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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is possibly the most influential musician of all time. Without the first inductee of ‘the 27 club’ and master of the Delta blues style, it is safe to say the world would not be the same. Furthermore, icons such as Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac would not exist without him. Clapton has noted the great influence that Johnson had on the British blues movement of the ’60s, calling him “the most important blues singer that ever lived.”

It is a testament to his skill and legacy that so many of the world’s most iconic musicians owe a lot to his influence. This is augmented by the fact he, in his lifetime, had a short career that nonetheless had a small but dedicated influence. It was this cult following that would sow his musical seeds across both sides of the Atlantic.

Born in 1911, Johnson spent his career as a travelling performer who most played on street corners, barrelhouses and at Saturday night dances. It was this humble circuit that culminated in his limited commercial success and public recognition in his lifetime. This is reflected in the fact that he only participated in two recording sessions—one in San Antonio in 1936 and one in Dallas in 1937.

It is in this fact that the sheer enormity of his influence is displayed. These two sessions produced only 29 distinct songs, with 13 surviving “alternate takes”. These were recorded by legendary producer and Country Music Hall of Fame member Don Law — who would go on to produce other legends such as Johnny Cash.

These songs, the totality of his recorded output, are incredibly low fidelity. Most of them were released as 10-inch singles between ’37 and ’38, with very few released posthumously. Apart from these recordings, much about Johnson remains a mystery. Even his cause of death is unknown, with syphilis or poisoning being two popular candidates.

It is due to Johnson’s poorly documented life and death that he remains not only one of the most influential musicians of all time, but the most mysterious as well. The most iconic tale associated with his life is the legend that he sold his soul to the devil at a local crossroads to achieve musical prowess. This tale is so massive in pop culture that it was even included in the Coen brothers’ classic romp, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Most of Johnson’s back catalogue has been covered over the years, becoming hits for other artists. Furthermore, many guitarists have appropriated his licks and lyrics for the modern era. In his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan claimed: “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—that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised enough to write.”

In his 2011 documentary, Metal Evolution, filmmaker Sam Dunn even went as far as hailing Johnson as the “great grandfather to all things heavy metal”. Showing the extent of his genealogical influence, members of Rush and Slipknot agreed in noting his major roll in the development of rock music.

Join us then, as we list Johnson’s top six songs.

Six definitive songs of Robert Johnson:

‘Me and the Devil Blues’ (1938)

This grainy classic tells the story of the narrator waking up one morning to find the Devil knocking on his door, telling him, “it’s time to go”. It was recorded as part of his Dallas recording session on June 19, 1937. This was his final recording session.

The descriptive imagery of the lyrics certainly pack a punch. Whether he is talking literally or figuratively, Johnson or the narrator sings of “walking side by side” with the Devil. It is in this relationship with the lord of darkness that the narrator blames his abhorrent behaviour “I’m gonna beat my woman until I get satisfied” on “that old evil spirit.”

Johnson’s voice and guitar work add to the evocative nature of the lyrics. He concluded with the classic line: “You may bury my body down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride.””

Watch the equally as haunting music video below.

‘Love in Vain’ (1937)

One of Johnson’s best-loved masterpieces, he sings of unrequited love, using a departing train as a metaphor for his heartbreak. His performance, including his trademark fingerstyle guitar playing and melancholic vocals, has been described as “devastatingly bleak”. The song was also recorded as part of his Dallas session. 

‘Love in Vain’ contains elements of earlier Delta blues songs, and for a time it was believed to be in the public domain. In 1969, the Rolling Stones recorded an updated version for the eighth album, Let it Bleed. The success of this version led to a lawsuit over the copyright, which was eventually resolved in favour of Johnson’s estate.

Various other artists have recorded the song. It seems to have a special place in the heart of Eric Clapton. He recorded it for the Johnson devoted album, Me and Mr Johnson, in 2004. Furthermore, Clapton quotes one of the verses in Derek and the Dominos’ smash, ‘Layla’: “Please don’t say we’ll never find a way, and tell me all my love’s in vain”.

‘Hellhound on My Trail’ (1937)

Inspired by earlier Delta blues songs, this entry is often regarded as his opus. Prior to his recording, the phrase “hellhound on my trail” had been used in various other blues songs. Sylvester Weaver’s ‘Devil Blues’, recorded in 1927 features the lyric: “Hellhounds start to chase me, man, I was a running fool, My ankles caught on fire, couldn’t keep my puppies cool”.

‘Funny Paper’ Smith in 1931’s ‘Howling Wold Blues No. 3″ sang: “I take time when I’m prowlin’, an’ wipe my tracks out with my tail … Get home and get blue an’ start howlin’, an’ the hellhound on my trail”.

The line obviously has religious connections, but possibly religious origins too. The Biddleville Quintette’s 1926 religious track ‘Show Pity Lord’, opens with a religious testimony triumphantly declaring that “The hell hound has turned back off my trail”.

Blues historian Elijah Wald has posited that Johnson did indeed take the cues for this song from other bluesmen. He argues that Johnson followed Johnny Temple ‘The Evil Devil Blues’ (1935) and Joe McCoy ‘Evil Devil Woman Blues’ (1934) in adapting Skip James’s 1931 song ‘Devil Got My Woman’. Whichever way you see it, it seems the devil, blues and rock and roll have always been inextricably linked.

‘Hellhound on My Trail’ is played in an open E minor guitar tuning. This makes the lower strings provide somewhat of a droning accompaniment. Charles Shaar Murray notes: “the bottleneck … mak(ing) the treble strings of his guitar moan like wind through dead trees”.

‘Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)’ (1939)

This made up one side of the last 78 rpm record released by Johnson, albeit, posthumously, and was also the first of his recordings made available to the public two decades after his death.

Music historian and writer Samuel B. Charters published his seminal work The Country Blues in 1959. In it, Charters outlined the history of the blues and his years-long beach for the bluesmen described in it. In addition to this he compiled the eponymous companion album for Folkway Records.

Comprised of fourteen songs, the album became a standard influence for the nascent rock and roll – ‘Preachin’ Blues’ was among them.

‘Ramblin’ on My Mind’ (1937)

Another classic Johnson and blues song that cites travelling as an inspiration. Johnson took the melody from ‘M & O Blues’, a successful record by Walter Davis, released in 1930. Two takes of Johnson’s record exist, and the lyrics vary considerably between them. Both versions have been pressed on different records of Johnson’s released by labels: Vocalion, Perfect and Romeo.

It is said to be a sequel of sorts to Johnson’s 1936 release “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’. Johnson combines a boogie shuffle on the lower strings of his guitar, with triplets on the treble strings. On one of the versions, he even uses a bottleneck for the first time. The song was so influential, Elmore James released a hit version in 1951, which according to historian Gerard Herzhaft, “made it the classic as we know it”.

The song was covered by influential group John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers in 1966. Featuring than none other, yet again, Eric Clapton on guitar.

‘Cross Road Blues’ (1937)

An influential slide guitar piece, that by all accounts is a Johnson original, ‘Cross Road Blues’ or simply ‘Crossroads’, is sung with conviction. Embodying what little we know of Johnson’s character, the lyrics are ambiguous, adding to the song’s fame.

On the first of the two recorded takes, starts with the line: “I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees / Asked the Lord above ‘Have mercy now, save poor Bob, if you please'”.

Again, the autobiographical nature of the lyrics are unclear. However, the narrator/singer at first kneels in despair to beg forgiveness, then tries to hitch a ride, but both prove unsuccessful until night comes: “Standin’ at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride / Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by / Standin’ at the crossroad, risin’ sun goin’ down / I believe to my soul now, po’ Bob is sinkin’ down”.

‘Crossroads’ has become a central part of the Robert Johnson mythology. It directly refers to the place where he supposedly sold his soul to the Devil, although the lyrics are devoid of any direct references to the Lucifer.

Again, Johnson disciples Elmore James and Eric Clapton would help to revive and popularise the song. James did so with versions of it in 1954, ’60 and ’61 and Cream, did so in the late ’60s. Furthermore, Clapton and Bob Dylan performed a duet of the masterpiece in 1999.