, I have linked the Robert Johnson Foundation web site to his name – Robert Johnson
There is no doubt my mind that Robert Johnson would have been influenced by musicians and the music that surrounded him as he grew up, and there are elements of other songs and styles in his compositions.
Yet this is nothing new as the blues is sung from the soul. It is made up of the pain and terrible deeds perpetrated on Afro-Americans from the early settlement of the USA onward.,
Stories and memories of the miserable journey they and their forefathers had made, meant that words, themes and melodies were freely swapped between both the musical artists of the day and indeed, the ordinary folk who labored in the fields.
Yet what Robert Johnson did was in turn to have a profound influence on his contemporaries and he had an incredible effect upon the evolution of this music, that we call the blues.
His thorough control of his technique of playing and with the tonality associated with his singing along with the raw emotion and tension he wove into his songs, created a brilliant but limited body of work.
I don’t think it is too much to say, that this body of work is so influential that among the best, he still stands out.
There are only a few pictures of Robert Johnson in the booklet and the reason is simple, because there are so very, very few known pictures of him.
Interestingly several works on Johnson report that there are only three known photo’s of him, well, here is a fourth!
My first reaction to the picture above was to think it was the picture below, but photoshopped to take his hat out of the picture because the two look so alike. Yet, on closer inspection the photo below has him in a different shirt, with a tie and jacket.
So, clever photo manipulation or what?
Then to confuse matters just a little more, in recent years another photo appeared which it is claimed is of Robert Johnson.
Certainly if you take another look at the photo of Johnson with the cigarette and no hat, taken from the booklet in the box set, the features on this new photo are strikingly similar.
It seems as though there will forever be some mystery about him.
In the box set there is a booklet with 24 pages containing the words to his songs, and this alone is a bonus as before purchasing this boxed set, there were many songs by Robert Johnson where I was never too clear about the lyrics.
Then to top it off there are two pages listing his recording sessions with dates and a discography.
You want more? you get more! For those of us who love his music and find his story so fascinating, then we are also gifted with a copy of his death certificate.
The whole thing was assembled by Stephen C. LaVere, who the notes say, “…is a record collector, photographer, photographic archivist and music historian of long standing, who for many years, has been researching the life of Robert Johnson and attempting its mystery His work continues in a thoroughly annotated and documented biography of this important American musician.“
I can have nothing but admiration for his work and this, the final product.
I was at a total loss on how to choose tracks to play you, there are no ‘bad’ Robert Johnson tracks, and I have many favourites.
In doing some reading for this review, I did come across a web site dedicated to Robert Johnson, and in it they had written, “Most of these tunes have attained canonical status, and are now considered enduring anthems of the genre: “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I¹ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago.”
So it seemed logical to provide the music to four of these tracks, starting with the utter classic, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom“. This is really a classic blues track. Way back in the early 1960’s I was first introduced to Elmore James and his version of this great track, that he recorded in 1951.
In my own ignorance I assumed he had written it. Later as I expanded my knowledge of the blues, I was quite shaken to hear Robert Johnson’s version.
Initially it sounded a little alien after James‘ version, but quickly I realised, as I listened to Robert Johnson, that the difference (to my ears) was distinctly in favour of Robert Johnson. This is not to deny the quality and brilliance of Elmore James.
In fact a little research indicates that it is still disputed as to who wrote the track, James or Johnson. However in regard to the two versions listen for yourself! – here are both versions; a short except of the Elmore James version and the full Robert Johnson version.
Dust My Broom – Elmore James
Dust My Broom – Robert Johnson
“Cross Road Blues“. It is hard not to think of the movie set in Rosedale, Mississippi in 1930, where Robert Johnson is portrayed as making a deal with the devil, to become the greatest blues guitarist that ever lived. A deal that is symbolically sealed with a kiss.
Incidentally the lyrics below are the same that were used in the Scorsese film, “Best of the Blues“, and come out of the accompanying booklet, but the booklet indicates these were the lyrics from ‘take 1’. In ‘take 2’ of this track, Johnson not only sings a shorter version, but significantly alters the lyrics.
“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”
Yeoo, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooo eeee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ down
Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, eee, eee, risin’ sun goin’ down
I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ down
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkin’ down
And I went to the crossroad, mama, I looked east and west
I went to the crossroad, baby, I looked east and west
Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, ooh well, babe, in my distress”
‘At the Crossroads‘ has been defined as “at the point must choose between different courses of action”, and ‘distress’ as a state of danger or trouble (Accompanying booklet)
Cross Road Blues
The third track that I feature as truly representative of Robert Johnson’s style, is “Hellhound On My Trail“.
Recorded in 1937, it was the first song recorded during Johnson’s last recording session in Dallas, Texas on Sunday, June 20, 1937 and the first single released from that session. Inspired by earlier blues songs, it is considered one of Johnson’s best known and most admired performances—many would say it is his greatest!
An open E Minor tuning provides a drone effect which along with the bottleneck have had some writers have likened to a moan of the wind through dead trees. If Robert Johnson is ever going to touch your soul this is probably the piece of music that will do it.
“Umm mmm mmm mmm
blues fallin’ down like hail
blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keep on worryin’ me
there’s a hellhound on my
hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail”
Some writers say we can read too easily, things into this song that were never meant to be. The times that Robert Johnson lived in, the years of the Great Depression, were indeed terrible time and put this period onto an already suffering section of the American Society, it is easy to understand why life would seem like the ‘Hellhounds” were on your trail. Misery and little relief. Listen and make up your own mind, and pay attention to where he sings,
“If today was Christmas Eve
and tomorrow was Christmas Day
(and he then speaks) Aow wouldn’t we have a time baby?”
Surely amongst this most terrible time, there is still the dream of a better day? And, if all this ‘analysis’ is just too much for you, put it aside and just listen to his guitar playing – this is just the ‘Cream’ of Delta Blues‘ playing.
Hellhound On My Trail
Onto the final track in this review.
Earlier I wrote that I would use four of the tracks that have been considered as his ‘classics’. Now I’m at track number 4, I’ve changed my mind, and gone for “Love In Vain Blues“.
There are two reasons (apart from the fact that it’s just a damn excellent Blues track) I really do like this track, and, secondly, it’s interesting to listen and reflect that it was so successfully covered by the Rolling Stones on their 1969 “Let It Bleed” LP.
The Stones did drop the word ‘blues’ from the title and it is one of my favourite ‘blues’ tracks, as recorded by them.
However, when you go back and listen to Robert Johnson, while the sound cannot possibly be as full as the Stones achieved as a group, the difference between the version recorded by white electric group (albeit one of the best) and the purest of the pure delta blues version, well . . . how do you compare?
Once again it is the pure Johnson tonality and his masterful playing of the guitar that stands out. It also has one of my very favourite set of lines in a song.
“When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues
and the red light was my mind….”
Love In Vain Blues
So what else is left to say? You have the complete works of the greatest delta blues man ever, the tracks are remastered to provide the best quality without loosing any of the originality of the 78RPM recordings, the set comes with a very high quality booklet and all packaged well! This is a boxed set that is a many blues fan.
Don’t me wrong, I love Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson (I and II) but, I am in total awe of Robert Johnson.
Best of all, because of today’s technology in CD manufacture, you can purchase this set readily, and cheaply – as little as Au$14.00 on Ebay or Amazon Au. I did shake my head in wonder actually as I researched the current cost, that here we have an important and brilliant piece of music history going so cheaply.
There are a number of Youtube video’s of Johnson’s music, but as you can imagine the chances of real time footage is nil. As indicated earlier, there so very few photographs of him, it’s not worth watching clips with stills! HOWEVER, I did come across an interesting and evocative clip. Titled “Alleged Video Footage of Robert Johnson”. It does not have any sound of Robert Johnson and indeed on watching it, consensus is that it is not footage of Robert Johnson. However, the discussion and footage is definitely worth watching.