The Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center has recently acquired an important collection of rare, mint-condition test-pressing recordings of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), one of the most influential composers of blues music. Johnson was recorded in 1936 and 1937 by traveling units of the Columbia (then ARC/Brunswick) Record Co., first in San Antonio and then in Dallas.
Donated by blues enthusiast Tom Jacobsen, the collection contains 186 one-sided, 78-rpm test pressings, including 25 Johnson recordings of the songs “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “When You Got a Good Friend” (takes 1 and 2), “Phonograph Blues” (takes 1 and 2), “32-20 Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” “Little Queen of Spades,” “Drunken Hearted Man,” “Me and the Devil Blues,” “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” “Love in Vain” and “Milkcow’s Calf Blues.”
These pressings were originally made for Columbia producer Frank Driggs in the late 1950s or very early 1960s, when Columbia was considering the reissue of some of its back catalog of country and blues recordings. Shortly afterward, Columbia and almost all other record companies abandoned their old stamping equipment, thus halting the production of such test pressings.
From these recordings, Driggs produced the first reissue anthology of Johnson’s recordings, “King of the Delta Blues,” in 1961 – an LP that proved to be the most influential blues album for modern popular groups, including the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin. Johnson’s recorded repertoire consisted of only 29 songs, which he produced in 1936 and 1937, five of which were never issued during his short lifetime.
After master copies of a field-recorded song were sent to the record company’s factory, metal copies were created and then “stamped” onto shellac discs for commercial release. Occasionally, in addition to the mass production of the record, companies stamped just one copy for internal use by their staff, and these single stampings were known as test pressings. These pressings of a commercial 78-rpm are rare items because, in many cases, they are the only extant copy or the clearest copy.
The Library’s acquisition also contains Driggs’ correspondence with Don Law, who recorded Johnson for Columbia and was able to give a first-person account of these recording sessions.
Other test pressings in the collection include recordings by blues and gospel artists Leroy Carr, Ida Cox, Lil Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Memphis Minnie, Little Brother Montgomery, Sam Montgomery, Kid Prince Moore, Tampa Red, Peetie Wheatstraw, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bob Wills, who pioneered the Texas swing style of music.
Rounding out the acquisition are several of Driggs’ test pressings of blues reissue LPs that were never produced: a blues anthology titled “Kings of the Blues” and a three-LP set of the complete recordings of Robert Johnson.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to “preserve and present American Folklife” through programs of research, documentation, archival presentation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs and training. The center includes the Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in the Library in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world.