Happy 100th Birthday Robert Johnson!
Delta blues legend Robert Johnson was born this day in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. in spite of the monster mythology that has grown up around Johnson's legacy like so much smothering kudzu plant, dig beneath the grandiose stories and you'll find a gifted songwriter, a powerful singer, and a skilled guitarist. The aura of mystery that surrounded Johnson's life (and his early death) helped make him the iconic Delta bluesman, a legend tailor-made to appeal to a 1960s generation of blues-influenced rockers like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin.
This is the centennial of Johnson's birthday as well, and Sony Legacy Recordings has released a couple of archival albums in honor of the bluesman's 100th birthday celebration. The label has revisited its ever-popular Robert Johnson release The Complete Recordings, a two-disc set documenting every scrap of music that the itinerant Delta bluesman every recorded, 42 songs total with alternate takes.
This album, in various versions, is probably the best-selling blues disc ever, and the brand-new Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection re-packages the earlier set with great new liner notes from writer Ted Gioia, an illustrated biography by historian Stephen C. LaVere, and a history of the recorded masters, as well as lots of rare photos of various blues artists and revamped sound quality. Sony Legacy has also released the deluxe four-disc Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters – Centennial Edition box set.
Legacy's Robert Johnson: The Complete Original Masters – Centennial Edition is a pretty cool box set featuring a hardback vintage-style book with sleeves containing vinyl 45rpm reproductions of Johnson's twelve original 78rpm releases, as well as a lavish 10" square booklet. The box also includes the entire two-disc Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection and a two-disc Rarities From The Vault set, the first CD offering a dozen rare tracks featuring performances from the era from Johnson contemporaries like Furry Lewis, Blind Willie McTell, Tommy Johnson, and others. The second CD includes ten tracks recorded in Dallas and San Antonio during the same period that Johnson recorded, a mix of blues, hillbilly, folk, and Mexican music. The box closes out with a DVD of Peter Meyer's acclaimed 1997 documentary film The Life & Music of Robert Johnson: Can't you Hear The Wind Howl? Unavailable in stores, this box is only available through Legacy's Robert Johnson website.
There's a lot of commerce going on around Johnson's centennial and for good reason. The Delta bluesman's importance on blues and rock music cannot be overstated, and in the decades since his death, Johnson's songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Mayall, Keb' Mo', and dozens more. Whether you spring for the new Robert Johnson CD sets or not, you can join us today in celebrating the life, the career, and the music of Delta blues great Robert Johnson!
Related content: Robert Johnson Profile
Photo courtesy Sony Legacy Recordings