As I’ve documented in these pages, my first album ever was The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. After that, I was hooked on the power and the glory of rock and roll. I dove into the Stones catalog as deep as my allowance and lawn mowing money would take me. After that I started branching out. Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and Eric Clapton found their way into my record crate. Soon I was listening to Cream, AC/DC, Aerosmith and the Allman Brothers. I’m not a smart man, so it wasn’t until, believe it or not, I bought the Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues that it dawned on me that everything I like seemed to stem from this thing they call the blues. Say what you want about Belushi and Aykroyd’s vocals and stage schtick, the Blues Brothers boasted a crack band – Matt “Guitar Murphy, Steve Cropper (guitar), Duck Dunn (bass), Steve Jordan (drums and later Xpensive Wino), Paul Shaffer on keyboards and an all-star horn section. Before that album, I’m not sure I even knew what the blues were.
Hearing some blues, or a reasonable facsimile there of, made me realize all of the bands in my collection weren’t just rock and roll, they were blues rock. Even the term “rock and roll” came from the slang of the old blues guys… it was their euphemism for sex. AC/DC may have been harder than some of the other bands I listened to but the blues (or in their case blooze) was clearly there in songs like “The Jack,” or “Ride On.” Impassioned vocals over a great riff with a break for a soaring guitar solo was the blueprint. English rock stars had taken what the black blues legends of the Mississippi Delta had done and expanded on it. Although in many cases, they just stole the stuff the old blues cats had done, but that’s another post. It wasn’t until later that I began to explore the blues guys that had so heavily influenced the rock bands that followed them. I started seeking out Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker and of course, B.B. King. I foolishly thought those guys had invented the blues in the 40’s and 50’s. Ah, the misconceptions of youth. The blues have a much longer history.
The blues sprang out of the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta around the turn of the last century. Musicians from plantations in the Delta started playing the music we now know as the blues on acoustic guitars. They sang about every day troubles and tribulations, but mostly they sang thinly veiled songs about sex. Was it really a “Little Red Rooster” they were singing about? I think not… That music slowly moved up the river to Memphis. Eventually, after World War II, as black people moved up north looking for work, the blues followed and implanted itself in places like Chicago and Detroit. It took a while, but eventually the music the blues guys were making made it’s way to England where guys like the Stones, the Yardbirds, Alexis Koerner and Van Morrison snatched up blues 45s and formed bands. Those bands would incorporate blues and change rock and roll in America. The blues had taken a circuitous route home. It wasn’t until the folk music revival of the 60s that people started to seek out and appreciate some of the really early acoustic blues of the 20’s and 30’s. Blues and folk are more closely associated than people realize. I hear as much blues in Bob Dylan’s early work as I do Woody Guthrie. On his first LP Dylan did “In My Time Of Dying,” if you need proof.
It was during that folk/folk blues revival in the sixties when people began to discover the guy who is known as the Father of the Delta Blues, a man named Charley Patton. Charley is largely credited for being the first real blues star, if you will. Sadly he was long since dead by the 60s. Charley had passed the blues torch to greats like Bukka White and Son House. Son House was actually rediscovered in the sixties and returned to playing blues. It was one of Son House’s disciples that was rediscovered around that same time… a man named Robert Johnson who became King of all those early blues guys. Basically a footnote in the history of blues up to then, it wasn’t until 1961’s King of the Delta Blues Singers came out, a compilation of roughly half his recorded material that Johnson finally got the fame and accolades he’d missed out on in his short life. His legend grew quickly… soon there were stories about Johnson’s making a deal with the Devil down at the crossroads to obtain his mastery over the guitar. Those rumors mostly stem from stuff Son House said but it stuck…
Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1911 (approximately). When he was but a youngster he met Son House who remembered him as an OK harmonica player and singer and a bad guitarist. Johnson moved from Robinsville, MS to Martinsville, MS where he studied guitar with Ike Zimmerman who supposedly got his gift with the guitar by hanging around graveyards…He most likely played there because no one was around, not to meet Satan. The next time Son House saw Johnson he was playing guitar like a master. It had been two years since he’d seen Johnson but House always recalled that it had taken such a short time for Johnson to improve so vastly that the Devil had to be involved… perhaps Johnson had indeed gone down to the crossroads and made that deal with the Devil, trading his soul for guitar mastery. A legend and myth were born.
I’m not a religious man. In the old days, in tough times I’d describe myself as being spiritual… there are no atheists in fox holes. As I’ve said before, “God makes me nervous when you get him indoors,” so I’ve always avoided organized religion… and well, unorganized religion for that matter. I’m sure the religious leaders of Robert Johnson’s time saw these guys traveling around, performing music, drinking booze and seducing women and immediately deemed it evil. No civilization has ever been comfortable with the effect really great music has on women (or men for that matter)… all that dancing and hair flying around, it’s like fucking standing up. Let’s remember Lucifer was the Angel most closely associated with music. I see a trend here. And let’s face it, even if you’re of the purest heart, having some puritan decry your music as evil probably helps make it irresistible to folks…forbidden fruit. How many rock bands have similar stories – Led Zeppelin (specifically Jimmy Page’s legendary interest in the occult) and even the Stones played that up (Their Satanic Majesty’s). Sabbath did pretty well financially pretending to be occultists and Satanic as well…
Whatever the explanation, supernatural or just that whole 10,000 hours of practice thing Malcolm Gladwell is so fond of, Johnson’s gift with the guitar was real. He’d left the life of a farm worker to become a traveling musician, which at the time was considered trading a normal life for that of the devil – traveling, drinking and of course women. He managed to record around 30 songs in hotel rooms in San Antonio and the back of a Dallas office. In the end, Robert Johnson was poisoned by a jealous girlfriend or perhaps a jealous boyfriend of one of his lady friends. He was 27… the first member of that horrible 27-Club. That would have been the end of his story, save for the early 60s folk/folk blues revival.
In 1961 Columbia records released the aforementioned compilation King of the Delta Blues Singers and suddenly Johnson’s myth took off. Bob Dylan is seen holding a copy of the album on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, which sealed Johnson’s hip factor. For whatever reason, I’ve been listening to King of the Delta Blues Singers a lot lately. I’ll admit 1990’s The Complete Recordings has probably supplanted it as the Robert Johnson album to have, but I still love Delta Blues Singers. The recordings are eighty years old, so they’re a bit primitive but Johnson’s music is so striking. His voice seems otherworldly. And yes, his guitar playing is masterful. His songwriting is top drawer as well. I consider Johnson one of the critical artists that everyone should experience.
In many ways, almost everyone has had some experience with Robert Johnson, so vast is his influence. He’s been covered by everyone from Cream to the Stones to Led Zeppelin and beyond. It was Brian Jones who introduced Robert Johnson’s music to Keith Richards who has been a lifelong fan. I mentioned the influence on Dylan prior. I don’t think there’s a bigger influence on Eric Clapton than Robert Johnson. I started thinking about all the Robert Johnson cover songs out there and I realized those songs would make a great playlist. I put together the following playlist in the same order as the tracks on King Of The Delta Blues Singers. But since there are so many other tracks by Johnson that have been covered, I added those additional songs to underscore how wide Johnson’s influence remains to this day. You may or may not have realized that these familiar songs were Robert Johnson, but hopefully this playlist will clarify this… my descriptions below.
- Cream, “Crossroads” – Clapton’s greatest cover of a Johnson tune. This may be Cream’s signature song in my mind.
- Foghat, “Terraplane Blues” – People forget how blues based Foghat were. This is maybe one of the earliest tracks to use a car as metaphor for sex.
- The Allman Brothers, “Come On In My Kitchen” – An authentic, acoustic take that makes me feel like I’m sitting on the front porch with Gregg belting this one.
- Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Walkin’ Blues” – Michael Bloomfield’s guitar is sublime.
- Eric Clapton, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” – Clapton has done almost all of the songs on this list and I like his take on this one.
- Bob Dylan, “32-20 Blues” – Dylan just slays this. I love it when he goes bluesy.
- Muddy Waters, “Kind Hearted Woman” – Johnson not only influenced rock n roll, he influenced the blues.
- Big Head Todd And the Monsters, “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” – Nobody was more surprised than I was that one-album wonder Big Head Todd had done an album of Johnson covers. I included this version to prove the reach of RJ’s music.
- Living Colour, “Preachin’ Blues” – These guys pour everything they’ve got into this tune.
- Johnny Winter, “When You Got a Good Friend” – A classic blues guy doing an even more classic blues tune. Johnny goes acoustic, very reverent of the original. You can tell Johnson’s a huge influence for Winter.
- Lucinda Williams, “Ramblin’ On My Mind” – Clapton did this with John Mayall way back when but I like Lucinda’s take too.
- John Mellencamp, “Stones In My Passway” – From Mellencamp’s overlooked blues album, Trouble No More.
- Led Zeppelin, “Traveling Riverside Blues” – Probably my favorite track here.
- John Hammond, “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” – Another faithful, acoustic blues track.
- Leon Redbone, “Me And The Devil Blues” – I thought Redbone was more of a novelty singer… this is actually a kick ass track. Redbone’s voice sounds almost as ancient as Johnson’s.
- Jimmy Wolf, “Hell Hound On My Trail” – Wolf is a blues guy I wasn’t familiar but this is a great take on this tune. It’s heavy blues.
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, “They’re Red Hot” – This is where the tracks I added beyond King of the Delta Blues Singers begin… Chili’s aren’t a blues band but it seems inevitable they’d do this track… I saw them improvise it live in Denver after a fan request once…
- The Rolling Stones, “Love In Vain” – The Stones at their bluesy best.
- Steve Miller Band, “Sweet Home Chicago” – People dig Miller’s 70s, spacey hits but he started as a blues guy. He returned to the blues later in his career and this one definitely worth checking out. I have to guiltily admit I like the Blues Brothers version as well… what can I say, it’s imprinted from my youth.
- ZZ Top, “Dust My Broom” – I had always thought this was Elmore James, but it’s pure Johnson.
- George Thorogood & The Destroyers, “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” – I always thought of George as a bit of a joke with all that “Bad To the Bone” stuff but he’s got the blues chops, especially with this great material.
- Cream, “Four Until Late” – From the bluesy, bluesy debut album.
- Peter Green, “Phonograph Blues” – Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker fame, doing a great solo take on RJ.
- Eric Clapton, “Little Queen of Spades” – Yes, I’m revisiting the same album as #5 but Clapton and Johnson have a symbiotic relationship…
- Johnny Lang, “Malted Milk” – The youngster on a track that Clapton did on his Unplugged album.
- The White Stripes, “Stop Breakin’ Down” – The Stripes doing one of my favorite RJ tracks… also done by the Stones on Sticky Fingers.
Listening to these tracks you’re probably already thinking, I didn’t know that was a Robert Johnson song! Take my advice and check out the originals. A haunting vocal that seems to come from the very soil of the Delta from which it sprang. “I went down to the crossroads, try to beg a ride…”