Robert Johnson

(May 8, 1911 - August 16, 1938)

blues legend Robert Johnson

Legendary blues guitarist and songwriter Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Missisippi in 1911.  "Legendary" is the precise right word for him, as he lived and died largely in factual obscurity.  Famously, details of his life are largely apocryphal. There are only two known photos of him.  Heck, there's some doubt about where he's actually buried, what with three different places now having stones for an originally unmarked grave.

However, we do know where he was and what he was doing on five critical days, November 23, 26 and 27 of 1936, and June 19 and 20 of 1937.  On those days, Robert Johnson was recording in Texas.  He wrote and recorded 29 songs total.

There were a couple of 78s put out during his lifetime, none of which was any big deal at the time.  He disappeared into an unmarked grave, little known until Columbia put out the first LP record of Robert Johnson in 1961.  This caught the attention of young rock musicians,  most notably Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. 

His recordings have since been far more widely heard than in his lifetime, and his songs covered many times.  Probably half his songs might reasonably now be considered standards.  Perhaps the most widely recorded Robert Johnson songs would be "Cross Road Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago," "Stop Breaking Down Blues," and "Love in Vain.  A lot of rock musicians have sang his songs, and done some good at it.  Certainly Led Zeppelin and the Stones have made much fancier and technically better recordings, with fine artistic impact and feeling.  Robert Johnson was a great songwriter.

But none of this can have quite the impact of Johnson's original recordings.  He came from a different time and place, a much scarier world than anything Jimmy Page ever knew.  Johnson was a lost soul, a bastard son of a black woman born under Jim Crow.  But even the Klan wasn't scary enough to make it onto Robert Johnson's radar screen.  Beyond any mortal evil, Robert Johnson despaired for his immortal soul.  If you're open and fully receiving his signals, his records can put the fear of God into you.

It's sometimes hard to judge an artist's intent, but when Robert Johnson sang "Hellhound on My Trail" it seems very real, like he's seriously thinking that the dark lord has sent minions to torment him.  When he sings in "Me and the Devil Blues" saying "Hello Satan, I believe it's time to go," it sounds like he's matter of factly talking to Lucifer.  This wasn't Mick Jagger playacting as Scratch to scare the Bible Belt rubes with an artistic affect.  Whatever your personal religious beliefs, this was serious paranoia, dread, fear and guilt coming straight out of a tormented man's soul.

Given his huge modern reputation, some folk find Robert Johnson less amazing than they expect when they actually listen to him.  Partially that's because almost anything so highly touted will have trouble living up to it's rep.  Partly though, it's from expecting everything to sound like big homogenized, pasteurized modern studio records, when Robert Johnson was just one man and an acoustic guitar.  One more possible complicating factor comes from a simple question of the playback speed of his recordings.  From Wikipedia:

Recording pitch question

Some musicians have opined that the recordings run too fast. Johnson mainly used open tunings like open A and open E, and often used a capo to change the pitch of the song. This means that some passages would be played very high upon the neck of the guitar, which would make them very difficult to execute, or in some cases impossible to play at all (for example, the intro of "Walkin' Blues, which should be played on the 16th fret of a 12-fret-to-the-body-guitar). Some passages of Johnson's guitar playing sound constrained and not natural to the modern ear (as modern music would sound when it is sped up), and some of his vocals sound out of tune and robotic. When Johnson's music is slowed down (one article [2] even suggests slowing it down as much as 20%), Johnson's music sounds more natural, his guitar sounds warmer and fuller and more in line with other recordings from the late 1930s. His voice becomes more expressive although it loses some of Johnson's trademark emotional "whine". Speeding up recorded music is common in popular music, as it makes music sound fresher and it adds punch and energy.

I don't know enough to render any opinion on this critical question.  Perhaps you can download these recordings and fiddle with the playback speed a bit.  Here are mp3 files for all 29 Robert Johnson songs, with multiple takes for a total of 41 recordings.  In recent years these recordings have been remastered and fiddled with a couple of times, and there's apparently one recently discovered alternate take of the "Traveling Riverside Blues" out there, but these are all the basic recordings as they lit up the world. 


32-20 Blues

Come on In My Kitchen, take 1

Come on In My Kitchen, take 2

Cross Road Blues, take 1

Cross Road Blues, take 2

Dead Shrimp Blues

Drunken Hearted Man, take 1

Drunken Hearted Man, take 2

Four Four Till Late

Hellhound on My Trail

Honeymoon Blues

I Believe I'll Dust My Broom

If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day

I'm a Steady Rolling Man

Kindhearted Woman Blues, take 1

Kindhearted Woman Blues, take 2

Last Fair Deal Gone Down

Little Queen of Spades, take 1

Little Queen of Spades, take 2

Love in Vain, take 1

Love in Vain, take 2

Malted Milk

Me and the Devil Blues, take 1

Me and the Devil Blues, take 2

Milkcow's Calf Blues, take 1

Milkcow's Calf Blues, take 2

Phonograph Blues, take 1

Phonograph Blues, take 2

Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)

Rambling on My Mind, take 1

Rambling on My Mind, take 2

Stones in My Passway

Stop Breaking Down Blues, take 1

Stop Breaking Down Blues, take 2

Sweet Home Chicago

Terraplane Blues

They're Red Hot

Traveling Riverside Blues

Walking Blues

When You Got a Good Friend, take 1

When You Got a Good Friend, take 2


Click the icon to stream all songs on this page

blues guitarist and songwriter Robert Johnson smoking a cigarette






Feel free to download any of these songs, and pass them amongst your friends, but all copyrights in the songs and recordings are of course reserved by the artists.

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Robert Johnson poster