The thing that makes Robert Johnson such a renowned figure in music is not only his pioneering of the blues, but the idea that he made a pact with Satan to obtain his complex guitar playing. The legend was that he was such a terrible guitarist, according to Son House, 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 just 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 be comprised of a medley of different recordings that showed the breadth of his technique; both his well-known recordings, and ones that are 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 the way he swats 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!, really 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 from the sound in his voice, it shows that he really 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 down-trodden ways. Certainly one of his more doleful songs.
8.) Traveling Riverside Blues
Led Zeppelin famously did a cover of this song, and also referenced the iconic line, squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg, in their song The Lemon Song. 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 definitely one of his coolest songs.
7.) Last Fair Deal Gone Down
One thing that should be noted about Johnson is the complexity in 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 there was both lead AND rhythm going at the same time. It’s such a great song, with references to 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’s aware of Cream’s classic interpretation; they turn this little number into a rockin’ masterpiece. Of course nothing beats the original. This song is the perfect summation of Johnson’s esoteric spirit; he’s just a man standing at the cross roads 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 was an amalgamation of 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, all the way back to his home in Chicago. The songs 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 up 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 is nothing short of rock and roll.
3.) I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
This is the song that Elmore James made popular with his glass-cutting, electric slide explication. Johnson breathed life into the now formulaic,12 bar blues in E this tune originated, but he switches it up and creates this boogie shuffle; the attitude of it still remains organic 80 years later. The lyrics, keeping in the tradition of a bluesmen’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 in there; 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 really deserves to be number one because it not only was the very first recording Johnson ever did, but it also 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 just about 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
Going back to what was expounded in our number 4 entry, Me and The Devil, this is the true musical expository of the Faustian myth that has become synonymous with Robert Johnson. It’s his 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 really shows the depth of Johnson as a musician; he completely 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 really opens the song up to a different perspective; it makes it even more of a depressing song. But that’s what makes it, hands down, the best song he ever did. It’s a perennial artifact that will surely be unearthed hundreds of years from now, along with the rest of his work, and marveled by the next species who comes along.