Robert Johnson’s Persistent Ghost
The most accurate biographical information of Johnson has perhaps best been presented in recording liner notes, beginning with Columbia Records executive Frank Driggs' notes to Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia, 1961), continuing with Steve LaVere's notes to Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings and, most recently, Ted Gioia and LaVere's text to The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Collection. This latter source is very informative as to the history Robert Johnson's AKAs and an accounting of the actual 59 sides Johnson recorded in San Antonio and Dallas two lifetimes ago. LaVere's notes also pick up where Graves' book leaves off, detailing the finding of an alternate "Traveling Riverside Blues" (Dal-400-2), unknown to still exist until the 1990s.
Inclusion of this alternate "Traveling Riverside Blues" on Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection, plus LaVere's updated notes and one super-human remastering is what separates this more recent release from 1990's Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. This is enough to justify releasing almost identical collections a decade apart. The music is that important. LaVere is careful in the notes to the new collection to innumerate the fate of the unreleased 17 sides originally shipped to the American Record Company after recording, saying, in essence that, ..."these are lost to the ages." The paradox exists that it would be both wonderful and disappointing if more previously unknown masters were to be found.
The sound improvement between 1990's Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings and 2011's The Complete Recordings: The Centennial Collection cannot be minimized. Seth Winner's engineering and restoration have vastly improved the sound using new technology. Sonically, all that is left is to bring Johnson back to life to re-record his corpus.
As the picture of Robert Johnson begins to clear in the new millennium, the story surrounding the investigation of the phantom's life becomes more circuitous. The real story here is not whether Johnson sold his soul to the devil at which crossroads, or where he died or where he is buriedall of these facts are long in the process of being nailed down. The real story now will be that of Steve LaVere, Mack McCormick, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Stephen Calt and a host of lesser researchers who have some claim to the story of Robert Johnson. Reticent personalities and potential legal action are most likely the reasons that the two Delta blues texts have never been published. For credibility, these stories will need to be assembled by someone other than these major players as LaVere, McCormick, etal., as they are now all part of the story.
And now, what of Robert Johnson himself. This most recent scholarship and criticism in no way diminishes Johnson's importance to American music: it simply recasts it. Only the lens through which the artist is seen has changed. That Johnson's repertoire is as much derived from his predecessors as his own pen has been long known. Johnson's technical ability and musicianship were his own advances, important in understanding the evolution from Son House to Eric Clapton. That much of Johnson's fame today may be attributed to his marketing in during the 1960s blues revival by the existing "scholars" is now beside the point, because it is part of the story.