Picks and Pans Review: The Complete Recordings

UPDATED 01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/14/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

Robert Johnson

A longtime hero to such superstars of the rock world as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, who emulated his haunting, raw-boned singing and deep-blues-style guitar playing, Robert Johnson (1911-38) has finally come into his own with the release of this 29-song compilation that is part of Columbia's Roots 'n' Blues series.

In these highly personal and darkly primitive songs, Johnson tells the story of his dissonant, peripatetic, secretive and short life better than any biographer. These are tales of drink, the devil and a compulsive kind of dogging around, sung in a voice that is plaintive and solemn, that taps at once into the sordid and the sublime, to the accompaniment of his chilling guitar and slide-guitar spills and riffs.

Like much of Johnson's life, and death, how he came to play the guitar the way he did is the subject of mystery. After learning the Jew's harp and harmonica in his teens, he began picking up the guitar from local musicians working juke joints and country suppers in the Mississippi Delta. Bluesman Son House, it is said, told Johnson early on. "You can't play nothin'," only to stand amazed, a few years later, listening to his former student's prodigious playing.

The collected Johnson is the fruit of five recording sessions in 1936 and 1937 in San Antonio and Dallas. They represent the entire known body of Johnson's legacy in wax.

Here you'll find "Terraplane Blues," the only song that afforded Johnson a small measure of fame during his lifetime; two takes of the slow and sulky "Love in Vain." covered by the Rolling Stones in the '60s; and such familiar, if seldom heard, tunes as "Stop Breakin' Down Blues," "Cross Road Blues" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom."

The accompanying booklet contains an essay on Johnson, loving tributes by Clapton and Keith Richards, a discography, and pictures of Johnson, his family and other Delta bluesmen Johnson traveled and played with until the night in 1938 when he was apparently poisoned by the husband of a woman he had become friendly with while playing at a backcountry roadhouse. Johnson died three days later, at age 27.

Equal parts hellhound and dreamer, Johnson had a talent for living the blues and the genius to make us feel his life in song. (Columbia)

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