Old blues musicians don’t die, they just fade away… Except in Robert Johnson’s case, when Columbia released his recordings in a major box set. If you have read my post where I review Elijah Wald’s great book about Johnson, you are in the know. But what about the music? So here it is! Compared pits Columbia’s 1990 box set extravaganza Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (C2K 46222) versus their own vinyl, Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers (CL 1654). My mono LP is probably an early 1980s release, with no barcode. Wish it was the original 1961 version of the vinyl, but this will have to do. Most online sources seem to indicate that the 80s vinyl isn’t a bad way to hear Johnson, and there is some debate over the various CD releases that have come out since the 1990 box. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings CDs were just the beginning of digital releases. Always a caveat!
If you’ve got less than three minutes, you can hear four songs from the CD compared to the same four songs from the LP, or about 45 seconds from each song. The CD version always starts first, for about five seconds, followed by the vinyl for another five seconds, back and forth and so on. Kindhearted Woman Blues is first, 32-20 Blues, Hellhound On My Trail, and finally Terraplane Blues. Every version is an AIFF, normalized to -0.5 db. There’s an audio difference in the recordings based on where and when the original recordings were made and you can hear it. I feel that Kindheared Woman and Terraplane Blues benefit the most from being on vinyl. The vinyl is more revealing. Johnson’s guitar seems more alive here. Note that both were recorded on November 23 in San Antonio, Texas.
32-20 Blues is a bit of a tossup, but Johnson’s voice has a bit more clarity on the LP. It is also from San Antonio but was recorded three days later on the 26th. But Hellhound might just be better on CD. It’s quite bright and midrangey on both versions and the quieter CD version strikes me as being more listenable. Perhaps the San Antonio recording studio had better gear and produced better recordings than in Dallas, which sound more primitive and harsh.
So while I’d recommend finding the vinyl, the CDs aren’t bad. There are newer CDs that were remastered again, that most online reviewers seem to feel are the best, even over the old vinyl or the 1990 box set. Well, that’ll be for another day. And for a revealing explanation of the music, try Elijah Wald’s book, Escaping the Delta, chapters 8, 9, & 10, where Wald dissects each tune far more completely than I ever could.
Could you find the original 78s that were pressed back in the late 1930s? Almost certainly not. Few are known to survive and to buy them would cost a mint. And as far as Johnson selling his soul to the devil to become a better guitarist…read Wald’s book!