Tuesday, March 25, 2008

No. 424: King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 2

Band: Robert Johnson
Album: King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 2
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Like the first volume of this set, this record is half of Robert Johnson's recording history. Johnson is one of the fathers of rock and roll and is certainly on the Mount Rushmore of blues singers.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well... See below.
Best song: "Sweet Home Chicago" is a wonderful, wonderful song.
Worst song: "Drunken Hearted Man" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Sure.

Here's an interesting question: What would be the beginning of the modern musical era? Is it defined by genre? Is it defined by technology (digital v. analog, eight-track recording v. four-track recording, etc.)?

I say this because I called Buddy Holly "dated" earlier this week. I stand by this, but in listening to Robert Johnson, I wouldn't necessarily call it that.

Robert Johnson's music is so far in the past -- 20 years before Buddy Holly -- that comparing it to modern music is foolish. The best comparison I can make is to cars. A car from the 1980s and 1990s (and, maybe the 1970s) looks silly. A car from the 1950s is history.

(Of course, this isn't entirely true, even to cars. Some people find that era of American culture to be cool. This is the nature of our post-modernist culture.)

In the same way that a 1950s car is history, Robert Johnson is history. The car from the 1950s needs tons of care and it can't get to the speeds needed on the highway. It isn't usable in the same way that a new car is, but it's the precursor to the cars we use. It's interesting and fun to learn about. Robert Johnson's music isn't listenable in the same way that more modern stuff is. Modern music is recorded in multitrack. Modern music doesn't have tons of tape hiss in it. Modern music has more than the 12-bar blues.

But, still. It's history.


Notable on the record is "Sweet Home Chicago," a song with lyrics very different from the ones we know. Instead of "Back to the same old place," Johnson sings "Back to the land of California." Some people have suggested that Johnson was combining the places of California (great weather) and Chicago (north, no Jim Crow) to create a utopia for African-Americans at the time.

"Sweet Home Chicago" is the standard of standards in blues and listening to Johnson's version, it really opens your eyes to the tenderness of the song. As with many of Johnson's songs, despair is the order of the day.


It's a historical document more than a modern record. It's enjoyable and something to study, but I wouldn't walk around listening to it.

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