The story of Robert Johnson is every bit as fascinating as it is creepy. There was always an enigmatic quality to the Delta bluesman, who hailed from Mississippi. His life story was the pinnacle of unsourced mystery that only heightened the curiosity about his precocious existence. The only known fact about Robert Johnson is that he was born in 1911. He spent much of his early life playing where he could by frequenting the local bars. Johnson achieved the omnipotent ability to play the guitar by going down to the crossroads of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and supposedly made a deal with the devil. Johnson passed away at the eerie age of 27. He only recorded 29 songs to his name for the company ARC Records (American Record Corporation), several of which were released as 78 rpm singles on Vocalion Records.
What makes Robert Johnson such a renowned figure in music is his pioneering of the blues and the idea that he made a pact with Satan to obtain his complex guitar playing. According to Son House, the legend was that he was such a terrible guitarist that he took off to Clarksdale for a couple of weeks and made his way to the crossroads where the devil stood there waiting. Johnson handed his guitar over to the devil, who then tuned it for him and handed it back over. Within less than a year, Johnson was already a virtuoso who confounded his contemporaries with some of the best music of his time.
There’s really no denying his ubiquitous influence across the musical spectrum. Johnson not only laid the groundwork for the blues genre, but he also influenced just about every highly regarded musician/band known to mankind, which includes Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Bob Dylan, Jack White, Led Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac (the early years with Peter Green); just to name a selective few.
Robert Johnson’s legacy is undeniable, and his respective impact on music is hard not to feel when one thumbs through the infinite glossary of genres. He’s to rock and roll, with a style so brash and openly honest that it’s hard not to connect with him in some way. This list will comprise a list of different recordings showing the breadth of his technique, both well-known and underrated.
# 10 – They’re Red Hot
This is one of Johnson’s most fast-paced songs he ever did. He bangs out such a quick and consistent rhythm in swaying at each ragtime chord and growls in a high-pitched fit of rasping. And the recurring bar, hot tamales, and they’re red hot! yes, she got ’em for sale! draws the listener into a humid kitchen where one could almost taste those hot tamales. This is the only recording he ever did of this song, and the sound in his voice shows that he had fun recording it.
# 9 – Drunken Hearted Man
Here’s a prime example of bellowing out the pain of the blues. Johnson does what he does best here, creating a descending riff with those classic blues fills and turnarounds while wallowing in a pool of self-pity. He speaks of leaving his mother, falling victim to certain women who’ve done him wrong, his father dying, and trying to change his downtrodden ways. It’s certainly one of his sadder songs.
# 8 – Traveling Riverside Blues
Led Zeppelin famously covered this song and referenced the iconic line, squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg. Johnson played Traveling Riverside Blues in an open tuning that was typical for slide guitar playing, and it features some subtle sexual innuendo that was representative of the blues. This is one of his coolest songs.
# 7 – Last Fair Deal Gone Down
One thing that should be noted about Johnson is the complexity of his technique. He adopted this finger-picking pattern where the thumb would hit the lower strings for a descending bassline while his other fingers plucked the higher strings; this created the mind-bending perception that both lead and rhythm were going simultaneously. It’s such a great song, referencing the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad and metaphorical passages like this line: If you cry about a nickel, you’ll die for a dime.
# 6 – Cross Road Blues
I’m sure everyone knows Cream’s classic interpretation; they turn this little number into a rockin’ masterpiece. Of course, nothing beats the original. This song perfectly summates Johnson’s esoteric spirit; he’s just a man standing at the crossroads trying to find his purpose. Here, Johnson also showcases his virtuosic slide playing by chugging on that overhanging bassline while simultaneously attacking the twelfth fret with his metal slide, the quintessential lick for when playing slide guitar.
# 5 – Sweet Home Chicago
Sweet Home Chicago amalgamated earlier blues standards that Johnson decided to rework. The beginning turnaround lick starts the song off in quite a reserved fashion before turning itself into a heavy, 12-bar riff that perfectly accentuates Johnson’s musings of taking his woman to California back to his home in Chicago. The song’s interpretation has been analyzed for years, most notably the ambiguity of Johnson’s geographical annotations in the lyrics. But that’s what makes him so great: the many layers of songwriting. Everybody’s covered the song, offering their own re-imagining of its tenor and bringing in countless new hoards of fans of Johnson’s work.
# 4 – Me and The Devil
If there ever was such a composition of his that elucidated the otherworldly qualities that shrouded him, it would be this one. It’s got a great melody to it, but the lyrics are what makes it a sinister force. Johnson’s at his most amoral and imminent here as he speaks so apathetic about the Devil knocking on his door and meeting up with him. With brutal lines about beating his woman under the influence of the Devil and talks of being buried on the highway so his evil spirit can catch a greyhound, it is nothing short of rock and roll.
# 3 – I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
This is the song that Elmore James made famous with his glass-cutting, electric slide explication. Johnson breathed life into the now formulaic,12 bar blues in E this tune originated, but he switched it up and created this boogie shuffle; the attitude of it still remains organic 80 years later. The lyrics, keeping in the tradition of a bluesman’s disposition, talk about a man leaving everything behind and traveling to places of deeper meaning. Johnson incorporates floating verses from previous standards while adding a couple of new verses of his own, most notably his geographical musings of China, the Philippines, and Ethiopia.
# 2 – Kind Hearted Woman Blues
It was pretty arduous coming up with a slot for this song. It deserves to be number one because it was the first recording Johnson ever did and has the only guitar solo he ever ripped; the mechanics are so dexterous because he’s soloing while playing the bassline. It squeezes out a gorgeous harmony and features his classic turnaround involving an octave in the key of A where the five notes are chromatically resolved; when you hear it, you’ll immediately recognize it since it can be heard in almost every other blues composition. The song was written as a response to Bumble Bee Slim’s Cruel Hearted Woman Blues and remains one of Johnson’s most well-respected and popular songs.
# 1 – Hellhound on My Trail
Returning to what was expounded in our number four entry, Me and The Devil, this is the musical expository of the Faustian myth that has become synonymous with Robert Johnson. It’s the darkest, most grim composition he ever recorded, and it’s the stuff that nightmares are truly made of, both in sound and content. Hellhound on My Trail is his most powerful song, and it shows the depth of Johnson as a musician; he immerses himself in those ominous verses with a howl in his voice of pain and the presentiment that something’s coming to get him.
Some have said the song is an allusion to lynching, and that opens the song up to a different perspective; it makes it an even more depressing song. But that’s what makes it, hands down, the best song he ever did. It’s a perennial artifact that will indeed be unearthed hundreds of years from now, along with the rest of his work, and marveled by the following species that comes along.