The tape sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before - like it had been recorded in a rain storm. I fell in love with the music and couldn’t get my head around the fact that this music had been recorded before even my Granddad was born. Who’d have thought that music even existed in those days? I read his biography countless times, and was fascinated by his hard life in the Mississippi delta, his penchant for drinking too much whiskey, and by the story that Johnson had made a pact with the devil and died at a young age – I was as much taken by his legend as his music.
Sometime last summer I was in Leeds city centre listening to Robert Johnson on my MP3 player. I remember being in HMV, about to pay for an album and I was listening to the song ‘Hellhound on my Trail’, a song of cold detachment. The lines of the final verse “I can tell the wind is risin', the leaves tremblin' on the tree, tremblin' on the tree”, with their haunting tones were interrupted as I removed my headphones in order to speak to the cashier, only for the beauty of Johnson’s music to be jolted from my head as if hit by a cattle prod by the mockney tones of Lily Allen: “It’s not fair, and I think you’re really mean, I think you’re really mean.” I’m not exaggerating when I say this, but this moment filled me with the sense of existential nausea that Sartre could only hint at. Something about the contrast between those two songs, the poetry and brilliance of Johnson suddenly clashing with the petty childishness of Allen, made me wince and filled me with a horrible pang of dread and cynicism. I could have snarled and spat quite easily were I a man with less social graces. People will record or buy any shit nowadays – and it made me feel sick to my stomach. I’m not a music snob, and I honestly don’t care what people like or dislike, but something about this moment just bypassed all of my rationality and for a split second I think I felt that same reactionary feeling that Richard Littlejohn feels when he sees a gypsy or a working mum. I didn’t like it, but I think it says a lot about the power of music to elicit a base reaction.
The Complete Recordings is probably as good a place as any to start (and end) your introduction to the wonder of Robert Johnson. There are 41 recordings on the CD that showcase Johnson’s extraordinary talent: from the mad intensity of ‘Preaching Blues (Up jumped the Devil)’ to the heartbreaking ‘Come on in my Kitchen’, what comes through more than anything else is Johnson’s passionate delivery – one man and an acoustic guitar singing from the darkest depths of his soul.
Songs like ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ and ‘Phonograph Blues’ can send a chill down anyone’s spine: they are haunting and beautiful, and the guitarists amongst us will appreciate the sheer talent and dexterity it takes to play blues like this. Songs like Walking Blues’ and ‘Kindhearted Woman Blues’ are some of the most emotionally-charged songs ever recorded. ‘They’re Red Hot’ feels more Barbershop than blues, and was even covered by Red Hot Chili Peppers as the closer to Blood Sugar Sex Magic. This is the only song on the album that will bring you out of the pensive meditative mood that Johnson seems to elicit, but is slightly tainted by the fact that every time I hear the song it reminds me of the Birdseye potato waffles advert from the early-90s (“they’re Waffley versatile”).
The only down side to this collection is the fact that it has every single take of every song recorded by Johnson - this means that you will often get two versions of the same song playing back-to-back with only slight variation. This might be useful for someone studying Johnson, or someone more interested in cataloguing music than enjoying it, but I find that this can get quite tiresome. This being said, the music is outstanding, and there is absolutely no way that this CD will be leaving my collection.