Robert Johnson – King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert-Johnson-photo

One hundred years ago, a boy-child was born in Mississippi – a dirt-poor, African-American who would grow up, learn to sing and play the blues, and eventually achieve worldwide renown. In the decades after his death, he has become known as the King of the Delta Blues Singers, his music expanding in influence to the point that rock stars of the greatest magnitude – the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers – all sing his praise and have recorded his songs.

That boy-child was Robert Johnson, an itinerant blues singer and guitarist who lived from 1911 to 1938. He recorded 29 songs between 1936 and ‘37 for the American Record Corporation, which released eleven 78rpm records on their Vocalion label during Johnson¹s lifetime, and one after his death.

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.”

Like many bluesmen of his day, Johnson plied his craft on street corners and in jook joints, ever rambling and ever lonely – and writing songs that romanticized that existence. But Johnson accomplished this with such an unprecedented intensity, marrying his starkly expressive vocals with a guitar mastery, that his music has endured long after the heyday of country blues and his own short life.

Never had the hardships of the world been transformed into such a poetic height; never had the blues plumbed such an emotional depth. Johnson took the intense loneliness, terrors and tortuous lifestyle that came with being an African-American in the South during the Great Depression, and transformed that specific and very personal experience into music of universal relevance and global reach. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” Keith Richards once asked, answering his own question: “Well, this is it.” Eric Clapton put it more plainly: “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”

The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by the fact that so little about him is known and what little biographical information we now have only revealed itself at an almost glacial pace. Myths surrounding his life took over: that he was a country boy turned ladies’ man; that he only achieved his uncanny musical mastery after selling his soul to the devil. Even the tragedy of his death seemed to grow to mythic proportion: being poisoned by a jealous boyfriend then taking three days to expire, even as the legendary talent scout John Hammond was searching him out to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

In 1990, Sony Legacy produced and released the 2-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings to widespread critical acclaim and, for a country blues reissue, unprecedented sales. The Complete Recordings proved the existence of a potential market for music from the deepest reaches of Sony¹s catalog, especially if buoyed by a strong story with mainstream appeal. Johnson¹s legend continues to attract an ever-widening audience, with no sign of abating. If, in today¹s world of hip-hop and heavy metal, a person knows of only one country blues artist, odds are it is Robert Johnson.

via Biography | Official Robert Johnson Site | Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.

Many of the artists who claim to have been influenced by Johnson the most, injecting his revolutionary stylings into their work and recording tribute songs and collections, are prominent rock musicians from the United Kingdom. His impact and influence on these future star musicians from England—who would then come to develop and define both the rock and roll and rock music eras—resulted not from personal appearances or direct fraternization. Instead, the artistic power of his exceptional talents and original compositions would be relayed across the Atlantic many years after his death through the compilation of his works released in 1961 by Columbia Records (King of the Delta Blues Singers).

Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introduced bandmate Keith Richards to his first Robert Johnson album. The blues master’s recordings would have as much impact on him as on Mick Jagger. The group performed his “Walkin’ Blues” at the Rock and Roll Circus in 1968. They arranged their own version of “Love in Vain” for their album Let It Bleed and recorded “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” for Exile on Main Street.

Stop Breaking Down by the Rolling Stones

In addition, Mick Jagger, in his role as Turner in the 1970 film Performance, performs solo excerpts from “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Me and the Devil Blues.”

Alexis Korner, referred to as “the Founding Father of British Blues”, co-wrote and recorded a song entitled “Robert Johnson” on his The Party Album released in 1978. Other examples of the influence he had on English blues and blues-rock musicians and musical groups include:

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