Who can say where popular music, rock and roll music, or music, really began? For the purpose of this exploration, I am choosing to start where much of the music I grew up loving found its roots. The influence of American blues musicians on the industry worldwide can not be overstated. While much of America “discovered” the sound of rock and roll in the 1950s, the core of this sound goes back much further, with significant credit given to Robert Johnson, who stood out among thousands of musicians who traveled the country in the early 20th century playing for anyone who would listen.
In 1937, Johnson recorded a series of tracks that live on to this today, in their original form and in dozens of reshaped creations. On the album “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, which was re-released as a collection in 1961, you can hear 16 songs, all credited as original to Robert himself. Within moments of hearing the first song “Cross Road Blues”, any blues-rock fan will instantly recognize this as the foundation of not only a famous Cream track, but the blueprint for thousands of blues songs to follow. “Terraplane Blues”, “Travelling Riverside Blues”, and each of these tracks present something new, and yet something very familiar, all at once. This album is ranked #374 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is actually ranked as the #1 Blues album ever on a list published on digitaldreamdoors.com.
Every song here follows a similar path musically, and the recordings are expectedly limited in their audio quality. That said, I absolutely consider this essential listening for anyone who embraces either modern blues music, early rock and roll, or the invasion of British rock bands in the 1960s who presented themselves as champions of the blues. Familiar lyrics and passages surface in almost every song, as well as controversial themes of broken homes, broken relationships, devastating heartbreak (both giving and receiving), and dances with the devil, from which parents expressed horror decades later when their children were being corrupted.
At its core, blues music sums up life and how many of us look at it. When things are right, the world is perfect. And much more often, when something hurts or is missing in your heart, nothing else makes sense. Robert Johnson and his generation of blues companions lived in an immensely cruel and unfair time that dealt them endless hardship and sadness. Robert himself became perhaps the first of many famous musicians to die way too young, at the age of 27, just a year after these songs were recorded. If a journey through the music of a lifetime and more has to start in a single place, there is none more fitting than the Mississippi Delta.