Covering Robert Johnson’s Blues Became a Rite of Rock ‘n’ Roll Passage: Hear Covers by The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Howlin’ Wolf, Lucinda Williams & More

Amer­i­can rock and roll orig­i­nat­ed from all cor­ners of the coun­try in the 1940s and 50s: from the exu­ber­ant gospel of the south, rol­lick­ing west­ern swing of Texas, lean elec­tric blues of Chica­go, fast-paced Chi­cano music of L.A…. Tru­ly a cul­tur­al melt­ing pot, it rep­re­sent­ed the U.S to itself, ampli­fy­ing and inten­si­fy­ing con­tem­po­rary trends that con­tin­ued right along­side the upstart new genre. But along with the deaths, arrests, and army stints of the music’s most famous stars at the end of the 50s, rock’s first wave suf­fered from a kind of cre­ative fatigue, seem­ing to have done all it could with its source mate­r­i­al.

British musi­cians who fell in love with Elvis and Lit­tle Richard saw a need to revi­tal­ize the music by reach­ing back to old­er forms—to the influ­ences of rock and roll’s influ­ences, most from the Amer­i­can South. First came skif­fle, a jazz-blues-folk fusion born in the ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry U.S. It launched the careers of The Bea­t­les and became huge in its own right as a pop­u­lar British folk form of the 50s. Then came the mas­sive influ­ence of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta blues, which gave The Rolling Stones, and vir­tu­al­ly every band fea­tur­ing Jeff Beck, Eric Clap­ton, or Jim­my Page, a rea­son for being.

Among Delta Blues play­ers, no one con­tributed more to British inva­sion bands and the blues-rock explo­sion in the U.S. than Robert John­son, the leg­endary Mis­sis­sip­pi blues­man who is said to have trad­ed his soul for his tal­ent. Johnson’s evo­lu­tion from rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty in his life­time to rock’s most revered ances­tor in death is the sto­ry of the music’s rebirth. As Kei­th Richards put it:

To me Robert Johnson’s influence—he was like a comet or a mete­or that came along and, BOOM, sud­den­ly he raised the ante, sud­den­ly you just had to aim that much high­er. You can put the record on now, and it’s a fresh and inter­est­ing as the first day you heard it.

Nev­er mind that John­son died five years before Richards was born. For the gen­er­a­tion just dis­cov­er­ing him, the blues­man was a brand-new epiphany. All of them returned the favor, giv­ing Johnson’s name immor­tal fame and cov­er­ing his songs. How do their ver­sions stack up against the orig­i­nals? Com­pare for your­self in some clas­sic exam­ples here. At the top, see the Stones play “Love in Vain” live in Texas in 1972, and below them, hear Johnson’s record­ed ver­sion.

Clap­ton leaned even more heav­i­ly on Johnson’s style than Kei­th Richards, turn­ing Johnson’s icon­ic “Cross­roads” into his own sig­na­ture blues. Fur­ther up, see Clap­ton play “Ram­bling on My Mind” at Madi­son Square Gar­den in 2008. Just above, hear Johnson’s 1936 record­ing. The tra­di­tion of cov­er­ing John­son didn’t start or end with clas­sic rock stars, of course. “Long before white British kids dis­cov­ered him,” writes Stephen Deusner at Paste, “old­er black blues­men were play­ing the hell out of Robert Johnson’s tunes, chief among them Howl­in’ Wolf.” See Howl­in’ Wolf, anoth­er hero of the Rolling Stones, play “Dust My Broom” below with his killer elec­tric band.

Still, it took white musi­cians to bring Johnson’s music to white audi­ences out­side of blues fan­dom, just as it took Clapton’s cov­er of “I Shot the Sher­iff” to help Bob Mar­ley cross over. After Cream, the Stones, the Yard­birds, etc., it became fash­ion­able for every­one to cov­er Johnson’s songs, almost as a rite of rock and roll pas­sage.

Lucin­da Williams record­ed a take of “Ram­bling on My Mind” for her debut album in 1979, Coun­try-blues punks Gun Club released their man­ic, unhinged ver­sion of Johnson’s “Preach­ing the Blues” on their 1980 debut. The list of explic­it­ly Robert John­son-influ­enced musi­cians goes on and on, dwarfed by the list of musi­cians indi­rect­ly influ­enced by him. Hear the 10 best Robert John­son cov­ers, accord­ing to Deusner, at least, at Paste, and find all of Johnson’s orig­i­nal record­ings for com­par­i­son here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Blues­man Robert Johnson’s Famous Deal With the Dev­il Retold in Three Ani­ma­tions

Kei­th Richards Wax­es Philo­soph­i­cal, Plays Live with His Idol, the Great Mud­dy Waters

Robert John­son Final­ly Gets an Obit­u­ary in The New York Times 81 Years After His Death

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Desiree says:

    What about led zep­pelin.. they too were influ­enced

  • Clottee Hammons says:

    The [Cov­er­ing Robert John­son’s Blues …] arti­cle’s glar­ing omis­sion is the appro­pri­a­tion and bas­tardiza­tion of the art­form that fur­thered dis­crim­i­na­tion and seg­re­ga­tion of Black musi­cians and Black peo­ple. Dis­tilled Blues-Rock is not Blues.

  • Anna says:

    What about Bon­nie Raitt who is blues and actu­al­ly plays blues gui­tar. I don’t think Bon­nie would be here today if it wasn’t for Robert John­son

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