Please read Darren Scott’s selection article of Robert Johnson: King Of The Delta Blues Singers before reading our reviews below.
Our little music club is getting very interesting and lately we have had many picks that divide our opinions. That’s a good thing. We were again were a bit all over the map in this pick.
We all agree that there is no denying the historical significance of this album but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone will actually like the music. One of the largest hurdles that everyone mentioned was the quality of the recording. As a poor black man in 1930s southern USA Robert Johnson didn’t have access or the money to record at world-class studio. It makes it hard to consume these tracks that influenced so many. Also, as the album near 80 years old and this was the birth of blues, it sounds very basic. Check out what else we had to say below.
What was cool about this album:
- This influence of this album can be heard today 80+ years later. Holy shit! You know that guitar riff? Yup, that one. That came from Robert Johnson.
- His life story and death at 27 is a twisted and weird story.
What we didn’t find so cool:
- The recording quality and age were hard to overcome and sounded basic.
We have also implemented a rating scale that you will see below in the reviews. All ratings are out of 5.
Our Reviews Average:
Overall opinion: 3
Would we recommend?: 3.5
Influenced our tastes: 2
Worth the hype? 4
Read our full individual reviews below.
Don’t agree with us? Have a comment or suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment or contact us.
Our Full Reviews
Darren Scott’s Review
Picking this past month was hard for me. I felt like we should not always stick to rock music and that we should be really looking at what influenced the music we all love today. I considered jazz and lots of early soul music but I really love blues music and felt drawn to explore the roots of blues. This past October I was lucky enough to visit Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee and the music of Beale Street in Memphis and a tour through the historic Sun Records opened my eyes to the history of the Blues. I really love artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker, to name a few. However, most of the artists I love hit their stride in the late 50s and early 60s. I started to wonder who influenced these artists and their contemporaries. After some Googling and listening it became apparent that many roads lead to Robert Johnson.
Though I had heard the name Robert Johnson and knew of the movie Crossroads, I had not ever bought or really listened to any of his music. I’m still stunned knowing that there was only ever 37 songs recorded of his music. So with a bit of knowledge and an open mind I was excited to dive into his album King Of The Delta Blues Singers.
After a few listens I have to admit that I had some trouble getting past the crudeness of the recording. I did end up finding a remastered version that cleaned up much of the hiss and cracks on the recording and amplified the low vocals and that helped. As we are now used to standard blues riffs all throughout rock and more modern blues the old recording sounded like a very basic attempt to me as well. But then it struck me.
Holy shit! This was the first time riffs and music like this was ever played. Before Robert Johnson, and a few others at that time, there was only gospel and some traditional folk music. This guy literally changed the way music would evolve from that point in time. Here we are 105 years after he was born and his influences are heard on practically every radio station in every format available. Just that realization alone was enough for me to be grateful to such an influential icon and to really enjoy this album.
As the rest of the month went by I found I enjoyed the album more and more… but… I never did get over the basic and rough recording and music that it sounds like now. It is very hard to go back that far in time and listen to music objectively. I’ll admit that I probably won’t play his music much in the future, though I will probably get some on vinyl just as a collector. I much prefer the blues artists I mentioned above that took his music and escalated it and the rock artists he inspired.
All in all, I would recommend this if you are a music fan and collector as more of a historical artifact that is to be appreciated and enjoyed but I think many will find it too basic and rough for their enjoyment. Hey, I like history and stories but I rarely go reread history books. I’m glad I picked Robert Johnson and say thanks to him and other artists like him that break out of the normal to create something amazing. Thanks Robert!
Overall opinion: 3.5
Would I recommend?: 3.5
Influenced my tastes: 4
Worth the hype? 5
Scott Gregory’s Review
So, I remember this time when I thought I would really like steak tartar. I’d never had that specific dish, but I’d had some pretty rare steak before, onions, eggs… all the yummy stuff. What I found was that, even if I’d had them all before and had a close approximation of what it’d be like, I was totally disappointed when presented with the reality.
Welcome to my review of Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues.
I’d heard blues before, often one song at a time, and I had a pretty good idea what I thought it was all about. What I didn’t realize was that I was physically incapable of listening to more than three blues song at any given time. Especially stripped-down versions with just a guitar and sometimes some drums in the mix. Stab me in the eye with an ice pick, please.
I could probably listen to any one of these songs as part of a thousand-song play list, but to listen to an album-full… no. Some of the guitar work is very impressive, particularly some of the picking. I understand that I’m in the presence of blues greatness, and if they’re your thing and you haven’t listend to this album you probably need to or consider your experience incomplete.
I also now understand I’m not into the blues.
Top 3 songs (?)
Ramblin’ On My Mind
I recognized this song! Eric Clapton covers this song, and it’s nice to know the history of this song. You might be interested in listening to the two side-by-side and see the slight variations in the approach taken by the two.
Kind Hearted Woman Blues
This song sounded slightly different than every other song on the album, which I appreciated immensely. It has a slightly more manic feel to the guitar work, like he was playing the music from the last song faster, backwards.
A Martyr for My Love For You by the White Stripes
Not on the album. But it’s the song I switched to the most often to clear my palate after forcing my way through another two or three songs on the album. Highly recommend it if you’re having problems getting through the album too.
Joking (not joking) aside, I’m glad I eventually got through a whole play-through of the album. I learned a piece of musical history, and that’s important to me. He inspired a lot of musicians after him, many of which (Dylan, Clapton) I enjoy immensely. It’s just not for me. Give the album a listen, see who from your favourite artists draw inspiration from him, and enjoy the history if not the music.
There’s a big however here though. Despite this album not really resonating with me, I recognize and appreciate its influence; that there would have been no Elvis, no Chuck Berry, no Zeppelin, no Hendrix, no George Thorogood, no White Stripes without Robert Johnson. The fantastic Vanity Fair article linked in the “picks” section of the website described Johnson’s allure:
“…the preternatural quality of his guitar playing, the bone-deep sadness of some of his music and lyrics, the haunting quaver of his smooth, high voice, and the dark symbolism of his songs.”
Okay…I can see that I guess, but none of it jumped out at me. None of it was obvious to me, and that’s almost certainly a shortcoming of mine. I think when you go back and analyze recordings that serve as the skeletons of modern music – with which I’m much more familiar – you have to have a very keen ear and an understanding of the music on a much deeper level than mere “fan”. The fact that I can’t – and have never tried – to play a musical instrument probably has something to do with it.
I had a hard time telling when one song ended and another began, and they all really just bled into one sound for me. Johnson’s voice rose and fell, the strings were pulled and plucked…but that’s about all. The funny thing is, I would probably love these songs if they were being performed in a tiny little bar, stuffed with strangers and ordering drinks. There’s something much more appealing to bare-bones music like this being performed in a very intimate setting, where you can watch as well as listen.
But listening to a record…I just don’t know enough about music to judge this one fairly.
Overall opinion: 2
Would I recommend: 3
Influenced my tastes: 0
Worth the hype: 4
Alain Dupuis’ Review
I’ve never been formally introduced to the blues, so I was really excited to start diving into Robert Johnson’s music. I’d heard the old stories about how he’d supposedly encountered the devil late one night in a plantation, and sold his soul in exchange for uncanny musical skills. It’s an interesting, Faustian story, and I always wondered who got the better deal out of that exchange. (Spoiler: The Devil did. Johnson lived to the ripe old age of 27.)
With an open mind, I put on KOTDVB, and learned that the Delta blues aren’t my jam.
I have a lot of respect for the legacy they’ve left, and the important role they played in shaping the future sounds of rock, country, pop, etc, but this music just didn’t turn the needle for me all that much. I found the formulaic style rather repetitive after a while, and there were moments where I had to check my playlist to see if I was accidentally looping the same track over and over.
From a lyrical standpoint, I value the storytelling. We’re talking about music that is 80 years old, from a time and a place vastly different from what we know today. Robert Johnson’s music offers an interesting perspective into his world.
Notably, there were no tracks I disliked on the album, which is a first for me on a review of a Sonic Collective pick, but I did have a few favourites. Kind Hearted Woman is a fun song. I enjoy his foray into falsetto vocal ranges. I also enjoyed the song Come on in my Kitchen. It’s very soulful. Preachin’ Blues is one of those songs where you can’t help but tap your feet and envision the smile on the singer’s face.
Overall, It was a good album, but it didn’t really motivate me to further explore the Delta blues genre. I’m sure that if I were in the audience witnessing a live performance, it’s one of those styles of music I’d be able to appreciate so much more. I think people should still give the album a rip or two, if only to experience something of historical significance.
My personal opinion: 3
Would I recommend?: 4
Influenced my tastes: 1
Worth the hype? 3
Scott Coates’s Review
Robert Johnson is the stuff of legends. An artist who tilted music on its head, knocked out a small catalogue in a short period of time and then died. Figuring out if you like Robert Johnson is a bit like trying to understand if you like the ingredients in food you enjoy. I enjoy pancakes. Flour is the main ingredient, but I’ve never learned about different types of flour, what gives it flavor and which variety is best for pancakes. Johnson is a bit like this. His music and style were brand new when he hit the scene. The sounds were cutting edge, offended many, turned some on and forever altered the course of music. Listening to Johnson is a bit like trying to make sense of different types of flour.
The limiting factor with King of the Delta Blues to a modern music enthusiast is the quality of the recordings. Johnson certainly didn’t have the best equipment at his disposal and the songs have been patched together from here and there, into this ‘album’ that is … Blues. The quality is far from what we’d consider passing grade today, but in a way, that’s part of the beauty. The substance and gold is there, but below the murky recording quality, if you listen for it, pay attention and dig.
It was marvelous to hear Traveling Riverside Blues and immediately recall Led Zeppelin’s version, not previously knowing they were not the original artists. And Zeppelin are just one of the many artists who have tapped in to Johnson’s genius: Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes and the list goes on. Johnson is also a member of the infamous 27-Club, comprised of rock artists who died at 27-years-of-age. There’s a mysterious air about him, as is the case with many musical geniuses who died before their time, as was portrayed in the 1986 film Crossroads, which centers around chasing one of Johnson’s lost songs.
I can put most albums on in the background while working, cooking and get some value from them. This is not the case with King of the Delta Blues. Perhaps it’s due to the shady quality of the recordings, or the depth to the songs that isn’t immediately apparent and requires more focus to take it all in. There’s a complexity to Johnson’s work that isn’t immediately evident, much like Shakespeare takes several readings to get the gist. King of the Delta Blues is like auditing a course in Rock History and flunking because you snoozed in the back of class and only read the CliffsNotes. To really ‘get it’, you have to pay attention, listen, re-listen, dig deep, and only then do you start to understand the musical base and inspiration Johnson provided to all those who came after him.
Overall opinion: 4
Would I recommend?: 4
Influenced my tastes: 4
Worth the hype?: 4