King of the Delta Blues Singers

King of the Delta Blues Singers

Because so little is known about Robert Johnson’s life, it’s easy to spin the experience of his music into myth—of the roving bluesman poisoned by a woman’s jealous husband, of the guitarist who met the Devil and bargained his soul for his gift. But Johnson was real, and so were the conditions—racial, cultural, economic—under which his music was made. For all its revolutionary qualities, King of the Delta Blues Singers is as much the end of something as the beginning: The sound of rural blues at a moment when industrialization had scattered rural Black Southerners to places like Chicago and New York; the sound of a folk idiom at a moment when the urban sounds of jazz and swing were taking over. His fascination with recording served him well, as did his prescience about the role that jukeboxes and recorded music would play in the dissemination of culture. Whereas Son House and John Hurt (and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf) enjoyed late-life renaissances after the rise of rock ’n’ roll, for Johnson, the music compiled on 1961’s King of the Delta Blues Singers was the first time most people—including Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin—ever heard his name. The music is like sushi: raw but subtle, perfectly minimal, cold, and nourishing. There is no hiding in it. The sex is bold (“Come on in My Kitchen”), the spirituality chilling (“Hell Hound on My Trail”). Even his innuendo carries pain (“Terraplane Blues”). At around the time that Louis Armstrong was breaking free of the straight line that held classic pop vocals in place, Johnson was introducing a kind of physicality that became the revolutionary hallmark of rock ’n’ roll. He didn’t just want you to squeeze his lemon until the juice ran down his leg—he shuddered, shivered, and moaned (“Traveling Riverside Blues”). The myth that he sold his soul to the Devil obscured an important reality. But it also got at an important emotional truth: At his best, Johnson doesn’t sound like he’s making the music, but that the music is borrowing him just to be heard.

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