To me Robert Johnson's influence -- he was like a comet or a meteor that came along and, BOOM, suddenly he raised the ante, suddenly you just had to aim that much higher.
-- Keith Richards END NOTES
It came as something of a shock to me that there could be anything that powerful.
-- Eric Clapton
Perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty about Robert Johnson's brief life is that its impact is incalculable. For Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, for their rock peers and a generation of blues musicians who preceded them, the recordings made by the slender Mississippi singer and guitarist in the mid-1930s were the lofty standard by which everything else was judged. "You want to know how good blues can get?" Richards asks in a brief appreciation he wrote for Columbia's new two-CD set "Robert Johnson -- The Complete Recordings." "Well, this is it."
Originally planned for release more than a decade ago, the digitally remastered collection (also available on cassette and LP) rounds up all 41 takes of Johnson's 29 known songs and is among a series of eight new Columbia reissues called "Roots 'n Blues." Johnson recorded all of the material on "The Complete Recordings" between November 1936 and the following June. A little more than a year later he was dead, poisoned by a jealous husband. He was 27.
Listening to the output of those five recording sessions now, remarkably free of pops and hisses, it's clear that Johnson wasn't the most imposing singer or guitarist of his generation. His voice didn't possess the transcendent power to match that of, say, Blind Willie Johnson, and though he was an exceptionally resourceful and rhythmic slide guitarist -- as he proves with his sharp attack on "Preaching Blues" and other songs -- Tampa Red's slide technique or Blind Blake's finger-style approach was far more sophisticated. Johnson, in fact, recorded only one guitar solo in his career.
What set him apart more than anything else was his uncommon ability to make the singer and the song hauntingly inseparable. After hearing "Hellhound on My Trail" or "Cross Road Blues," for example, it's easy to see how stories about Johnson's fabled pact with the Devil began to gain credence. Likewise "Rambling on My Mind," "Kindhearted Woman," "Love in Vain," "Dust My Broom" -- these are all deeply personal, emotionally taut, soul-baring performances. Indeed, they sound more like sudden confessions of a tormented soul than words committed to memory, and are often punctuated by Johnson's eerie falsetto or an octave-length swipe of his slide.
Of course, not all of the material measures up to the classics, but even such comparatively lightweight fare as "Honey Moon Blues" is worth a listen. The album's alternate takes also reveal just how concisely and deliberately Johnson tailored his arrangements for maximum effect -- they seldom vary substantially from the released versions.
The circumstances surrounding Johnson's death, as well as the often conflicting reports about his troubled life in rural Mississippi, contributed to the mystery and myth that have since shrouded his name. Johnson's biographer, Stephen C. Lavere, sheds considerable light on this and other subjects in a 48-page booklet that accompanies the recordings. In addition to the tributes by Richards and Clapton, the booklet also contains lyrics to Johnson's unusually moving and poetic songs.
Muddy Waters, only four years older than Johnson, went on to popularize and eventually update and urbanize his Delta blues, as did Elmore James a generation later with his cover version of "Dust My Broom." The rock era has also seen its share of Johnson covers, including ones by the Rolling Stones ("Love in Vain"), Cream ("Crossroads"), Delaney and Bonnie ("Come On in My Kitchen") and Canned Heat ("Hellhound on My Trail"), among many others. But there probably would be even more if it weren't for the kind of reservations Clapton expresses in his essay: "How are you going to do them? In some ways a song like 'Hellhound on My Trail' is hardly there. What he doesn't say, what he doesn't play, it's so light and menacing at the same time."
'Roots 'n Blues'
The remaining albums in the first installment of the "Roots 'n Blues" series are devoted to individual artists and acts -- Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, The Big Three, featuring Willie Dixon -- or anthologies. As enjoyable as they sometimes are, none of the albums in the former group is likely to be considered indispensable by anyone but a die-hard fan.
The Dixon record, dating back to the mid-'40s, is a spotty, novelty-prone prelude to the far superior recordings he subsequently made on the Chess label. The Broonzy set, recorded in the '30s, is also uneven, marred by some routine jazz arrangements and more than a little hokum. Still, Broonzy is in great voice and spirits, and every so often someone such as guitarist George Barnes drops by to add a touch of class to a session. Better yet is "Steppin' on the Blues" by Lonnie Johnson, which displays the guitarist's innovative and elegantly expressive solo-note style on previously released and unissued recordings from the '20s and '30s.
As for the anthologies, they're mostly first-rate. Uninitiated listeners certainly can't go wrong with "Blues Legends, Vol. 1," a collection of classic recordings by Robert Johnson, Son House, Charlie Patton, Bessie Smith and other giants. Johnson and House also pop up on "The Slide Guitar: Bottles, Knives and Steel," a revealing survey of slide masters performing both well-known pieces and obscure gems.
Emphasizing once-topical themes, "News and Blues" makes for an interesting audio time capsule of sorts, featuring blues inspired by 20 years' worth of woes and headlines. But by far the most infectious release is "Cajun, Vol. 1: Abbeville Breakdown." Here the vibrantly pure Cajun music recorded by singer-guitarist Cleoma Breaux and accordionist Joe Falcon in 1929 and 1935 is contrasted with the more jazz-tinged, accordion-free sound favored by the Alley Boys of Abbeville a few years later.
'The Complete Recordings of T-Bone Walker 1940-1954'
Columbia isn't the only label to recently launch an ambitious blues reissue series. Mosaic Records also has done so -- and brilliantly -- with "The Complete Recordings of T-Bone Walker 1940-1954."
Among the very best box sets released in the past decade, this extraordinary six-CD (or nine-LP) compilation, consisting of 144 releases and alternate takes, documents more than just the profound impact Walker had on B.B. King, Chuck Berry and a legion of electric blues and rock guitarists. It documents, too, the diversity of material Walker was comfortable (and convincing) performing in his prime -- from lightly swinging, Nat King Cole-like ballads ("Don't Give Me the Runaround") to brooding laments ("Mean Old World," "Cold Cold Feeling" and "Call It Stormy Monday") to a long and joyous series of horn-riffing, guitar-popping jump band tunes that featured some top-notch R&B talent and helped pave the way for rock-and-roll.
In her detailed liner notes, Helen Oakley Dance quotes Walker's son as saying, "Dad was serious about his fun." Time and again on this anthology, it shows.
(Mosaic recordings are available by mail only: 35 Melrose Pl., Stamford, Conn. 06902.)