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Friday, March 20, 2009

29 in 2009 - Robert Johnson: "King of the Delta Blues Singers"

Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers
Originally Released: 1961 (Recorded 1936-37)
Genre: Blues
Rating: 6 out of 10 Stars

This was a tough one for me guys. I've been listening to this collection of Robert Johnson recordings sing mid-January when it was first suggested for the 29 in 2009 series. Despite all that time with the record, I still can't say that I love what I'm hearing. Much of that has to do with the blues, itself. It's not a genre that I generally enjoy to listen to. One that I can appreciate, sure, but not one that I "like."

It's tough to explain. I'll try.

My experience with listening to music, judging it, making opinions, and writing about it deals significantly with deciding how "good" something is. When listening to blues, especially Robert Johnson, I literally have to throw all of that out of the window and try to evaluate it on a less technical, more emotional level. The blues isn't about concocting these elaborate compositions. It's not about perfection. It's not about being impressive. None of that matters when it comes to the blues. What matters is that the musician tells his or her story and makes it as real as possible. No need to be elaborate or metaphorical - just keep it simple.

And that is something that Robert Johnson does very well. The simple honesty contained within these songs is unparalleled in modern music; their relatablilty unquestionable. His influence is just as powerful, having a noted effect on artists ranging from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan (their admission, not my words). So to say that every person who fancies themselves a music snob should listen to Robert Johnson is true. Everyone should listen to Robert Johnson if only for the sole purpose of laying the foundation for an understanding of rock n roll. I understand that sounds a little hypocritical for someone who's just now listening to him for the first time, but the puzzle pieces are slowly fitting together and his unofficial title of "Grandfather of Rock n Roll" is making a lot of sense to me right about now.

But then we get back to that whole technicality issue, which is something that I simply cannot overcome. The simple truth is that Robert Johnson, despite his skill and influence, plays a style of music that doesn't stimulate me in the way that I think music should. Many people may disagree with me there, and that's fine. But to hear Johnson repeat the same blues chords over and over again, to hear him repeatedly take his guitar on the same walks; it's tiring. It's not something that I can listen to over the course of an hour. Johnson's voice itself is nothing worth noting, but it works with the music. The unfortunate thing about Johnson, or the blues in general, is just that it is so repetitive and formulaic that many times - not always, mind you - I just start to tune it out.

That's why I think that Robert Johnson is probably best-suited for an iPod on shuffle, as a pleasant surprise on a long drive, or at a small get-together. As an album, "King of the Delta Blues Singers" is not something that I'm going to keep spinning for weeks, or hours for that matter. But it is good. It is important. And if you haven't heard it, or any other compilation of Johnson's recordings, you should probably check it out. I'm glad that I did.

Verdict: Required Listening

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