The story of how an entirely obscure, itinerant black musician who in a recording career spanning eight months produced one minor regional hit, who died in 1938 at the age of twenty-seven and who languished in almost complete obscurity for twenty-three years before becoming one of the most influential musicians of the 1960s is a tale that can be viewed through many different lenses. Some may see it as a series of lucky accidents; others as support for the belief that the work of the true artist will eventually penetrate the collective consciousness when the time is right, as it did for William Blake and Emily Dickinson.
While there are many theories of history, the two that dominate modern consciousness are the largely Western view that history is a linear narrative of human progress, and the Eastern view that history is a series of cyclical patterns: what goes around comes around. In the narrative view, history is shaped to make sense, and as more facts become available through research, the more sense we can make of it . . . or so it is believed.
Neither theory is very helpful in understanding Robert Johnson’s rise to fame. Cyclical theory is a classic example of human beings trying to simplify chaos by attaching structure to happenstance. The narrative theory falls short because Robert Johnson’s narrative remains full of holes and contradictory evidence. The man himself appears to have been a walking contradiction, making it even more challenging to define his essence.
The truth is that we shape history through our perceptions, just like we shape our understanding of everything else. The brilliant musicologist Elijah Wald said it best in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: “There are no definitive histories because the past keeps looking different as the present changes.”
We do know that Robert Johnson had virtually no influence on the development of black music. As Wald wrote in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues, “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.” Son House met him when he was still learning how to play (and once after Johnson had allegedly made his legendary pact with the devil); Muddy Waters may have heard him play around Clarksville. The absence of Robert Johnson covers in the 1940s and 1950s speak volumes about his lack of influence.
Everything changed when in 1961 Columbia released King of the Delta Blues Singers, the first compilation of Robert Johnson’s meager recording output. That release coincided with two emerging movements: the folk revival in the United States and the nascent interest in American blues in the U.K. John Hammond gave a new kid on the Columbia block named Bob Dylan an advance copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers and Dylan was stunned by the sheer intensity of the music. Eric Clapton would come to recognize Robert Johnson as “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”
Musical influence is also subject to human perceptual biases and limitations, and many “influential” musicians and recordings often prove to be disappointing listening experiences—things we’re “supposed to like” because some expert said it was “influential.” I’ve listened to many “influential” albums that register a zero on my aesthetic pleasure meter, and after getting over the “what the hell is wrong with me” phase, I’m more pissed off than anything else—pissed off because I distrusted my own instincts and submitted to the power of the expert.
What separates Robert Johnson from the rest of the influential pack is his unusual ability to grab and hold the listener with just his guitar, his voice and his poetry. Robert Johnson is one of the few artists I can never play in the background, because he insists on leaping into the foreground. When I hear one of his guitar intros or the sound of his voice, I stop everything I’m doing and just listen.
Every year, usually in the darker winter months, I go into a blues jag, an annual ritual that helps me reconnect with both my real self and the things in life that really matter. I immerse myself in blues and listen to nothing but blues for a couple of weeks. When I sense the time has come, I turn off all phones, computers and lights, lock myself in my room and listen to The Complete Recordings straight through until the end. I immerse myself in Robert Johnson, shutting off the analytical side of the brain to experience the music on an emotional-intuitive level. I let go of the need to control the moment and, for two hours, I let his music fill my soul—music that consists only of a voice and a guitar, sparsely recorded with unimaginably primitive technology, but some of the most deeply engaging music I have ever heard.
The remainder of the jag is filled with the music of other great blues artists, from Memphis Minnie to Muddy Waters. When I feel my soul has been cleansed from the particles of bullshit I accumulate by living a life in a largely unreal, impersonal world, I end the jag in the same way I started it: The Complete Recordings.
There are two competing “complete collections.” The one I chose to review is Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, released in 1990. A more recent collection, The Complete Recordings (Centennial Collection), came out in 2011. The latter has been praised for its improved sound quality, most noticeable in the clarity of voice and guitar. Unfortunately, manipulating the frequencies to get that clarity sacrificed the lower frequencies, and I prefer music with a strong bottom. The content of the two collections is virtually the same right down to the alternate takes, so you may want to sample both to determine which is more compatible with your ears, headphones and speakers.
I should disclose one bias before I begin the review. Although his personal history remains sketchy, it is amply clear that Robert Johnson loved fucking, smoking and drinking. As readers of this blog know, I too love fucking, smoking and drinking. I will do my best to avoid allowing our sensual compatibility to interfere with my judgment.
“Kindhearted Woman Blues” was a fine selection for the opening track, as it demonstrates Robert Johnson’s willingness and ability to deviate from blues norms and structures in ways that enhance the drama of the tale he aims to tell. 6/4 time is the dominant time signature (though he varies that as well), and there are different but complementary melodies on the first and second verses. In the bridge—oh my fucking god the bridge—he changes not only the chord pattern but the timbre of his voice to reflect competing and contradictory emotions. In the opening lines, he sounds like a man attempting to remain emotionally distant, underscored by the narrative shift to the third person:
Ain’t but one thing
Makes Mr Johnson drink
It’s worried bout how you treat me baby
I begin to think
Then he breaks, emotionally and aurally, by shifting to falsetto, the cry of a humiliated, beaten man:
Oh my babe, my life don’t feel the same
You breaks my heart,
When you call me Mr So and So’s name
What follows the bridge is Robert Johnson’s only extended guitar solo, where he demonstrates the balanced attention to rhythm and melody that made Keith Richards think there were two guys playing instead of one. Even more impressive to me is how he sings a verse for a line or two and then breaks the bass rhythm to accompany his singing with a harmonic counterpoint on the guitar. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that these recordings were single-track recordings with no overdubs.
“I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” will likely be one of the most accessible numbers for rockers due to its classic boogie rhythm and the triplet attack that forms the main riff; others may be familiar with Elmore James’ fiery “Dust My Broom.” Robert Johnson gives a stand-up performance, but like others, I’m even more fascinated by the geographical references at the end of the song. To any black person living in the Delta during the 30’s, China, Ethiopia and The Philippines were as distant as Pluto, and just as mysterious.
Colorful and confusing geographical references also dominate “Sweet Home Chicago,” a Johnson adaptation of a song about Kokomo that has been covered by a slew of blues and rock artists. The confusion about the lyrics is found in the chorus:
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
To my sweet home Chicago
I guarantee you that you won’t find anything like Chicago anywhere in the Golden State, so what was Robert Johnson thinking? Were the syllables of Chicago a touch more mellifluous than those of Kokomo? As with everything having to do with Robert Johnson, there are several competing theories. One argues that Johnson may have been referring to Port Chicago, California, a town that ceased to exist in the late 1960s and was famous for the massive explosion at the Naval Munitions Depot in July 1944 that killed over 300 people (many of them African-Americans) and the subsequent Port Chicago Mutiny. I can’t buy that theory because everything in Robert Johnson’s life indicated that he liked to be where the action was, and Port Chicago was buttfucksville in the middle of nowhere, far from the sin-infested environs of San Francisco. I’m more partial to the theory that the words are the deliberate expression of a man who loved to ramble, rattling off places on his bucket list. As for the music . . . that “ohhhhh” that opens the early renditions of the chorus comes through loud and clear as a passionate longing for the open road, and the steady driving guitar mirrors his constitutional impatience to keep moving, moving, moving. And lo and behold, the next song is “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” where he feels the need to hightail it because “I got mean things on my mind,” a line he repeats several times and forms most of the last verse. The cause of those “mean things” is mistreatment by a woman, a common occurrence in Johnson’s songs, something I’ve always interpreted as psychological justification to dump a broad who no longer holds his interest.
While Robert Johnson was very likely the oats-sowing rogue, there was another side to his personality capable of empathy for the plight of women in a world dominated by cruel, heartless men like him. Johnson was a man of extremes, a man who beat women and loved them, a man who saw the opposite sex as potential enemies and possible friends. The contradiction is played out in the opening verses of “When You Got a Good Friend.”
When you got a good friend that will stay right by your side (2)
Give her all of your spare time
Love and treat her right
I mistreated my baby and I can’t see no reason why (2)
Every time I think about it
I just wring my hands and cry
Johnson sings this song with even more intensity than usual, and his expression of guilt comes across as deeply sincere.
The two takes of “Come On in My Kitchen” couldn’t be more different, and I have a strong preference for the original because the slower tempo allows the listener to savor both the performance and the poetry. The metaphors of winter and the howling wind reflect the cold, indifferent world of human affairs, and Johnson fully understood that the storms fall hardest on women:
When a woman gets in trouble
Everybody throws her down
Lookin’ for her good friend
None can be found
His performance of that verse seems suspended in time, an effect enhanced by the chord change on the third line. The use of monosyllables in the final line enhances the bleak finality of the fallen woman’s condition in society, and Johnson intensifies the effect by singing those words in a quiet, almost apologetic tone, the kind of tone you use to deliver bad news to a dear friend. While many listeners consider the song a seduction song—and sex was never far from Robert Johnson’s mind—the impact the song had on listeners, as described by traveling companion Johnny Shines in Jas Obrecht’s Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music, confirms the more empathetic interpretation:
One time in St, Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come On In My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying—both women and men.
The chorus is an invitation for the woman to come into his kitchen, a role-swapping offer that would have been practically unimaginable in an era where the woman’s place was in the kitchen. Here Johnson takes on the nurturing role usually assigned to the mother, an unusually empathetic and courageous shift for a man to take:
Winter time’s comin’
It’s gonna be slow
You can’t make the winter babe
That’s dry long so
You’d better come on in my kitchen
Babe it going to be rainin’ outdoors
The brief aside where he whispers, “Can’t you hear the wind howl?” then replicates the sound of the wind on his guitar is one of my most cherished moments in music. As in many of his songs, he is unafraid to depart from the standard 12-bar pattern when the moment requires it. “Come On in My Kitchen” is one of Robert Johnson’s essential works, a stunning display of artistry and human sensitivity.
“Terraplane Blues” was Robert Johnson’s biggest hit, an extremely modest hit at that. A Terraplane was a car built by Hudson in the 1930s, and in penning this number, Robert Johnson added his name to the long list of American songsmiths who have used cars and driving as sexual metaphors. The story in the song is that Robert has come home after a long journey to find that his Terraplane (his squeeze) won’t start (get wet), a condition that can only mean that someone’s been driving his Terraplane (giving the babe the hard one) in his absence. He attempts to strut his stuff but he fails to get much of a reaction:
I even flash my lights mama
This horn won’t even blow
Got a short in this connection
Hoo-well, babe, its way down below
Refusing to concede defeat, Robert decides he’d better roll up his tongue, straighten his dick and get to work on the sweet spot just below the pubes:
I’m on get deep down in this connection
Hoo-well keep on tanglin with your wires
And when I mash down your little starter
Then your spark plug will give me a fire.
I would love to travel back in time and set up a face-off between Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie to see who could come up with the raunchiest song. That would be a hoot!
“Phonograph Blues” is a less obvious sex number, and with this piece, the alternate take is by far the more energetic and interesting. According to Songfacts, a gentleman named Alexander Baron discovered that Johnson used a “mysterious tuning” (E-B-E-A-C♯-E) that he also used on “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” The tuning makes it easier for him to play the triplets that drive the alternate take, but also demonstrates a drive to bend the guitar to his will.
“32-20 Blues” is modified from an earlier Skip James composition, and here Johnson goes to the same dark place that the moody Mr. James favored in much of his music. The lyrics express the “nobody fucks with me” attitude that characterizes many gun-loving American males, similar to Jimmie Rodgers’ threats against poor Thelma in “Blue Yodel T for Texas.”
And if she gets unruly
Thinks she don’t wan’ do
If she gets unruly
Thinks she don’t wan’ do
Take my 32-20 now and
Cut her half in two
While it’s hard for me not to be appalled by the casual acceptance of murder as a conflict resolution tool, I can try to rationalize the violent instincts of both Johnson and Rodgers by chalking it up to the old excuse, “Well, they lived in a different era . . .” Unfortunately, the ethos of that era thrives in America today, as booming gun sales and NRA control of the political system demonstrate. Since I’ve given up believing that Americans will ever leave the Wild West, I have to recognize these songs for what they are: true folk songs in the American tradition and leave it at that.
At this point in the record, I need a colossal mood shift and Robert Johnson delivers with “They’re Red Hot.” I’ve always found Robert Johnson’s impatience with traditional 12-bar blues an exciting aspect of his work, but here he abandons the blues altogether with a ragtime pattern that is an absolute delight. His vocal is an amazing combination of rough growl, spoken word and octave leaps, all delivered at a hundred miles an hour. There is no question that he’s having a great time, but what is most tantalizing about this song is to speculate on how he might have influenced the blues had he lived longer and achieved fame, given his willingness to challenge convention.
I don’t know too many men who will confess to situational impotence in a public forum, but Robert Johnson stands up—well, no, he doesn’t stand up, literally speaking—and confesses that his inability to put up a stiff one has cost him his girl. In “Dead Shrimp Blues,” Robert attributes the limp dick to stress (“I couldn’t do nothin, till I got myself unwound”), a relatively common cause for this debilitating condition and most likely the reason “Dead Shrimp Blues” hasn’t become the theme song for Viagra commercials. Since a droopy stick is something most males would be terrified to own up to, this is one courageous song . . . with absolutely no marketing potential whatsoever.
The iconic “Cross Road Blues” proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only person who can truly do Robert Johnson’s songs justice is Robert Johnson. Cream’s heavy rock version kills the spirit of the song; Elmore James transformed it into another lost-my-baby blues number. The experience of listening to “Cross Road Blues” is hearing a fellow human being crying out in deep distress about a choice he has to make—a significant life choice where none of the available options present a clear way out of his dilemma. More than anything else, the song communicates that distress—the existential anguish, the fear of making the wrong choice, the disaster scenarios imagined when facing the potential consequences of a bad decision. You hear it in Robert Johnson’s timbre, deeply colored by his anxiety; you hear it in the impossibly complex rhythm that responds more to his emotional state than to metrical requirements; you hear it in the inherent uncertainty communicated by a slide guitar; you hear it in the intensely picked chords and notes. “Cross Road Blues” is a stark portrait of a man facing an existential crisis, knowing no one will lend him a helping hand:
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”
Ooh, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooh-ee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by
Advice: next time you’re at a crossroads in your life, listen to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” It won’t provide you with answers, but it is always comforting to know that you’re not the only one who has felt exactly what you’re feeling.
Next the restless Mr. Johnson covers the Son House number, “Walking Blues,” throwing in a little Blind Lemon Jefferson into the lyrical mix. Of greater interest is “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” where Johnson borrows snatches from other Delta songs to tell the story of the convict lease system operating in the South at the turn of the century. The site EarlyBlues.com features a penetrating historical analysis of the song by Max Haymes. Johnson sings “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” from the perspective of the black convict forced to work for the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad, described by Haymes as a “horrific and barbarous” experience. Mr. Haymes’ most insightful contribution is to clarify the content of one key verse that is only rendered phonetically (and inaccurately) on the website of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.
That cal (sic) ain’t been an’ seen,
Gal ain’t been an’ seen,
That gal ain’t been an’ seen, good Lord,
On that Gulfport Island Road.
Haymes writes, “A sense of anger appears in Johnson’s voice in this verse, as well it might. The words allude to undetected murders of black prisoners in the Southern penal system; a theme which keeps cropping up in the Blues.” The insistent rhythm Johnson uses to accompany his vocals expresses both urgency and outrage. Robert Johnson’s music is not often linked with social protest, giving “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” a special place in his catalog—and giving the listener a greater appreciation of his reach.
The guitar work on “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” is a tour de force. Played at a much quicker tempo, Johnson is all over that fretboard, bending notes with lightning speed, inserting contrasting riffs and intense strums that seem to come from nowhere but never cause him to break the rhythm. If there’s one song on the record that qualifies Robert Johnson as a guitar virtuoso, this is it . . . although the pizzicato on the next track, “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is pretty damned impressive as well.
Several of the other songs in the collection reinforce Johnson’s major themes. “Stones in My Passway” is somewhat similar to “Cross Road Blues,” focusing more on the lack of clarity in the situation than personal anguish. “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” curiously celebrates his sexual prowess while he’s stuck in a losing streak (“But I haven’t got no sweet woman . . . boys, to be rollin’ this way.”) “From Four Till Late,” most famously covered very badly by Cream, is almost a country song in terms of feel, featuring the use of the I-VI7-II7-V7 chord pattern to add some variation to the typical blues pattern.
“Hellhound on My Trail” takes the rambling theme and turns it upside-down. As Ted Gioia put it, “Now the trip takes on darker tones, the traveler is pursued.” The song itself is a variation of several pre-existing works, but what makes Johnson’s version stand out is his performance. The tone in his voice is of a man consumed with fear who has lost his capability for rational thought—he repeats several phrases in each verse like a man neurotically muttering to himself about the dangers that surround him:
I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worryin’ me, the day keeps worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
In the final verse he uses his slide to express the deep sense of foreboding he finds mirrored in nature:
I can tell the wind is risin’
The leaves tremblin’ on the tree, tremblin’ on the tree
The mood Robert Johnson creates in “Hellhound on My Trail” is almost frightening in its intensity, for it calls up those experiences we would most like to forget: the times when life seems to be conspiring against us at every turn and we can’t do anything right. Ironically, hearing someone go to the darkest reaches of the soul proves to be a liberating experience, as it teaches us how easily our perceptions can be distorted through fear.
Thankfully, the lighter “Little Queen of Spades” and “Malted Milk” follow, palpably lightening the mood, as hot women and booze often do. The downsides of malt liquor are explored in “Drunken-Hearted Man,” where we’re not sure if Robert is speaking for himself or playing a role. The narrator attributes his downfall to a combination of a tough childhood and “no-goods women,” concluding that sin was his downfall. That doesn’t sound like the Robert Johnson I know and love, so either he was in a very bad mood that day or he’s playing a part.
“Me and the Devil Blues” deals with the darkest regions of a man’s soul: the possessive, dominant, fearful side that often leads a man to believe that he has the inalienable right to beat the shit out of a woman:
Early this mornin’ when you knocked upon my door (2)
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.”
Me and the Devil was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman until I get satisfied
The narrator of the song has a “learned helplessness” common to batterers . . . it’s usually the woman who caused him to cross the line . . . or “I don’t know what came over me.” In the closing verse, Johnson captures the equally prevalent self-loathing that often follows abuse and connects it to the ever-present Johnsonian desire to keep moving, to escape both self and consequences:
You may bury my body down by the highway side
(Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone)
You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride
Having served as a volunteer in domestic violence shelters for many years, I have deeply mixed feelings about this song. On one hand, the story is too sickeningly familiar and calls up images of bruises, contusions and faces swollen beyond recognition. What I appreciate about the song is its brutal honesty and the depth of self-disclosure. We’ll never know for certain that Robert Johnson abused women, but the tough guy persona he displays in songs like “32-20 Blues” points in that direction.
“Stop Breaking Down Blues” is a bit more ambiguous on the subject, though the fact that the broad pulls a pistol on him reminds us it takes two to tango. Still, you can’t deny the confidence in his vocal as he shifts from a trash-talking rant to sotto voce undertones in a wink of an eye. As he belts out the blue notes, you can understand why so many artists have covered this song—it’s a song that you just gotta fucking sing!
“Traveling Riverside Blues” is a song title that would likely call up images of Huck and Jim on their doomed trip to Cairo, mais au contraire! This sucker is about all the poontang Mr. Johnson finds on his travels up and downriver. But while he’s dickin’ ‘em in Vicksburg and bonkin’ ‘em in Tennessee, Robert has one hot babe in Friars Point who he says “hops all over me.” You go, girl! The hottest part of the song is the last verse, just as a climax should be:
Now you can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my…
(spoken) ’Til the juice run down my leg, baby, you know what I’m talkin’ about
You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg
(spoken) That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, now
But I’m goin’ back to Friars Point, if I be rockin’ to my head
Having learned that our lady of Friars Point is the mistress of the hand job, our mind wanders back to the curious verse where he hints at her appearance:
I ain’t gon’ to state no color, but her front teeth crowned with gold
I ain’t gon’ to state no color, but her front teeth is crowned with gold
She got a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul
A black man sticking it to a white woman in the 1930s South would have considered himself damned fortunate to live to the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It’s entirely possible that he was engaging in stud jive, but something tells me Robert Johnson was a guy who liked to test the limits.
He was also a man who jumped between extremes—in “Honeymoon Blues” he proposes marriage to a girl named Betty Mae. The tension of the opposites within Robert Johnson—begging the Lord for mercy one minute, making deals with the devil the next—is one of the things I find most appealing about him. He is Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the comedy and the tragedy, the brutal lout and the tender, compassionate lover.
But most of all, Robert Johnson was a musical artist of the highest order, a man who synthesized the work of the many great blues artists who preceded him and raised the genre to the highest level. “Love in Vain Blues” is one of his greatest accomplishments, a sad and beautiful song about the emptiness one feels when the power of the love we feel for another is not enough to move the other to respond in kind. With his voice and through his lyrics, Robert Johnson expresses the essence of the experience—not only the feeling of utter loss but also the heightened perception of symbolic meaning in the immediate environment common to those experiencing grief:
When the train rolled up to the station
I looked her in the eye (2)
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome
And I could not help but cry
All my love’s in vain
When the train, it left the station
With two lights on behind (2)
Well, the blue light was my blues
And the red light was my mind
The only cover of a Robert Johnson song that I approve and adore is The Stones’ version of “Love in Vain.” Keith Richards’ decision to change the arrangement and give it a country feel avoided any direct comparisons to the original while respecting the essence of the song.
“Love in Vain” should have ended this collection—nothing can follow that song—but instead the compilers closed with two takes of “Milkcow Calf Blues.” No Robert Johnson performance is a waste of time, but after “Love in Vain” I’m spent and I don’t want to hear anything else.
We live in a world where music creation and performance are dominated by technological advances and electronic wizardry. Having given positive reviews to several technology-driven albums, I’m hardly a natural instrument purist. What I do believe is very few of the recordings made since Robert Johnson etched his voice and guitar onto wax compare with the sheer power of the music that came out of those two sections. The experience of listening to The Complete Recordings is intensely intimate, for a man is allowing you to peer into his heart and soul, the light and the darkness, the good and the evil. No other record I own can bring me in touch with my own essence, the light and darkness, the good and the evil . . . and for that, I will be eternally grateful to the handsome man from Mississippi who died too young but whose music will live forever.