Written by 4:25 am Audiophile Music

Robert Johnson in the 21st Century : Streaming The Blues

Mark Smotroff goes down to the crossroads of analog and digital…

So a new blues song I just started writing goes something like this:

“I got the streaming blues, baby.

No one wants to buy my tunes.

I got the streaming blues, baby.

No one wants to buy my tunes.

Copyright’s gone dry

My kin are dead and gone

People play my music, all day long

But I got nothin’ to show for it, I just got my songs

I got the streaming blues, baby.

No one wants to buy my tunes.”

AR-KingOfTheDeltaBluesSingers225.jpegOk, well maybe that is an extreme perspective but I wanted to make a little point while I transition to the core of this article.  As I have been exploring the streaming world, it got me wondering who actually gets royalties on some of the old classic blues, country and early rock ‘n roll greats, artists who many times didn’t make much money in the first place? Many an artist of a certain vintage have also fallen victim to the “grey market” in Europe where copyrights have run out even before they do in the US — thus their recordings get repackaged often quite dubiously (and sometimes amazingly good!).  Those packages are commonly resold over here very cheaply (undercutting domestic labels offerings). So no one really gets their due on those editions except for the people marketing them.  And then there is the issue of the low royalty rates most streaming services pay artists anyhow … 

What prompted all this streaming ‘n thinking relates back to my collection believe it or not.  You see, for 2018 I’ve begun another purging process on my music library.  I have too many recordings and not enough space in my little apartment — which is probably a good thing as it is forcing me to make some hard decisions and curate my music. When I’m dead and gone, someone is going to get a really nicely assembled batch of fine and often rare music!

So as I am considering things I can live without on a day-to-day basis, I am doing some hard-ish thinking about which versions are the best sounding and whether I really “need” certain reissues and such. 

AR-KingOfTheDeltaBluesSingersVolumeII225.jpegRecently I picked up a nice late 90s’ pressing of the 1961 Robert Johnson collection King of The Delta Blues Singers.  I’ve had the two CD boxed set — called The Complete Recordings —  from the early 1990s since it came out.  Over the years I’ve had some CD reissues of the ’61 album (at one point I even had it on a “Mastersound” audiophile 24-carat gold disc CD, which was pretty ludicrous, all things considered). But I oddly enough never had that first original collection on vinyl — I had Volume II which I stupidly / accidentally got rid of years ago. 

Anyhow, I started poking around on the web and saw people talking about the mastering of the 1990 boxed set so thought I’d listen to these recordings with that in mind.  First I’m playing the 1998 reissue LP which sounds really remarkably good, surprisingly full bodied. The source material used for it was no doubt very good. Perhaps they did some digital de-clicking, I don’t know. It sounds better than I remember this album sounding, at least on CD, I’ll put it that way.

Switching over to the 1990 CD boxed set, I admit I was surprised just how much surface noise I was hearing. On one hand its good that they didn’t do lots of early digital de-clicking (which early on could be dicey). Overall the recording sounds pretty good but there is a flatness to the presentation here, partially — probably — to the 16 bit mastering of the times I’d suspect but perhaps also there are other variables to consider including sources used and how they were transferred to digital.   

AR-TheCompleteRecordings225.jpegOut of curiosity I played the version of “Traveling Riverside Blues” from the 20-bit mastered Mastersound Sampler CD I still have around and it is actually kind of harsh sounding.  So much for spiffy gold CDs (I’ve never really been a believer in them, I will admit, but that is another discussion for another time).  Curiously, that song sounds about the same on the 1998 LP and oddly enough sounds much better on the 1990 The Complete Recordings CD set. So… you may discover some inconsistencies along the way as you go looking for a definitive edition… these variances probably exist for a variety of reasons (beyond the scope of this review).

Switching over to the Tidal streaming music service — which, according to the Wiki apparently pays a higher rate of royalty than other streaming services, I’m happy to report — I’ve found numerous versions of Robert Johnson’s music there. King of The Delta Blues Singers streams at 16-b, 44.1 kHz, CD quality. And it sounds rich and pretty much like the album version — these are taken from old 78 RPM discs made in the 1930s, so fidelity will be what it will be.  

Curiously, when I switched between versions of “Terraplane Blues” on this album and The Complete Recordings, the latter version sounds somewhat thinner overall.  The Centennial Collection — a repackaging of The Complete Recordings in celebration of Johnson’s 100th birthday — is my least favorite of the versions I explored there on Tidal, adding a somewhat harsher digital texture to the songs I sampled.

So… its curious… this sort of comparison is admittedly a splitting of archival audiophile hairs on a potentially ridiculous level. I mean, looking for audiophile purity from digital representations of old 78s is a far cry from, say, exploring which version of Steely Dan’s Aja sounds best. But the music here is so important, you should want to find the best sounding version that is available.  Thus, one has to explore the options…

AR-RobertJohnsonTidal225.jpegYour choices are vast. You can listen to a version of Robert Johnson’s music that has been de-clicked, which sounds quite good for the most part. Or, listen to a version that has more surface noise but also delivers more of the essence of the music — room sound and sound stage and all that good stuff, nuances you can make out if you listen closely.  Or perhaps you prefer listening on LP to get the warmth of your tube preamp wrapping its arms around Johnson’s influential sounds. 

Given my space considerations and such, I’m probably going to get rid of this boxed set even though it has a nice booklet and such in it. I know the basic story and am happy passing it on to another listener who wants to learn. The Tidal stream will serve me for now for those moments when I want to hear the bonus tracks. I’ll be keeping the LP version of course and will be looking for Volume II to replace the one I mistakenly purged years ago. 

Whatever way you get the music, Robert Johnson’s music is essential listening. And now you have no excuse. Its all there right at your fingertips, basically streaming for next to nothing on Tidal and Amazon Prime and other places. To quote Janis Joplin, “get it while you can!”

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