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Published: 2011/05/31
by Ron Hart

Robert Johnson
The Centennial Collection


One of the greatest folk tales in all of American pop occurred on a fateful day in the post-Depression South when an amateur bluesman named Robert Johnson met a man said to be Satan incarnate at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 down in the Mississippi Delta region. Spurned by his burning desire to excel at his craft, Johnson handed the mysterious being the guitar he had been traveling with and watched as the Devil tuned it for him, played a few songs on it and returned it back to him, along with it a newfound sense of mastery young Robert never had possessed before that night near the famous Dockery Plantation. The result of this Faustian bargain resulted in two solid years of artistic triumph for Johnson in 1936 and 1937, recording a string of 78s for such notable “race music” labels at the time as Vocalion, Oriole, Conqueror and Perfect before the Devil came to collect on Johnson’s end of their midnight deal. That, of course, being his soul, and on August 16, 1938, the young musician was found dead at the age of 27—the apparent victim of a strychnine poisoning at the hands of a jealous husband whose wife the guitarist had been trying to court.

However, though his time on this Earth may have been all too brief, the influence of Robert Johnson’s legacy on the last 80 years of popular music is unparalleled, as his revolutionary bar and scale techniques honed from his own appreciation for such blues greats that came before him as Son House and Charley Patton, provided the genesis for not only modern blues but rock ‘n’ roll in all of its ragged glory as well. His songs have been adopted by just about every blues-based music act worth their salt in this industry over the last century, the endless list of which is topped by the likes of Muddy Waters, Elmore James, the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top, The White Stripes and The Black Keys to name only a few.

May 8, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of Robert Johnson’s birth. And in commemoration of this landmark event, his longtime post-mortem label, Columbia Records via their intrepid Legacy division, offers a long overdue upgrade of its 1990 box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings with an excellent new two-disc set. Entitled Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection, this new anthology cleans up the entirety of the bluesman’s recorded output, 29 original songs and 23 alternate takes, to sustain an upfront sense of clarity like never before, giving a newfound sense of beauty and timelessness to such stone blues classics as “Kindhearted Woman Blues”, “Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Terraplane Blues”, “Cross Road Blues”, “Hellhound On My Trail”, “Traveling Riverside Blues”, “Love In Vain Blues”, “Milkcow Calf’s Blues”, the list can go on and on. Also featured here are new illustrations and photo images, a Johnson family tree, a new essay penned by Ted Gioia as well as an newly scribed biography from Stephen C. LaVere, the acclaimed author who penned a previous thesis on Johnson’s life story originally included in the 1990 box.

This new Centennial Collection, will likely disappoint nobody else but the circle of conspiracy theorists who feel that the recordings we are listening to of Johnson’s are actually at the wrong speed. It’s a topic of controversy that originated in 2004 when certain so-called musicologtists laid claim to the concept that the songs originally featured on the two original Johnson compilations, 1961’s King of the Delta Blues Singers and its 1970 follow-up King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. II were issued at a speed that was allegedly 20 percent faster than what he actually had played during those original sessions in San Antonio and Dallas in ’36 and ’37. Though modified editions of both of these original Columbia titles do exist on the black market with the 20 percent speed decrease, The Centennial Collection adheres strictly to the hopped up, nervy versions we have all grown to know and love, and what made the immortal combination of Johnson’s voice and guitar such an essential listen and one of the genuine touchstones of modern day music appreciation.

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