Monday, April 27, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1362: Robert Johnson

The weekend has ended and with it another NFL draft. My beloved Miami Dolphins got scooped on more than a few picks I coveted, but we still made off with 12 draft picks, including the much-vaunted Tua Tagovailoa at #5 overall. I hope he ends up being as good as advertised, because if he isn’t, I’ll be singing the blues.

Kind of like this next guy…

Disc 1362 is…. Robert Johnson: Reborn and Remastered
Artist: Robert Johnson and a bunch of other early blues legends

Year of Release: 2020

What’s up with the Cover? Does this man look like he just made a deal with the devil? Well…yeah. He kinda does.

How I Came To Know It: If you listen to rock and roll long enough, you’ll encounter the blues. If you listen to the blues long enough, you’ll encounter Robert Johnson. He’s like a devil at a crossroads at midnight; just waitin’ for you to show up in your own good time.

How It Stacks Up:  This is my only Robert Johnson album, but it isn’t really an album at all, it’s just a compilation of his singles. Either way, it can’t stack up.

Ratings: I don’t rate compilations and even though Robert Johnson never released a full-length album, I’m sticking to that approach.

When it comes to the blues, I’m more dabbler than fan. My collection holds some of the big names – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf – and I groove to each of them when the mood strikes me. I felt like something was missing, and so not knowing where to go next, I went with a classic original – Robert Johnson.

It isn’t hard to be a completionist when it comes to Robert Johnson, and this compilation comes close on a single compact disc. He only recorded 29 different songs, and this album has 20 of them. I don’t know which nine are missing, but I feel confident I can live without them.

This album may be “remastered” but all things are relative. When you’re talking about applying all the modern technical wizardry of the modern studio to something knocked out on a 78 in a hotel room via a single microphone, there’s only so much you can do. This stuff sounds tinny and raw throughout.

The raw is great; when it comes to the blues raw is what you want, and Johnson has a great voice for this style of music, as he yowls out about bad fortune and questionable choices. His guitar matches this perfectly, except for the fact the choices are anything but questionable. On first blush, it sounds like Johnson is missing half the notes in the song, but as you keep listening you realize it is deliberate. Sometimes the guitar lumbers drunkenly along, absent-mindedly hitting a note here and there. Sometimes it trips over itself in a flurry of notes. It feels very alive and organic, but underneath it all there is a structure, a natural flow. That flow is the blues.

The ‘tinny’ is not as enjoybable. I’m spoiled by the fifties and sixties recordings of those artists I mentioned earlier, who benefited from studio sound. Robert Johnson is the original garage punk sound. He clanks and clunks along, brilliant in its own right but maddening knowing that you’ll ever hear it better than what they managed on those few takes that still survive today.

As for lyrics, these songs are more about a vibe and a feeling than about a complex narrative, but Johnson still manages more than a few memorable lines.

One of my favourites is on “32-20 Blues” Johnson’s narrator has a dysfunctional relationship with a woman packing a .38 special (Johnson matching it with the titular .32 caliber firearm of his own):

I'm gonna shoot my pistol, gonna shoot my gatling gun
I'm gonna shoot my pistol, gotta shoot my gatling gun
You made me love you, now your man have come
Ah-oh, baby, where you stayed last night?
Ah-ah, baby, where you stayed last night?
You got your hair all tangled and you ain't talking right”

Like I said earlier, bad choices abound in a good blues song. Whatever the case, these songs are about characters that would be rough by today’s standards, never mind the 1930s.

My collection of Robert Johnson songs came with a bonus CD featuring Johnson’s contemporaries doing a few hits of their own. I was treated to Willie Brown, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson and even an early Howlin’ Wolf track. This stuff was every bit as good as the Robert Johnson stuff, and is a great reminder of the amazing community of blues artists at that time.

Robert Johnson has one of music’s great legacies. He only has 29 songs, but my music collection is peppered with covers of those song. This includes three different covers of “Stop Breaking Down” (Lucinda Williams, the Rolling Stones, and the White Stripes). Every version is totally different, and each is great in their own way. That’s always the sign of a song with great bones.

Because of my production snobbery, I don’t put these originals on very often, but when I do I’m always reminded I should be listening to this more often. So thanks for all those great songs, Mr. Johnson, and thanks for everything that you helped to inspire that came after. I wish you could’ve lived to see it happen.

Best tracks: I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man, Come On In My Kitchen, Walking Blues, Rambling On My Mind, Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil), They’re Red Hot, Stop Breakin’ Down Blues, Little Queen of Spades, From Four ‘Till Late, 32-20 Blues

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