So this is a 2 disc box set that contains everything that Robert Johnson ever recorded (hence the title “The Complete Recordings”), and I have to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about Robert Johnson before I picked this up on Amazon for $12.66.  Fortunately, the box set came with a book that gives a biographical account of Johnson’s brief life.  Basically, he was the illegitimate child of a sharecropper who picked up the guitar to avoid having to work on a farm (I would probably have done the same thing).  He never had any real measure of fame in his lifetime, but he did have a following in the deep south.  A drinker and a womanizer (he was a musician afterall), he was eventually poisoned after a gig, probably for hitting on the wrong woman.  He died at age 27 (why is it that so many musicians die at age 27?…Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, and even just recently Amy Winehouse!), leaving behind these 29 songs (plus alternate takes) as his legacy.  Famous guitarists like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton claim that these 29 songs had a profound influence on their playing.

These songs are the blues in its purest state.  Fortunately, I had a couple of college professors that understood that the blues is the template for pretty much all American (and quite a bit of English) popular music in the 20th century, so I did spend some time studying it at OSU (thanks Dr. Gerber!).  Pretty much every song on this record follows the 12 bar structure, with two repeated lines and a third line that rhymes (the only exception is “They’re Red Hot”).  The lyrics range from tongue-in-cheek type jokes that poke fun at the unfortunate situations the singer finds himself in to straight up depressing stories about how bad life can get. Oh, and of course there is the occasional suggestive lyric as well.  The fact that the structure never varies makes all of the songs sort of blend into each other, but they are pretty good songs nonetheless.  What really stands out though is Robert Johnson’s guitar technique: he plays melody, rhythm, and bass lines all at the same time, and somehow each one is distinct.  And of course, there are the great blues licks that he plays as fill in between each lyric…I now realize what a tremendous influence he was on Chuck Berry.

Robert Johnson Box Set

Other lists: Robert Johnson is listed as the #71 greatest guitar player on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Guitar players.

Ch-ch-changes: On the original 2004 list, this set was represented with two separate albums, King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume 1 which came in at #27 and King of the Delta Blues Singers Volume 2 which came in at #424.  They were combined into this box set for the current list, and the ranking was bumped up to #22.

My favorite track: “They’re Red Hot”

Honorable mention: “Terraplane Blues”

Quote: “Ima get down deep on this connection, keep on tangling with your wires…Ima get down deep in this connection, hoo-well, keep on tangling with these wires…And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire.”