In honor of the centennial of Robert Johnson's birth this past May, Sony issued an amazing set of his works, on vinyl. Twelve ten-inch discs — the size of 78s but playing at 45rpm to accommodate modern equipment — reproduce all twelve of his records as originally released, twenty-four songs in all, complete with reproductions of the record labels.
The discs are packaged in a vintage-style 78 album — from which term we get the still-current designation for a single-disc LP or CD. The album comes with a CD of the new re-masters of Johnson's complete works (including the five outtakes not released on 78), a CD of related music and a DVD biography of the legendary bluesman.
I'm sorry that the set is so expensive — making it a kind of fetish object for Johnson worshipers, rather than the sort of thing that should be a part of every civilized American home, like a leather-bound set of the complete works of Shakespeare or Dickens, like a fine edition of The Bible. Johnson's work belongs in that company — as some of the greatest art ever produced in this country . . . as art that has helped define this country.
I went mad and bought it despite the price, and haven't regretted it. Pulling those discs out of sleeves and playing them on a turntable, just as they were originally made to be played, is a profound experience. This is partly due to the thrilling immediacy of the new re-masters, from which the commemorative vinyl was created. It may sound a bit processed to some ears, but there's no denying the startling presence of Johnson's voice and guitar, with all but the most minimal noise from the ancient discs eliminated.
It's partly due to the ritual of spinning the music on a turntable, putting you in touch with the earlier generations who first heard Johnson's music that way — the relatively few people who bought the original 78s, the musicians of the late Sixties and early Seventies, like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, who heard and were deeply influenced by the LP reissues.
Things are bad in America right now, politically, socially and economically. But anyone who's tempted to give up on the republic only needs to listen to the music of Robert Johnson to believe in America again. It's the best of what we have been — the best of what we might still be again.