Robert Johnson- The Centennial Collection (Columbia/Legacy)

Blues legend Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911. In order to celebrate his 100th birthday, and sell a bit of product, Sony has just released a new version of Johnson’s Complete Recordings.

Thanks to Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and a host of other rockers, Robert Johnson has become both a hugely influential songwriter and musician and a mythical figure. This is the man who supposedly sold his sold to the devil at the crossroads in order to become a hugely talented musician. In reality, he was poisoned by a jealous bar owner in 1938. But before Johnson died at age 27 he recorded 29 of his own compositions in Texas, one session took place in November of 1936, the other in June of 1937. Looking over the list of Johnson’s songs, it’s amazing how many have worked their way into the very fabric of modern rock and roll…Kind Hearted Woman, Dust My Broom, Sweet Home Chicago, Stop Breakin’ Down, Traveling Riverside Blues, Love In Vain and, of course, Crossroads are just a few of the iconic songs Johnson wrote and recorded.

Robert Johnson’s music seems to get a new lease on life every twenty years or so. His music was first reissued in 1960; 21 years after his last 78 had been released. That LP, King Of The Delta Blues Singers, influenced a generation of musicians including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards. A decade later, volume two was released and 20 years after that, in 1990, the Complete Recording box set was issued on CD, introducing a whole new generation of fans to Johnson’s music.

So, why do we need another “Complete Collection” twenty years later? Well, it is Johnson’s birthday. And a couple of interesting items have been uncovered in the meantime. A second take of Traveling Riverside Blues was discovered in the mid-90s and two very short and faint snippets were detected in the test grooves of a couple of the original masters. On one you can hear Johnson practicing a guitar lick, on the other; he is heard speaking a sentence to his producer. I must say, after listening (very intently) to these two new items, they are almost inaudible. However, the “new” version of Traveling Riverside Blues is interesting, especially when Johnson gets to the “squeeze my lemon” line. Also new is the remastering job. I compared this edition sonically with the 1990 version and found that, although the hiss seems a bit louder on the new version, the vocals seem to have more presence. I’m guessing that when they eliminated the hiss in 1990, they also lost some of the performance. That, fortunately, has been restored.

If you already own the 1990 box set, you may want to think twice before shelling out for this 2-disc package…the liner notes and packaging are very similar. But if you don’t own these recordings, this is the perfect time to add them to your collection. After all, these songs and performances comprise the very foundation of what eventually became rock and roll.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to the alternative version of Traveling Riverside Blues