2011 – Columbia/Legacy
Now you may have read my rant about “best ofs” and compilations last week. If not, in short I said that I wouldn’t really talking about them here, but today a compilation is exactly what I want to talk about.
Robert Johnson The Centennial Collection is a collection of the complete recordings by the crowned king of the delta blues, and there is a good reason why I think it should be reviewed. That reason is that Johnson never actually released an album, but rather sporadic recordings that floated around throughout the thirties, and I feel that this collection is very important in that it brings together his incredibly influential body of work for generations born decades after his death to listen to and appreciate.
The music itself is excellent. Johnson’s acoustic guitar jumps from chugging riffs to singing licks effortlessly, and his voice is laden with the true essence of the blues. The lyrics and music in combination pour out a man’s pain and rejoice in his joys, they recreate the lost world of the Mississippi Delta and let the listener stand there and experience it.
This collection is also a great artefact in terms of the mythology of music. Robert Johnson’s life is today a matter of legend. The story goes that he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to ‘get the music in him’, he then roamed the country playing the blues, drinking hard, and spending his nights with various women. Then, at the auspicious age of twenty-seven, the devil reclaimed his debt and Johnson fell to his knees howling like a dog and died. This story is, of course, unlikely; however, it is so ingrained into the popular mythos that it cannot be dismissed.
Hearing him sing Hell Hound On My Trail or Cross Road Blues allows the listener to enter into and participate in this legend, and lets them get swept away in the tragic Faustian tale, and to my mind this is a very desirable thing to do. Rock myths and legends are part and parcel of any in depth look at popular music, and, while the truth of these stories is dubious, it is a fabulous thing to suspend one’s disbelief and revel in the fiction.
Another reason Robert Johnson should be so revered and respected is the plain fact of his immense influence on the world of music. Without his guitar technique and soulful songs it is very likely that the world would never have had such bands and artists as Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes, Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp, Ben Harper, and the list continues on and on.
Even if for no other reason than to understand where the music they love has its roots fan of rock should at some point take the time to sit down and appreciate Robert Johnson’s blues. This collection truly is a masterpiece.
While I was reviewing 2011’s The Centennial Collection, there are a few other ‘complete recordings’ collections that have been released from the nineties onwards. They vary in remastering quality and occasionally in inclusions or omissions of test tracks and the like, but they are essentially identical.
One of the many, many amazing tracks that are offered on The Centennial Collection.