Thursday, November 29, 2012

OPINION: The 3 Best Robert Johnson Traditional Blues Songs of All Time

by Joe T Wiseman
"The Crossroads", where Robert Johns...
"The Crossroads", where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for mastery of the blues, according to the legend. It is the intersection of U.S. Routes 61 and 49, at Clarksdale, Mississippi, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The story of the life of Robert Johnson is a great one and has resulted in much speculation about whether he sold his soul to the devil at "the crossroads" and whether he was poisoned by a jealous juke joint owner or whether he died of natural causes.

Commonly referred to as "The King of the Delta Blues" Robert's life is the stuff of legends.

The question is, which are the 3 best traditional blues songs of all time? Here is my list. I suggest that the top 3 are:

Cross Roads Blues

Robert Johnson is considered by some to be the greatest bluesman of all time. This song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

The song, itself, was made famous to today's listeners by Eric Clapton's legendary band Cream when they released the most popular cover in 1968. Cream's version was given the single word title "Crossroads."

In addition, the song is a legend in that Robert Johnson is reported to have sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play the blues. Robert, after "disappearing" for two years, once again reappeared on the delta blues scene of the early twentieth century with "blues licks" and "tunings" previously unheard. As they say, the devil is in the detail and Robert's newly found abilities were attributed to the devil.

Sweet Home Chicago

Released by Robert Johnson in 1936 on his first of two recording sessions this song has been covered by many of today's blues artists including but not limited to "Blues Brothers", "Keb' Mo" and "Eric Clapton."

Written in the 12 bar format, only the chorus has the first and second line the same. This is a departure from the most common 12 bar blues format where the first line of each verse is repeated.

This would not be the last of innovations by Robert. One line has baffled blues enthusiasts where Robert refers to "the land of California, Sweet Home Chicago." However, it may be as simple as the fact that there is a borough of Chicago called California.

Love in Vain Blues

Covered by the Rolling Stones on their Let it Bleed album, the titled was shortened as well to Love in Vain. Purported to be written for Willie Mae Powell, the song was played for her by John Hammond Jr. in his 1991 documentary "The Search for Robert Johnson."

In 2011 the song was inducted into the "Blues Hall of Fame." The Stones incorrectly credited the song to one of Robert's pseudonyms, "Woody Payne." The surname most definitely rhymes with the dominant theme of the song - pain and love, lost.

Whether or not you agree with my picks, there can be no argument that these are some of the best Robert Johnson traditional blues songs of all time.

If you like folk and blues songs you might also like to check out Smokin' Joe Wiseman at He has covered traditional folk and blues songs and writes his own. Click here to download a copy of his latest single for free.

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