25/08/2012

The Complete Collection

Robert Johnson
Recorded 1936 & 1937; this collection released 2008

A long time ago I read Charles Shaar Murray's excellent Crosstown Traffic, his biography/cultural analysis of Jimi Hendrix, and this was the first time I really came across Robert Johnson's name. As a black man playing blues-driven rock, Hendrix was obviously influenced by Johnson, and the book goes into some depth about the older man's legend - his original incompetence, his mysterious disappearance for a year, the legendary deal with the devil, his spooky re-emergence as a towering genius and finally his death at the hands of a jilted husband (maybe). And of course, the music - described as a soul-rending cry in the wilderness, an eerie evocation of loneliness, horniness and the personification of the blues.

Hendrix - and Clapton, Page, Beck, etc. - probably discovered Robert Johnson in the early sixties on a compilation: The King Of The Delta Blues Singers, issued in 1961, about 25 years after the songs were recorded. But 1961 is 51 years ago. Over fifty years ago.

That's a long time and popular music has changed almost beyond recognition, which probably explains this: I don't get it. Whatever it is that the Surrey stockbroker belt guitar heroes heard in these brief, primitive, badly recorded tracks with odd time signatures and uncertain rhythms, it's not audible to me now. They sound far too insubstantial to take the weight of the hyperbole heaped upon them. And surely this is in part due to those very men who were so influenced. I, for one, can't listen to "Cross Road Blues" without hearing Cream's "Crossroads" and thinking how much more energy and power the cover version contains.

So, sure, Robert Johnson was limited by technology. The electric guitar was barely invented (the Rickenbacker "Frying Pan" was available from 1932) but no-one took it seriously yet. Recording technology was its infancy. But "a whole band on one guitar", like Murray claims? Um ...

It's a bit like cars, isn't it? (The Davison Auto Analogy Rule: when having trouble explaining technology, use a car analogy. Never fails.) The Ford Model T was revolutionary, but you wouldn't want to ride in one now, would you? (And you definitely wouldn't want to drive one, you'd kill yourself. Did you know that the middle pedal engaged reverse gear and the brake pedal was on the right?)

So it is with these tracks. They were revolutionary; everyone tells me so. Clearly they influenced generations of guitarists. But those influenced have moved guitar playing and guitar music on so far that these tracks sound like they come from the middle of the nineteenth century. Remembering that the recordings are contemporary with such delights of harmonic sophistication as Duke Ellington's "Caravan", Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" or Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" only serves to make them seem even more dated.

This particular collection, albeit complete (Johnson having only made two recording sessions in his life), has too many alternate takes of interest to obsessives only. In order to pare it down, I listened to the tracks from King Of The Delta Blues Singers, but it only helped marginally. File under "glad I've listened to it but unlikely to bother again".

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