Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Number 2 
20 June 1937
Robert Johnson records "Hellhound on my Trail"
The Myth

No one knows where Robert Johnson came from. There is no record of his birth and early life. When he was 18 years old he wanted to be a musician. Other musicians laughed at his primitive, rudimentary ability on the guitar. One night, Johnson went to the crossroads outside of town and waited for the Devil. When the Devil appeared, Johnson sold his soul and the Devil tuned Johnson's guitar. Johnson was now a master musician, able to play any tune on a first hearing. Those other musicians were astounded by his abilities. Johnson was a star and a great hit with women who could not resist him. Johnson was immensely shy. Too nervous to play in front of other musicians, he faced the wall when making his recordings rather than be watched. He made a number of recordings which were very popular across the Southern states. Johnson was a wealthy man, travelling between gigs in a Hudson Terraplane automobile. One year to the day after his trip to the crossroads, the Devil came to take his due. Johnson died crawling on the floor howling like a dog, his stomach wracked in agony. No one knows what happened to his body. There are no photographs of Johnson.

The Man

Robert Johnson was a real person, who lived and breathed in the Southern states of America from about 1910 to 1938. He made 29 recordings in two sessions, one in 1936 and his last in 1937. Twenty-four of his recordings were issued at the time across twelve 78rpm discs. His records sold few copies and he was not particularly popular as a recording artist, although he was sufficiently well known for John Hammond from New York to try and locate Johnson for Hammond's Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 only to find that Johnson was dead.

A Hudson Terraplane, yesterday
Robert Johnson did not sell his soul to the Devil. He got to be a phenomenal guitar player and performer the old fashioned way - practice. He was 27 or 28 when he made his recordings. There is a fair bit of knowledge about his life including where he was born and where he lived and died. He earned his living travelling around the South (not in a Terraplane) playing for drinks, food and accommodation at roadside shacks. He was an entertainer and certainly not shy.

Johnson was murdered, possibly by a jealous husband after Johnson had been coming on to his wife, possibly by poisoning. Johnson's body was buried quickly to cover up his murder.
Robert Johnson enjoying a cigarette

There are at least two photographs of Robert Johnson.

The King of the Delta Blues Singers

Johnson's recordings first achieved a degree of recognition in 1961 when Colombia issued an lp collecting several of them. With a self-actualising title of King of the Delta Blues Singers, the lp sought to place Johnson as the greatest of the primitive (meaning untutored, rather than un-complicated) blues performers. This lp had great appeal for young white aficionados looking for someone expressing existential angst rather than dealing purely in the realities and specifics of life in the Mississippi delta in the 1920s and 30s. They identified with and related to Johnson's expression of joy, lust, desire, fear and dread which did not have to be siphoned out from some of the more confusing affectations of other performers such as Charley Patton or Skip James.

More specifically, the recordings of many blues artists showcased their performances as entertainers. They made records with a view to achieving and sustaining popularity and were not afraid to write and sing about contemporary, local events and to shriek and howl and emphasise their exaggerated mannerisms. Many of their records are pure entertainments with no search for a deeper meaning. Johnson's music was intense, offering no concession to entertainment. Some would record more thoughtful material but the King of the Delta Blues Singers presented Johnson's recordings as a uniform body of work with consistent themes recurring between songs. It seemed as if Johnson had consciously planned only to record his most intellectual material. Rather than a random collection of songs recorded at different times and in different places and addressing different subjects, Johnson's lp presented homogeneity of time, place and action combined with a thematic unity.

A later volume of King of the Delta Blues Singers repeated this effect with more songs
expressing some core thoughts about life, love and death. Johnson is now regarded as the apotheosis of the existential rural blues performers, the John Clare of the Mississippi Delta.

Johnson comes at the end of the train of rural blues performers in its classic form of a singer accompanying himself on a guitar and performing semi-improvised songs more often than not expressing an existential state. Performances become refined over time and recording techniques improve. Johnson learned from performers such as Son House and brought his own innovations to their style. His recordings possess a degree of self-possession and clarity absent from many earlier performers, helping to make him more palatable to modern ears.
A hellhound, yesterday
The Hellhound

"Hellhound on my Trail" has a striking title. The image of the hellhound was not unheard of in blues songs, though rarely does it take centre stage. In fact, Johnson's song is actually about restlessness. The singer cannot relax even if today was Christmas Eve and tomorrow Christmas Day. He has a rambling mind every old place he goes ("rambling mind" in the sense of having a desire to move on rather than a mind that cannot fix on any topic, though that image too is pleasing and relevant). His woman has sprinkled hot foot powder all around his door - he cannot enter into his own house. He has hot feet and must wander. The concoction also acts as a hex to ward off the singer but perhaps also to ward off something more sinister.

The song, and the performance, is permeated with foreboding, with a dreadful anticipation that something wicked this way comes. The leaves are trembling on the tree, the wind is rising and the blues are falling down like hail. These images may be taken as metaphorical rather than meteorological. As a consequence of the metaphysical storm that is brewing, the singer has to keep moving. The days keep worrying him. All he needs is some female companionship "to pass the time away".

Is the hellhound real or is it a metaphor? And if the latter, then for what? Interaction with evil is a feature of Johnson's songs. In "Me and the Devil Blues", Satan knocks upon Johnson's door and tells him its time to go. He and the Devil are walking side by side. In "Steady Rollin' Man" he is howling down on his bended knees. He has a "Kind Hearted Woman" but she studies evil all the time. The otherwise benign "Malted Milk Blues" contains the couplet:

            "My doorknob keeps on turning, it must be spooks around my bed.
            I have a warm old feeling and the hair rising on my head."

Strange occurrences abound. The cow's milk turns blue and the blues are seen abroad walking upright like a man. There is frequently violence both inflicted on Johnson and by him. He is going to beat his woman until he is satisfied, then he is going to shoot her with his 32-20 (a type of cartridge originally used for shooting game). 
Types of cartridge including 32-20
In "Phonograph Blues" Johnson asks "What evil have I done?". Retribution is coming. Johnson finally finds himself at the mythical crossroads. Unable to flag a ride as everybody passes him by, the sun begins to go down and he fears being stranded in the dark with what the dark might bring. Sinking to his knees, he cries out to the Lord above "Have mercy, save poor Bob". The hellhound has come to claim his own.

Of course, it's a metaphor. The singer is dissatisfied, restless. He has to keep moving or he prefers it that way and claims there is no alternative. As an itinerant musician, Johnson had no choice but to keep moving to the next engagement. As a working musician, failure to do so would mean an evil fate. Not crime and prison but something far worse - work. There is a recent essay on the internet claiming that fear of lynching may be an inspiration for the song's metaphorical movement. It is an interesting essay but I do not agree with it's premise, that Johnson's song is rooted in a specific incident. Johnson's songs avoid specific incidents or commentary on current affairs, unlike many of his contemporaries. I think that Johnson is aiming for the universal truth of human experience and relating that to his audience. If he wanted to present truth in the form of a lynching ballad he is enough of an artist to present us with clues. I detect none in "Hellhound on my Trail".

Life in pre-WWII Mississippi for poor black people was, I assume, tough. Physical labour would be available for the men combined with low wages, segregation, zero public standing and zero respect. Black men would be expected to tote that barge and lift that bale, to be respectful and, preferably, invisible. Any black man with a bit of spirit would have to either suppress it or find some other outlet - either entertainment or crime. Similarly, any black man who did not fancy a life of back breaking work had better find some alternative source of income. Johnson the entertainer has to keep on moving because he is pursued by the hellhound that is digging a ditch for the rest of his life.

The recording

"Hellhound on my Trail" was recorded by the American Record Company in Dallas. Although Johnson recorded two versions of most of his songs at his recording sessions (common practice in order to have a safety copy should anything happen to the master), he only recorded one version of "Hellhound on my Trail" (or at least only one that has been found).

Johnson may have preferred singing facing a wall. He was being recorded in a big empty room. His recordings have an intimacy and intensity to them and Johnson, familiar with the recordings of other bluesmen, may have wanted to avoid having to project outwards into empty space, having to over-emote to get his song across.

Guitar-wise, this song is a good example of how Johnson combined playing lead parts with accompaniment parts, i.e. playing lead parts underneath his vocalising rather than singing and playing separately. This can lead to slight dissonance in his playing owing to him making mistakes. But this is more than compensated for by the drama of the delivery and the performance. There is a high-pitched, keening edge to Johnson's voice and this is matched by his playing solo lead lines with his slide high up the neck.

This music is tense, nervous. Chords are intermittent and only the one pattern repeats. Each pass is played differently and sometimes the bass and the lead strings sound out together. This could be one of the performances that Keith Richards was thinking of when he said that he could hear two guitar players on Johnson's records.

This is not Johnson's best song or performance. I think the extraordinary "Stones in my Passway" is a better song and the stunning "Crossroads Blues" a better performance. But "Hellhound on my Trail" stands out for its succinct stating of some of Johnson's key themes, for its compelling title and for its almost suffocating air of sadness. And it is this air of sadness that led me to choose it for this list. In the second verse the singer offers the thought that if today were Christmas Eve and tomorrow were Christmas day "oh, wouldn't we have a time, baby". If good times were in the offing, then the singer and his "little sweet woman" would make the very most of it. Even to the extent of the singer no longer needing his bit on the side to pass the time with. The singer's life is so empty that he has casual, meaningless encounters with other women purely to pass the time while waiting for the void to engulf him.

Robert Johnson
 (note ghostly image
over his left shoulder)
I keep coming back to the if it were Christmas image. The singer is not just promising a wild Saturday night but the best night of the year and what a time they would have. Note Johnson's use of the conditional - he does not say when it is Christmas we will have a great time but that we would have a great time if it were Christmas. The implication of this choice is that it will not be Christmas and no great time will be had. And it is Johnson's wistful, gentle delivery of the, possibly improvised, "oh, wouldn't we have a time, baby" line that undermines the expected blues boast of a hot time in the old town tonight. This is the great recorded moment, the creator speaking to his audience and declaring that there will be no good times because they are not living that sort of life, the sound of an artist signalling his outsiderhood from the world and the creative milieu he has just become king of.
Celebrate Christmas with Robert here: