Happy Birthday, Robert Johnson!

Last week marked what would have been the 101st birthday of Robert Johnson. What do you do for a Delta Blues legend who’s been dead for 74 years? Why not stick with what seems to have become the tradition, and have a bunch of shameless exploiters hold his legacy upside down by its ankles and violently shake the change out of its pockets? That gag never gets old!

Let’s start over, in case anyone reading isn’t familiar with Robert Johnson. He is one of, if not the most famous of the old-timey acoustic blues musicians. His haunting voice, deceptively sophisticated guitar playing, and cryptic songs (along with a fairly ingenious “viral marketing” strategy well before the advent of the first color television) fed into the legends and urban myths about him selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in return for his musical prowess. As the myth goes, he was essentially double-crossed and Satan came to collect him before he was able to fully reap the rewards of his newfound talent, making him possibly the earliest documented member of the infamous “27 Club” of prolific musicians in modern times that’ve died at that particularly unlucky age (including but not limited to; Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, etc…). Johnson has been constantly cited as a heavily influential musician ever since the onset of what we now consider the golden age of classic rock, folk, and blues (Led Zeppelin, Cream, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, and many others).

In reality, Johnson was known as a bit of a nomadic playboy in his day. Travelling from town to town and leaving a trail of entertained music fans, assumingly ravished women, and equally assumingly jealous boyfriends/husbands in his wake. History's most likely answer to the riddle of Robert Johnson’s demise says that his whiskey was poisoned at a juke joint by the jilted lover of one of his female conquests. Although the sensational legends are fun, it’s been all but 100% verified that the unnatural cause of his death was ultimately due more to the little devil inside of him than the biblical figure that most of his songs referenced.

What is even less of a mystery, however, is the fact that this man’s musical output since his death makes Tupac look like a total lazy-ass. (Although we haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing a Robert Johnson “Hologram” onstage with Eric Clapton, I’m sure it’s coming… I’d probably pay to see it www.youtube.com/watch). The big difference is that Tupac recorded a roughly estimated few hundred songs in his lifetime which have been used in different contexts, chopped up and remixed, and further exploited in their own ways for the financial gain of others. Tupac had/has plenty of unreleased recorded music, and the nature of his genre lends itself well to people taking liberties with it.
But Robert Johnson? Robert Johnson recorded 29 total songs in his lifetime. 29 songs.
And with those original 29 songs, he has managed to “release” well more than 50 albums just in the last 20 years. His songs have been re-mastered more times than there are episodes of The Jersey Shore (and most have been even more pointless than any episode of the latter), the songs have been re-ordered and the alternate takes of the recording sessions have been added for dramatic effect, and they’ve even gone so far as to release albums of his songs played back at different speeds just to try something new.
While this level of exploitation of an artist with a questionable estate (and a hefty and revolving amount of shady new publishing-rights investors who want to rename his “collection” several times per year) is somewhat troubling to me, I still like to look at the big picture. “Robert Johnson” has been on the list of new releases in the blues category a few times a year for decades. It’s sad to me that the man himself has become such a “business”, but ultimately, I appreciate that this kind of exposure still allows new fans to run across his music. While everything else has changed, the music… those 29 songs, are some of the most enduring pillars of the music industry over the past century. And so it’s with that in mind, that I say “Happy Birthday, Robert Johnson”.

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