Robert Johnson, the Rolling Stones, and burning out

King of the Delta Blues Singers

King of the Delta Blues Singers

Robert Johnson – “Love In Vain Blues” and “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” from The Complete Recordings (1990) [originally recorded 1936]

The Rolling Stones – “Love In Vain” from Let It Bleed (1969) and “Stop Breaking Down” from Exile On Main Street (1972)

Most serious fans of classic rock surely know the myth of Robert Johnson–another musician whose premature death seems to give his music the flavor of the unknown. I’ve returned to his music lately and I’m struck by the sheer tunefulness of his songs–something that the Rolling Stones recognized and capitalized on, as evidenced in these classic covers.

But the Robert Johnson originals are where the real power is. Imagine Keith Richards sitting around in late ’60s Swinging London, taking pills, wrapping himself up in frilly scarves, surrounding himself with beautiful plasticine women–and these cuts, off the King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, come on over the hi-fi. It must have been a shock to hear that kind of power–it’s still a shock today, and I would be willing to bet that these songs would retain their power and mystery if Johnson had lived to open for the likes of Blueshammer.

Here’s a fascinating article on Johnson’s myth, and the possible discovery of a new photograph of the King of the Delta Blues Singers. If you’re new to Robert Johnson, start there.

Buy Robert Johnson

Buy the Stones

Posted by Glenn

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7 Comments

Filed under 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, Acoustic, Americana, Blues, Folk, Rock, Roots rock

7 responses to “Robert Johnson, the Rolling Stones, and burning out

  1. Jordy

    Johnson (and Chuck Berry to a certain degree) was the reason guys like Keith Richards and Jimmy Page started writing bitchin’ gritty blues riffs rather than ripping off Screaming Jay Hawkins and Buddy Holly.

    His music also helped to inspire the Rolling Stones’ greatest recording era: 1968 – 1972.

  2. Jeff Wheeler

    Hey SWR! I need yr help in re: electric blues, bigtime. I’m trying to get into GOOD electric blues (post-war to, oh I don’t know, let’s put it where I put the death of specifically american pop music traditions: 1974)–you know like the kind they always listen to in record stores and it’s always really good–kinda dirty, not to fancy, anchored in the vocals and the beat, and mid-to-up-tempo shuffles. The last detail can’t be stressed enough. I cannot abide slow walking blues and/or anything built on the satanic nazi totenmelodie “e-e-g-g#-b-b-c#-b.” That is exactly where assholes like B.B. King, (and through him, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepard, the Billman Brothers, and finally “Blueshammer”) finds the room for all those masturbatory solos and guitarrhea–the UNblues of virtuosity, careerism, and divaism that stinks to high heaven and is always on fucking TV.

    Do any of you SWR-ers know where to find the good, fast, shuffly, simple stuff? I like J.L. Hooker, but want something a little more connected to the delta country blues I know and love. I like Elmore James so far, haven’t heard much Wolf or Waters (partly because of their over-reference by british invasion folks that leads me to believe there must be some problem with them–I could be wrong). What do you recommend? (feel free to delete this ranting comment if you want, I mainly wanted to message all of you to find the best opinions on the matter. Thanks.

    Cheers, mates!

    • wow, what strong views! Is BB King an asshole? I don’t think so, I think he plays soulful solos that come from some Delta-related tradition, and sings good. But I do see him as ‘happy blues’..and SRV, imho, is a pretty good blues SINGER. But I so agree about virtuosism, endless guitar solos, etc. I think if you want good post war electric blues you can listen to: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II…for some British stuff that is interesting but not delta-inspired, John Mayall has done tons. But at the end, Robert Johnson, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charlie Patton – forget electricity from the plug and get it straight from the soul!!

  3. Jordy

    Hey Jeff: As far as spirit, grit, and influence, I recommend Howlin’ Wolf (anything on Chess).

    Explore him on your own terms and forget everything you know about Led Zeppelin, as hard as that might be for some of us.

  4. Jeff Wheeler

    Thanks Jordy. I downloaded some Chester Burnett just this last week that I’m trying to digest–I really like “Spoonful.”

    And Led Zeppelin is great–don’t get me wrong. Extspeckshially the song “The Song Remains the Same” (possibly one of the greatest opening tracks on an album so far….????)

  5. Awesome site yours faithfully Lizzie Scaccia

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