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A Word About Robert Johnson

Two days ago, I posted about Rolling Stone’s nonsensical list of the supposed 200 greatest singers, on which Bowie landed at #32. The list mixed up singers of a variety of genres, many of which really shouldn’t be compared by the same standards. The excuse was that Rolling Stone’s “purview is pop music writ large, meaning that almost all the artists on [the] list had significant careers as crossover stars making popular music for the masses.” Although there were several names on the list that I’d argue failed to meet even that loose standard, while others absent from the list easily would have, one name that stood out to me as embodying what was wrong with the list is Robert Johnson.

Robert Johnson was the legendary delta blues singer and guitarist who influenced everyone from Eric Clapton to The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin and many others. I hear faint echos of Robert Johnson in some of Bowie’s songs, such as, “She Shook Me Cold,” from The Man Who Sold the World. If the list was of influential musicians, Robert Johnson would be right at home. But does he belong on a list of best pop singers? I’m going to say, no he does not.

Robert Johnson was a little-known blues musician during his short lifetime, which ended in 1938 at, you guessed it, the age of 27 (same as Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, Morrison, Brian Jones and Amy Weinhouse). During a span of less than two years, he recorded a total of 29 songs (though a handful of alternative versions of some of those songs exist). A total of three verified photos of Johnson exist, and much of what’s known about his life is a blend of limited facts and legend. Robert Johnson did NOT make popular music for the masses.

Robert Johnson was not a crossover star. He wasn’t a star at all, but he also didn’t do any crossing over into genres beyond the delta blues. Sure, rock musicians have borrowed from him since, but it wasn’t Johnson adapting his music. Rock musicians have adapted Mozart. That doesn’t make Mozart a crossover star (and Mozart, at least, made popular music for the masses of his time).

Beyond all that, how exactly would anyone alive today know how to evaluate Johnson as a singer? The very few recordings of him that exist are of limited audio quality. I suppose its possible that someone alive today, as a child, saw Johnson perform in life, but I’m going to go ahead and say nobody involved in developing the Rolling Stone list actually saw Johnson live. I’ve included a link to the one album that popularized Johnson’s songs (given a liberal definition of the word, “popularized”), which was released in 1961. Listen for yourself— do you think that audio quality is clear enough to reach the conclusion that Johnson belongs on a list of 200 singers, every other one of whom has more and/or clearer output to hear today? This even goes for Amy Weinhouse, who also made the list and came out with all of two albums in her lifetime, only one of which is any good. Still, many people today saw her in concert, and there are plenty of clear recordings of her singing a limiting number of songs.

I think comparing Robert Johnson to everyone else on the list would be like comparing Sarah Bernhardt to 20th Century actors. Bernhardt was one of the most prominent actors of the 19th Century, and sure enough her career continued into the early 20th Century. She appeared in some early movies, and there are audio recordings of her acting. But is that enough to compare her to, say, Al Pacino? I’d say that there just isn’t enough left of whatever defined Bernhardt’s output to make the comparison. In contrast, you could talk about John Cazale in the same discussion as Al Pacino. He’s the actor who played Fredo, and appeared in a handful of other great movies before passing away at 42. He didn’t have an enormous output, but what he did, or at least the best of what he did, is readily available.

Was the reason Robert Johnson so influential his singing per se? Is his singing even especially distinctive, even for the time? When I hear Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton borrowing Johnson’s lyrics, they don’t seem like they are trying for their voices to sound like his.

So, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Johnson’s influence, his legend or his aptitude as a musician. But if a list that ranks Bowie at #32 needs any more reason to be exposed as nonsense, I’d say Johnson’s inclusion should seal the deal.

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