One of the first times I heard the words and music of Robert Johnson, I was listening to a Rolling Stones album.
It was December 1969. I was listening to Let It Bleed, the new album by the Stones. The second song on the first side was called “Love In Vain.” With its gorgeous acoustic guitar part, evocative lyrics and passionate Mick Jagger vocals, the recording was a real stunner. The songwriter was listed as “Woody Payne.”
Listen for yourself.
Robert Johnson wrote that song. He recorded it during his last recording session on June 20, 1937 in Dallas, Texas. It was released as “Love In Vain Blues” on the Vocalion label in 1939. In 1970, Columbia Records released the recording, retitled “Love In Vain,” as the last track on the album, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol.2.
Here’s that recording.
Robert Johnson was born on May 8, 1911, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi.
To list but three of his many accolades, Cub Koda, writing in The All Music Guide to the Blues said that Robert Johnson is “certainly the most celebrated figure in the history of the Blues.” Author Peter Guralnick wrote: “Robert Johnson created music of the highest sophistication, music in which not a single note is misplaced, in which metaphor can become meaning without the need for explanation.” Keith Richards once proclaimed that Robert Johnson was “The Bach of the Blues.”
Robert Johnson recorded a grand total of 29 songs or “sides” over the course of five recording sessions. The first three were held on Nov.23, 26 & 27, 1936 in San Antonio, Texas and the last two sessions were held on June 19 & 20, 1937 in Dallas, Texas.
Robert Johnson’s records – 10-inch, 78-rpm discs with one song per side – sold mostly to an African-American audience in the rural South and Southwest. At the time, the total sales from the sides released from his first sessions numbered around 5000 discs.
In 1961, John Hammond and Frank Driggs of Columbia Records gathered 16 of Johnson’s sides together and released them on a 12-inch LP, entitled The King of the Delta Blues Singers. Volume 2 was released in 1970. Both albums are available on excellently remastered CDs and in a boxed set.
Robert Johnson died of mysterious circumstances on August 16, 1938.