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The Ten Greatest Robert Johnson Songs

List Of The Day

On Sunday, May 8, the blues and rock world will celebrate the 100th Birthday of Mississippi Delta blues singer Robert Johnson. While Johnson died in general obscurity, having one modest hit 78 to his name, his legend grew in subsequent decades, in part because of English blues enthusiasts, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, and because Columbia Records smartly released an album in 1961 called The King Of the Delta Blues Singers. Charley Patton, Skip James and Son House would surely demand the crown.

But history is written by big multi-national corporations and our ears tell us that if Johnson wasn't the actual king, he had the musicality worth the title.

Johnson cut 29 official songs, with a few alternate takes before he was poisoned by a jealous husband. Sessions in a San Antonio hotel and a Dallas warehouse are all that exist. Even still, getting Johnson down to a top ten is plenty tough and there's no valid reason to leave off "Sweet Home Chicago," "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," "Steady Rollin' Man," "When You Got A Good Friend," "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" or "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," other than ten means ten.

To celebrate, Sony/Columbia has issued a fantastically decadent multi-hundred dollar set that includes mock 78s that play at 45rpm and a more reasonably priced double disc. Both are mastered from metal masters for the cleanest sounding recordings of Johnson to date. Not to mention the mighty-fine graphic design from Jeff Schulz at Menagerie Co., who attended the same high school as yours truly and lived to tell the tale. His design makes the high-end product a must-have for all blues enthusiasts. Congrats, Jeff.

 

10) "From Four Until Late": This is one of the more subtle recordings in Johnson's catalog. Where so much of Johnson's blues sounds like a man being chased by evil spirits, this track sounds like a man slowing down for a cup of tea. Green tea.

9) "Phonograph Blues": Every bluesman needs a song heavy on double-entendre. Johnson takes the difficult task of handling a faulty phonograph, where "my needles have got rusty, baby, they will not play at all." Um, I think the idea here is to brag about your abilities. Low self-esteem blues? The first emo song?

8) "Terraplane Blues": Every bluesman needs a handful of songs heavy on double-entendre. Here, Johnson has a car that hasn't been faithful to him. But at least he ends the song with the knowledge that "when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire." He's starting to get the hang of this stuff.

7) "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day": The comment frequently heard from guitar players is that Johnson often sounds like two guitar players at once. This track sounds like it could be three.

6) "Walkin' Blues": Sometimes it isn't so much the song as the performance. This track begins with the ol' "Woke up this morning" line and then Johnson comes around to realizing that everything he had was gone. I still like the idea that the line is "my little bunny ears was gone" and not "my little Bernice was gone," but I suppose Bernice is proud to be immortalized in song as a master thief.

5) "Cross Road Blues": Covered by more rock bands than we need mention, "Cross Road Blues" is a tune where rumors get started: The legacy that Johnson went down to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil in order to play guitar the way he did. Some people just can't give credit to someone for having talent, pure and simple. Maybe Johnson practiced?

4) "Me and the Devil Blues": OK, this track makes the Satan connection more pronounced. Satan knocks on his door and RJ greets him with "Hello Satan, I believe it's time to go." So we learn he's on a first name basis. We also learn he has to beat his woman in order to get satisfied. Johnson was a prime candidate for anger management and far more deserving than anyone to live in Aleister Crowley's castle.

3) "Stones In My Passway": "My enemies have betrayed me, have overtaken poor Bob at last" would be my epitaph if I wanted to spend the money on extra engraving.

2) "Come On In My Kitchen": The new The Complete Recordings finally straightens out the question over which is the "official" version of this tune. Apparently, the slower "alternate" take made the 1961 album, but the upbeat take was picked as the single back in the 1930s. Ah, even back then they had the "commercial" hit that didn't sound anything like the rest of the album!

1) "Hellhound On My Trail": This is one scary piece of music. Johnson's voice couldn't sound more desperate if someone was holding a Pro Tools editing suite to his head. One known take. Perfect. Ad men looking for a quote: "Better than anything ever recorded by Nickelback!"

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