Strange but true: in the first 30 issues of The Blues, we’ve never once reviewed Robert Johnson. You might think this is a forehead-slapping oversight, on the scale of What Cartoon Canary magazine neglecting to cover Tweetie Pie. The thing is, though, there’s not much to review. For all his posthumous mythology, Johnson’s thumbprint on Planet Earth was faint indeed: no interviews, three photos and just 42 studio recordings, which most hardcore blues fans will already have on their shelves and under their skin.
Johnson is still dead and his vaults remain empty. But if you have yet to chase down his catalogue, then The Complete Recordings is a great catch-all, gathering all the sides he recorded for the Vocalion label in November 1936 and June 1937 (plus a handful of alternate versions).
They remain magical. The first session – from San Antonio, produced by Don Law – is here on Disc 1, and if Johnson was a studio newbie, you’d never guess it. Genius is everywhere, from the deathless Walkin’ Blues and Sweet Home Chicago (both upbeat in the most wretched way imaginable) to the primal, definitive Cross Road Blues and the cuckolded whoop-and-swoop of Terraplane Blues.
Indeed, it was the success of Terraplane Blues that saw Johnson brought to Dallas in 1937 for further sessions with Law. Johnson’s second day in the studio there was a hot streak that has surely never been equalled: the bluesman cranked out 10 numbers that included the haunted Hellhound On My Trail and Me And The Devil Blues (a song that anticipates the Reaper’s premature knock that would come the following year).
His hoarse holler reaches through the ages, but it’s Johnson’s guitar that bewitches, his thrubbing rhythms and slide work dancing around each other on Travelling Riverside Blues in a fashion that remains almost unfathomable. Really, who needs a soul when you can play like this? If you’ve got Johnson’s catalogue, move along. If you haven’t, this is damn near essential.