Review #374: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson

Karla Clifton
4 min readApr 17, 2023

#374: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson

As soon as this record got started, I got really excited, because it’s OLD. Decades older than anything we’ve seen. Technically this album was realized in 1961, but it was recorded by Johnson in two short sessions in 1936 and 1937. In fifteen short years, these recordings will be a hundred years old.

Who was Robert Johnson? He was a traveling performer who mostly made a living playing other people’s songs for small crowds. He wasn’t widely known until after his death — there are only three confirmed photographs of the man. He was so mysterious that Don Law, the Columbia Records rep that oversaw his short recording career, only learned that he was dead when he tried to book him for the Carnegie Hall concert From Spirituals To Swing. The cause of his death is just as unclear as the rest of his life, but one thing is certain: his death in 1938 made him one of the earliest members of the 27 Club.

A long-dead mystery man? Why not make up some rumors about him? The biggest one is that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for his guitar prowess. In some ways this devalues his talent, but in otherways, what a compliment — that you’re so talented that black magic must be involved. Some of his music fueled the rumor — see “Cross Road Blues,” “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil),” and my favorite, “Me and the Devil Blues” — though I don’t think he had anything to do with the rumors themselves. Although they may have stemmed from the maybe-fact that he and guitar teacher Ike Zimmerman practiced together in graveyards in the middle of the night. (By the by, Zimmerman’s family claims that he was the original writer of “Ramblin’ On My Mind.”)

Regardless of how whether he got it through black magic or practice, Johnson plays guitar like crazy. I found myself floored by just how many ways you can play a twelve-bar blues. He can be vengeful (“32–20 Blues”) and righteous (“If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”). “Terraplane Blues” has all the revved-up acceleration of a car, while “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” is bright and bouncy. The most beautiful blues is “Come On In My Kitchen,” which moves at a glacial pace with a sparse guitar. There’s a great quote from Johnson’s friend Johnny Shines about this song: “He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed [that] they were crying — both women and men.”

He’s a gifted, natural guitarist, sometimes sounding like he and his guitar are having a conversation with each other. He’s completely unaccompanied, but manages to maintain perfect control over his rhythm. Also, he is never off-key, despite the wild places he sends his voice. He yelps and growls on “Walkin’ Blues,” then lifts it into an airy falsetto on “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.” His performance on “Hellhound On My Trail” is his best by far, sounding so passionate and possessed that it sent shivers down my spine, nearly ninety years after it was recorded.

Also, some of it genuinely cracked me up. There’s some innuendo here that made me gasp. “Traveling Riverside Blues” has the impeccable line You can squeeze my lemon till the juice run down my leg, which Led Zeppelin would swipe for their “The Lemon Song.” “Milkcow’s Calf Blues” paints a man and woman as a cow and her suckling calf. And I’m ninety percent sure that “Stones In My Passway” contains references to him having three legs to truck home. I love confirmation that the people of the past were just as nasty as we are today.

Johnson’s legacy quickly became immense. Eric Clapton and Keith Richards both cite Johnson as a source of inspiration, with Clapton stating that he has “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.” It was the first ever album inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Hell, this album is on the cover of Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. That’s how you know it’s really, truly that good.

My only gripe with this one is its placement. In 2003, RS ranked it as the 27th Greatest Album of All Time. Why has it fallen so far? It’s been a while since a record gave me chills, and now I can’t stop listening to it. And it’s a hundred years old! In some ways, this is what this project is all about.

Funniest Association: For some reason, the line I may be right or wrong on “When You Got a Good Friend” made me think of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.” I may be crazy!

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