The Complete Recordings by Robert Johnson

December 2, 2009

I am now 28 album reviews into my exploration of the Eric Clapton catalog. However, if you want to truly understand the music of Eric Clapton, it all flows through the delta blues, and the delta blues flow through Robert Johnson.

There are many legends surrounding Robert Johnson. One has him selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads. It was collected at the age of 27 when he died of poisoning in a night club. He left behind a very small catalog of material. He only released eleven 78rpm records during his lifetime and one more after his death. His total output was forty-one tracks which includes alternate takes.

The Complete Recordings, released in 1990, is a two disc box set which gathers all of his recorded material into one place. The sound takes some getting used to, as it was originally recorded in the 1930’s. Yet his technical virtuosity with the guitar and the emotional power of his vocals shine through.

Johnson’s sound was primitive and his stories were grounded in the black culture of the early twentieth century southern United States. The devil, death, religion, and loss are all presented in a haunting and many times terrifying manner.

Johnson’s releases did not sell well during his lifetime, yet today many are instantly recognizable through their being covered by hundreds of artists. “Cross Road Blues” received a classic rendition by Eric Clapton and Cream. Johnson’s version is stripped to basics, but is a fine example of his guitar prowess as you swear it is two people playing instead of one.

“Love In Vain” is best known today for its performance by The Rolling Stones, but here we have the simple and wistful original. “Hellhound On My Trail” is what the delta blues are all about as Johnson takes you on a painful journey through the dark places of the mind. “Sweet Home Chicago” remains one of the best known blues songs of all time.

The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson is not an easy journey but an essential one for any fan of the blues and the roots of American music.

Me and Mr. Johnson by Eric Clapton

November 28, 2009

Robert Johnson may not have invented the blues, but he remains one of its most influential practitioners. His box set, The Complete Recordings gathers all of his material into one place and should be required listening for any fan of rock or blues music.

Eric Clapton’s career was grounded in the blues and particularly the music of Robert Johnson. His catalog is sprinkled with his songs.

I am a big fan of both the blues and Eric Clapton, so it was with a great deal of anticipation that I awaited Clapton’s cover album of Robert Johnson material. It seemed like a natural. Somehow Me and Mr. Johnson didn’t work out as I expected. It was just too slick and professional. Johnson was passionate, intense and a great technician, but he was definitely not slick.

The CD cover pictures a stark Clapton, seated in front of a picture of Johnson, holding an acoustic guitar. If he had taken the cover to heart he probably would have been better off. Johnson recorded with just his 12 string guitar, while Clapton brings along his band. When you add in the production it veers away from the original intent and style of the music. I wish Clapton would have tackled the songs with just his guitar and let the chips fall where they may.

I have no doubt that Clapton loves the music and truly tries to make it his own and there are a few tracks that rise above the rest. “Traveling Riverside Blues” is played as traditional 12 bar blues. “They’re Red Hot” was an unusual Johnson song as he did not use a 12 string guitar, and it seems to fit Clapton’s style well. “Hellhound On My Trail” is one of the best blues songs of all time and Clapton interprets it well as his vocal presents the intense imagery of the lyrics.

“Love In Vain” is representative of the albums problems as Clapton just gives a bland performance. Compare his version with that of The Rolling Stones on their Let It Bleed album and it just does not measure up.

Clapton had successfully covered a number of Johnson songs in the past but this many together just seemed to be beyond him. What he did create was a technically proficient but ultimately sterile album. If you truly want to hear the music of Robert Johnson interpreted well check out Peter Green’s Me & The Devil and The Robert Johnson Songbook because he got it right.

Maybe Me and Mr. Johnson will serve as an introduction to the music of an important blues legend but as an interpretive effort it leaves a lot to be desired.