Robert Johnson - King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers

Album #37 - June 1961

Episode date - March 27, 2024

The Alternative Top 40
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    Back in 1961, no album in the world would have been cooler to own than “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” Its timing was impeccable, and it carried such cache that it literally changed the way most music fans considered our American heritage.

    Until talent scout and producer John Hammond more or less forced Columbia Records to release this collection of extremely rare recordings, virtually nobody knew anything at all about Robert Johnson. To take it even further, most of us disregarded our musical past until this record was released. It didn’t sell particularly well (which added to its coolness) but it did inspire a large segment of the folk movement to redirect itself. Some were so inspired by this album that they became musicologists and began digging into the past, reviving interest in Blues music by collecting old 78s and searching out the artists who still survived. A rebirth of interest was stimulated by this release, which may help explain why Robert Johnson is so important to the history of the Blues. Around this same time, Hammond ‘discovered’ Bob Dylan and signed him to Columbia Records. As a welcome gift, he gave Dylan a copy of this album, who had no idea who Robert Johnson was at that time. That copy would later appear on the cover of Dylan’s fifth album, “Bringing It All Back Home.” How cool is that?

    Entire books have been written about Robert Johnson, yet he remains one of the most mysterious characters in America’s musical history. Despite valiant, tedious, and intensely focused attempts to compile an accurate biography, there isn’t much information about his life and there are only three known photographs of him, which gave him an aura that bordered on the mystical. The song “Crossroads” (which opens the album) inspired what must be one of the most well-known bits of mythology in our musical history. Blues musician Son House knew Robert Johnson as a decent harp player, but a terrible guitarist. At some point, Johnson went away for a short while and when he returned, he displayed a remarkable technique with the instrument, thus inspiring the rumor that he went down to the crossroads where he made a deal with the devil, selling his soul to play guitar. There is an element of truth to that story, though, because southern Black culture looked down on blues musicians, considering them to be performing the Devil’s music, and Johnson was surely seen as a distinctly provocative character in that regard.

    Johnson died young, so his entire recorded history stems from two sessions, one in a hotel room in San Antonio and the other in a studio in Dallas, helmed by talent scout Don Law. They yielded a total of twenty-nine songs. “Terraplane Blues” was the first to be released, backed with “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” and it sold well as a regional release. Subsequent releases sold significantly less, making them some of the most rare and collectible 78s ever released, but the songs themselves came to define Blues music for future generations of players and fans. The release of this compilation album set off a series of events that permanently changed the direction of popular music, eventually inspiring an entire generation of British teenagers to devour every note of American Blues that they could find, which in turn caused most American kids to discover the blues through convoluted interpretations sung with British accents. It took decades for Robert Johnson to grow into a household name here in America, but his storied reputation, combined with the seemingly infinite number of cover versions he inspired, guarantee that Johnson retains his legacy as “King of the Delta Blues Singers.”

    Featured Tracks:

    Cross Road Blues - (unreleased alternate take)

    Terraplane Blues

    Come On in My Kitchen - (unreleased alternate take)

    Walkin' Blues

    Last Fair Deal Gone Down

    32-20 Blues

    Kind Hearted Woman Blues

    If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day - (previously unreleased)

    Preachin' Blues

    When You Got a Good Friend - (previously unreleased)

    Ramblin' on My Mind - (unreleased alternate take)

    Stones in My Passway

    Traveling Riverside Blues - (previously unreleased)

    Milkcow's Calf Blues - (unreleased alternate take)

    Me and the Devil Blues - (unreleased alternate take)

    Hellhound on My Trail

    June 1961- Billboard Did Not Chart

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