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Music

The life-changing first time Bob Dylan heard Robert Johnson

Bob Dylan is one of the definitive heroes of modern music. A sharp wordsmith and genius composer, in terms of influence, he is only really superseded by The Beatles, showing just how consequential his career has been. 

The Minnesota native has an eclectic back catalogue, and across it, he experiments with jazz, hard-rock and world music. Despite having such a wide range, though, Dylan is primarily known as a folk musician, the king of the protest song that took the mantle from his hero Woody Guthrie. 

Aside from Guthrie, there’s another musician who had a transformative impact on Dylan. This was the mysterious delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson. It wasn’t until Dylan was 20 that he heard Johnson’s music, but, it was an experience that he partially attributes to finding the great artistic success that he was to in the very near future.

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In his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan explained it all. In 1961, he had been in Greenwich Village, New York City, for well over a year and was well-ingratiated in the flourishing folk scene. It was here that he was discovered by John Hammond of Columbia Records, with whom he recorded his eponymous debut in November that year. 

In the book, Dylan claims that Hammond let him listen to an obscure Robert Johnson compilation that the label was releasing later in the year called King of the Delta Blues. The impact this listening experience had on him cannot be overstated. 

Dylan said: “Before leaving that day, he’d [Hammond] given me a couple records that were not yet available to the public…[one] was called King of the Delta Blues by Robert Johnson… I’d never heard of Robert Johnson. Never heard the name, never seen it on any of the compilation blues records. Hammond said I should listen to it, that this guy could ‘whip anybody.'”

Adding: “He showed me the artwork, an unusual painting where the painter with the eye stares down from the ceiling into the room and sees this fiercely intense singer and guitar player, looks no more than medium height but with shoulders like an acrobat. What an electrifying cover. I stared at the illustration. Whoever the singer was in the picture, he already had me possessed.”

He continued: “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armour. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren’t customary blues songs. They were perfected pieces–each song contained four or five verses, every couplet intertwined with the next, but in no obvious way.”

Totally enamoured by the record, Dylan concluded: “The record that didn’t grab Dave [Van Ronk] very much had left me numb, like I’d been hit by a tranquilliser bullet…Over the next few weeks I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting staring at the record player. Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition… If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down.” 

It makes you wonder what lines exactly Bob Dylan meant, but I’d wager that ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is one of them. Dylan’s revelation also makes you wonder just how his career would’ve turned out if he hadn’t heard this unreleased compilation, a testament to the work of the late Robert Johnson.

Listen to King of the Delta Blues below.

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