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KPLU All Blues host John Kessler has expanded "The Blues Time Machine," which has been a popular segment on his weekend blues shows. The weekly series tracks one great blues song through history - from its earliest recording to its latest and sometimes, with some surprising interpretations. "The Blues Time Machine" airs on KPLU on Fridays at 12:10 p.m. during the "Blue Plate Special," and on All Blues Saturdays and Sundays at 8 and 11 p.m.

'Traveling Riverside Blues' and the Roots of Led Zeppelin

Robert Johnson has become a mythical figure of the blues, who acquired his prodigious skills in a deal with the devil at the crossroads. The truth is he was a man who worked very hard to turn himself into a musician. His early attempts at music – sitting in with legends Charley Patton and Son House—were not successful, and he didn’t appear to have much in the way of musical talent.

But then Johnson found a teacher in Ike Zinneman, an unrecorded Mississippi blues player, spending a year developing his musicianship.

He returned to the performing world with a mature and unique style that drew upon blues, pop and country music of the day. It was certainly an amazing transformation, fueling the idea that he had made the infamous deal with the devil.

Although he only recorded 29 songs in his short life, the genius of his songwriting, musicianship and singing have influenced the entire development of blues and rock. He recorded “Traveling Riverside Blues” in 1937, but Robert Johnson’s music did not sell well in his own time. It was not until Columbia released a collection of his music in 1961 that the world heard him, and he began to get recognition for his remarkable achievements.

Rock groups like The Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin found a lot of their inspiration from the songs and style of Robert Johnson. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant referred to him this way:“Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way.” Over the years, Plant mixed in Johnson’s lyrics to many of their songs, but “Traveling Riverside Blues” was the only Johnson title they recorded. They tracked it in 1969, but it wasn’t released on an album until 1990.

This is Zeppelin’s “official” music video for the song:

Eric Clapton called Robert Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived”, and much of his career has involved Johnson in some way. From Cream’s 1969 “Crossroads Blues” to Clapton’s 2004 release Me and Mr. Johnson, Clapton has probably done more than any other musician to bring attention to the work of Robert Johnson. “Traveling Riverside Blues” appears on the 2004 tribute. Here’s Clapton playing it live:

David Jacobs-Strain is a young blues player who has successfully merged his folk-blues training with a very modern approach to rhythm and style. His 2008 version of “Traveling Riverside Blues” is informed by both Robert Johnson and Led Zeppelin.

Here are the complete versions of “Traveling Riverside Blues” tracked through time:

Robert Johnson “Traveling Riverside Blues” 1937

Led Zeppelin  “Travelling Riverside Blues” 1970


Eric Clapton “Traveling Riverside Blues” 2004


David Jacobs-Strain “Traveling Riverside Blues” 2008


John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.