The name Robert Johnson is synonymous with blues music. His influence is cast across rock music, and almost every guitarist that sprung up in the Blues Explosion of the ’60s vibrates with his technique. Guitarists like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jeff Beck all owe a debt to Johnson. It’s as if covering his songs opened a doorway to fame—in the same vein that the folklore lets you visit his world of superstitious cool. But those are just some of the artists who have covered Robert Johnson. The scope of this unlikely star, who never travelled outside the United States, has cast a spell unlike any other. Eric Clapton once recorded a complete album of his songs. One of the most well-known guitarists of the 20th century, indebted to Johnson like no other.
Only twenty nine songs were recorded by Johnson between 1936 and 1937, and only eleven 78 records released—although rehearsal takes have been unearthed and released in the last few years. Though not as refined a player as Charlie Patton, or as talented a songwriter as Son House, Robert Johnson is the figurehead of blues music in the 20th century. The folklore surrounding the man is undeniably fantastic, and this folklore is the subject of many of his songs.
Did he sell his soul to the devil at a crossroads, one midnight at Dockery Plantation in Mississippi? As the legend goes the “devil” or “black figure” took Johnson’s guitar from him, tuned it, played a few songs, and then handed it back.
When Johnson received the guitar back, his soul was the devil’s in return for mastery of the blues. This point is reflected in many of his songs, such as ‘Hellhound On My Trail’, ‘Cross Roads Blues’, ‘Me And The Devil Blues’, and ‘Preaching Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)’. His mysterious death on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27, only adds to the myth. Johnson died of unknown causes and was buried at an unknown location.
The best way to listen to Robert Johnson is through headphones—you get deeper into the sound and the guitar playing. For example, on the track ‘Come On In My Kitchen’, Johnson speaks the line:
“Mama, can’t you hear that wind howl?”
Then, the slide begins to make the sound of howling wind on the guitar strings, sending shivers down your spine. This was Robert Johnson’s style, capturing the listener by pulling every trick out of the bag and executing with ease.
Following are fifteen tracks, songs recorded by Robert Johnson over eighty years ago, and reinvented by the artists he inspired. From the guitar slingers of the sixties right up to today, one thing is notably frequent—how many artists included a Johnson track on their debut albums, sparking their fame. With this, the spooky-folklore factor goes into overdrive.
#1. Cream – ‘Crossroads’
Taken from mammoth 1968 double album Wheels Of Fire, this is Cream at their very best—live and unleashed.
#2. Led Zeppelin – ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’
Recorded in 1969, but unreleased until 1990, this was Jimmy Page’s reinvention of his hero’s finest recording.
#3. The Rolling Stones – ‘Love In Vain’
Released fifty years ago this year, The Stones masterwork Let It Bleed featured this Johnson classic. It also features mandolin by Ry Cooder building the drama.
#4. Black Stone Cherry – ‘Me & The Devil Blues’
This new Black Stone Cherry track is from their upcoming October release Back To The Blues Vol. 2. The group stated, “We chose this song because we have such an appreciation for Robert Johnson and his music”.
#5. The White Stripes – ‘Stop Breaking Down’
Taken from The White Stripes’ self-titled debut. The album might be dedicated to Son House, but this Johnson standard is a highlight.
#6. Fleetwood Mac – ‘Hellhound On My Trail’
Appearing on Fleetwood Mac’s debut album, guitarist Peter Green tipped his hat to Johnson with this blistering two-minute Blues standard.
#7. ZZ Top – ‘Dust My Broom’
Taken from ZZ Top’s savage 1979 release Degüello, the boys from Texas certainly tore this track apart with some electrifying guitar work and pounding rhythm.
#8. Lucinda Williams – ‘Ramblin’ on My Mind’
From Williams’ 1979 debut album Ramblin’, this cover is a showcase of her knack for interpreting the heart of the blues.
#9. Bonnie Raitt – ‘Walkin’ Blues’
Another debut album inclusion, this time by guitar virtuoso Bonnie Raitt. ‘Walkin’ Blues’, an acoustic powerhouse, appears on her eponymous 1971 album.
#10. Foghat – ‘Terraplane Blues’
A track included on Foghat’s fifth record, Fool For The City, and often regarded as the group’s high point.
#11. Bob Dylan – ’32-20 Blues’
Another from the vaults, originally recorded for Dylan’s World Gone Wrong, it didn’t see daylight until The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 in 2008.
#12. Johnny Winter – ‘When You Got a Good Friend’
A highlight of Winter’s second album, a record hailed by critics as a masterpiece upon release.
#13. George Thorogood & The Destroyers – ‘Kind Hearted Woman’
Following the trend, this is also from a debut release—The Destroyers 1977 collection of blues covers.
#14. Gun Club – ‘Preaching the Blues’
The Gun Club’s classic 1981 album Fire Of Love brought both Robert Johnson and this haunting track back into the spotlight.
#15. The Blues Brothers – ‘Sweet Home Chicago’
Finishing up with the sublime Blues Brothers. The late John Belushi, as Jake Elwood, sang ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ for both the movie and the soundtrack.