Last night I stumbled upon the Radio 2 programme Hellhounds On His Trail – The Robert Johnson Story, and very good it was too. It was a real reminder of just what a talent he had; even if his talent probably didn’t come from selling his soul to the devil, as has been suggested.
Robert Johnson was a blues singer and guitarist who died in 1938, aged around 27, and it would be interesting to consider just how popular music would have developed without him. Although he made just a handful of recordings, they directly inspired the Chicago blues boom centred around the Chess label that produced such acts as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters in the 1950’s. It was these acts that caught the imagination of many artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s and hugely influenced music during that period. Many of the biggest bands during that time, such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, were pretty much just blues acts when they started up. Robert Johnson’s own songs have been covered by the Stones (Love In Vain), Led Zep (Travelin’ Riverside Blues), Cream (Crossroads Blues) even the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (They’re Red Hot).
Most of all I am glad I listened to the programme because it may be the spur I need to replace my old vinyl copy of “Robert Johnson – 20 Blues Greats” with a brand spanking new CD of The Complete Collection. Then I can transfer it onto the iPod mini my wife has recently obtained.
There is something wonderful about the thought of Robert Johnson on an iPod. Here is a cutting edge piece of equipment, a full 2 gb of recording space, small enough to sneak into your pocket, a sleek and beautiful design; and I can use it to listen to a raw piece of music nearly seventy years old, produced alone by a man who possessed just a guitar, a bottleneck and a haunting, eerie falsetto voice, recorded on what sounds like a primitive box stuck in the corner of the room.