Bluesman Robert Johnson remains one of music’s most important artists to this day. His recordings in the 1930s laid the groundwork for the delta blues, a swampy style of playing that became a movement in deep south states for decades to come. Both his compositions and life story were steeped in mystery. One of the blues’ most retold stories features a young Johnson coming face to face with the devil himself at a rural Mississippi crossroads, and exchanging his soul for superhuman prowess on the guitar.
Though his life was cut short by a death still rather unsolved (just to add to the mystique), the work he released in his few years of recording is unrivaled and still covered by countless artists today. Read on for our pick of the best Robert Johnson songs.
10. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
Often referred to as the “King of the Delta Blues,” Robert Johnson’s brief but genre-defining recording career is what started it all for the delta blues movement. Blues fans are still learning that some of their favorite numbers by contemporary artists are Johnson originals. This one, ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,’ dates all the way back to the ’30s, and was skillfully covered by Elmore James in 1951. Though Johnson wrote it, James’ version put the tune on the map. The song features Robert’s classic “blues turnaround” he evented with descending individual notes being played as he ushers in a new start to the now widely-popular 12-bar progression he helped make so famous. The term “dust my broom” may leave some perplexed. In the old days, it meant “to leave somewhere for good.” In Robert’s case, his meandering woman has caused him too much heartache, so he’s finally leaving her once and for all. This lesser-known track has helped define what the “delta blues” is through generations.
9. Walkin’ Blues
With a solid air of fire and brimstone gospel emanating from the song, ‘Walkin’ Blues’ features guitar work that proves where so many early rock bands like The Rolling Stones got their inspiration. Right away, Robert’s Gibson guitar howls over sustained licks and a seamless walkdown. When his vocals kick in, listeners may wonder why he didn’t name the tune ‘Preachin’ Blues,’ his raspy, moaning vocals reminiscent of an impassioned reverend. The track is darker than other typical Johnson recordings, and there’s an explanation for that. Though often recognized as a Johnson original, ‘Walkin’ Blues’ is actually one of the few tracks ultimately released that was a cover. If you’re familiar with early delta blues, Son House’ influence immediately jumps out at you at first listen. The preacher-turned-bluesman wrote the gritty number in 1930, but it wasn’t released until many years later. That didn’t stop it from becoming a “blues standard,” with many artists, including Johnson in 1936, releasing their own versions.
8. Hellhound on My Trail
Not only does mythology color much of the blues genre, Johnson’s own legend colors much of his posthumous legacy. Furthering the story that he sold his soul to the devil so he could play guitar like no other, ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ deals with the bluesman trying to escape a creature from the underworld to no avail. Dark imagery like “I’ve got to keep movin’, blues fallin’ down like hail,” is accompanied by haunting slide work expertly delivered by Johnson on his guitar. One of his most popular tracks, it was eerily recorded during his final Texas session in 1937 before his mysterious death at just 27. One of the most awe-inspiring things about Johnson was the fact that he produced so much sound as a solo artist, with his recordings often giving the impression there are two melodies playing when there’s really just one. One of his most enduring tracks, ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ comes in at number 8.
7. Traveling Riverside Blues
Johnson once again proves why he’s King of the Delta Blues with this swampy, rolling number. With his faithful Gibson guitar tuned to Open G, Robert fully embraced his deep south Mississippi roots for the recording and played with a bottleneck slide. The popular technique allows for maximum twang and grit, slide work making strings wail and “talk back” to the vocalist. Though steel and brass slides are often used today, in 1930s Texas, where Robert was recording, the blues artist could have fashioned any type of hard object into a slide. With lyrics referencing male virility, when Led Zeppelin heard the track after it was finally released for the first time in the early ’60s, long after Johnson’s death, they quickly recorded their own version. Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page upped the ante and overdubbed several guitar tracks, and played a 12-string as well.
6. Love in Vain
One of Johnson’s more unique recordings, ‘Love in Vain’ has a slow, romantic feel due to his mournful vocal delivery accompanied by gently chopping, background rhythmic guitar. A tune that plays out more like a conversational piece than Johnson’s traditional formula focusing on fingerstyle guitar work, listeners can feel the blues player’s heartache leap right out of the speakers. As he sings about a lost lover, he describes the melancholy scene at the train station, he and his girl’s last moments spent together. Lyrics find him reflecting on what their love could have been, with him even surprisingly calling the one that got away out by name, “Willie Mae Powell,’ towards the end of the song. The pensive yet sensitive side Robert expresses makes it a must-listen. The Stones also did a decent cover of this for their late ’60s album, Let it Bleed.
5. They’re Red Hot
Playful in nature, ‘They’re Red Hot’ is a rare joyous number from the delta blues musician. A song that tells a story, listeners tap their feet and get the urge to dance as they’re transported back in time. Lyrics focus on a festive scene, with a traveling show selling their “miracle cure,” a popular schtick in the early 1900s. Johnson’s melodious guitar work is accompanied by a voice that at first isn’t one you’d associate with the bluesman. The happy context of the song makes Johnson’s normally haunting voice jovial and devilishly perky. A rare break from his poignantly languid style of playing, ‘They’re Red Hot’ shows Johnson’s broad range.
4. Come On In My Kitchen
Ask any Robert Johnson fan what their top three favorite tracks of his are, and ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ will most likely be on that list. Placing just outside the top three on our countdown, the intimate tune has been covered by many contemporary acts, such as sister blues duo Larkin Poe. It’s one of many Johnson tracks that has serious staying power. Not only is the languid rhythm catchy, but it’s one of his lighter tracks. He sings about something all people from the south can relate to – an incoming summer thunderstorm. In the song, he does what many southerners would do; he invites guests into his home to escape the incoming rain. Perhaps one reason why this tune is one of his most popular is that it inadvertently acts as a tribute to southern etiquette, still important in the U.S. region to this day. Next time you hear a distant storm rolling in, play this track (preferably on vinyl), and let its ghostly melody comfort you during the downpour.
Recommended: See our pick of songs for a stormy night.
3. Sweet Home Chicago
So much of Johnson’s legacy is steeped in spooky folklore and dark imagery due to many of his haunting tracks. But much like ‘Come on in My Kitchen,’ the songwriter weaves a hopeful, gentle story with ‘Sweet Home Chicago.’ The bouncy, blues shuffle features the musician singing to his sweetheart, asking her if she wants to head to Chicago. The bustling city became a popular place for not only blues musicians (a couple of them, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, sparked the Chicago blues movement in the windy city), but for minorities who migrated from rural areas to larger cities to try and find work to support their families. Some artists like Skip James tell a melancholy recounting of the move with soul-crushing tracks like ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,’ which finds him realizing conditions, especially during the Great Depression, weren’t much better in bigger cities. But for Johnson, he keeps the allure of big city life alive with this effort, still admired by critics and listeners to this day. The much-beloved tune comes in on our list in the top three.
Recommended: Our pick of the best songs about Chicago.
2. Me and the Devil Blues
Another tale that finds our delta bluesman tangling with the underworld, ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ is one of those vintage tracks that has seamlessly edged its way into contemporary interpretation. Particularly rousing is artist Gill Scott-Heron’s dark, emotive cover, which was featured in the hit TV show Power. While much of the blues finds artists trying to run away from bad luck that’s come their way, Johnson always embraced it in his music. For this number, he answers a knock at the door (a classic way to open up any southern fable), and low and behold the devil himself, who he calls my name, is there to whisk him away. Johnson obliges. As the stirring song takes shape, the listener realizes his lyrics tell the age-old story of a man wrestling with both an angel and devil inside of him. In this case, his “old evil spirit” gets the better of him. This short track clocking in at just two and a half minutes is one of his most popular, and takes the runner-up spot on our countdown.
Recommended: If you’re feeling morbid, go see our songs about hell.
1. Cross Road Blues
“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees.” Robert Johnson’s signature track that helped spur everything from his own telltale legend to blues music festivals, ‘Cross Road Blues’ is more than a song – its story and legacy give it Greek-myth-style status. Along the rural, hot, dusty streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, lies a historic intersection. Johnson sings about it in this track. It is at this intersection that he supposedly came across the devil who offered him a deal; his soul in exchange for extraordinary musical abilities. The thing that solidifies this tale the most is that Johnson, once a hapless wannabe guitarist, developed unrivaled guitar chops seemingly overnight. He didn’t just become a skilled guitar player. He invented new playing styles that would become signature licks like the now-timeless “blues turnaround”, and even gave rise to a whole new genre, the delta blues. His mysterious death, still unsolved, only added to his lore. To this day, the legend of Robert Johnson still influences blues music and its contemporary artists. It’s a tune that’s been covered countless times, from Cream and Eric Clapton to John Mayer, and easily comes in at number 1 on our list of the best Robert Johnson songs.
Recommended: Our pick of the most important blues songs (which includes this song, of course).