Robert Johnson : The Centennial Collection

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The list of musicians who have the stature, the gravitas, to have their names inextricably wound with their musical genre, to be considered the well spring of an art form, is short.  Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Bill Monroe, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Jerry Garcia; all of these artists’ names are synonymous with the music they played and the innovation it took to play it.

So, too, is the name of Robert Johnson.

The patriarch of 20th century Delta blues, Johnson most certainly left an indelible  mark on the history of American music.  Indeed, his influence is felt far and wide – icons like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Keith Richards, and Chris Robinson, along with countless others, count him as a hero and inspiration.

To celebrate Johnson’s legacy, Columbia/Legacy has recently released The Centennial Collection, a two disc set of completely remastered original recordings. Dating back to recording sessions from 1936 and 1937, this collection of 42 tracks (of the original 59 that Johnson cut in the San Antonio and Dallas sessions) is an historical chronicle of one of the most important voices in musical history.

While some purists might considered it anathema to listen to Robert Johnson on a relatively sterile compact disc – vinyl only!!!! – these recordings, though remastered, preserve enough of that distinctive background hiss to remind the listener that this music is over seven decades old.  Johnson classics like “Terraplane Blues,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” Me and The Devil Blues,” along with several outtakes and alternate cuts, receive new life, thanks to modern technology, on these two discs.

It seems almost trite, or contradictory, to say that there is a simple complexity to Johnson’s music, but nothing could be more true.  So often Johnson was alone with his guitar, just a voice and instrument, yet there is a richness and depth found in his music that is unrivaled by even the largest of bands, providing the allure and the magic that has drawn the listening world to his music long after his untimely death at the age of 28.

On a side note, I sit here writing this review on May 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of Robert Leroy Johnson’s birth in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.  I have been listening to these discs for two straight days, nearly non-stop, and they’ve put me in a ramblin’ sort of mind.  It’s a good feeling.

The Centennial Collection is out now on Columbia/Legacy.

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