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Welcome to the “Steady Rollin’ Man” page. The ideas here, along with some other interesting ones, can also be found in The Nightingale’s Code: a poetic study of Bob Dylan.

There are links to the musical examples, as fairly low-resolution MP3s, at the bottom of the page.

There is a CD containing 24 tracks of slowed-down Robert Johnson, which you can buy for £4.50 in the UK, £5.50 overseas (including P&P). Click on the cover below to order:

Steady Rollin' Man


Steady Rollin’ Man



A Revolut
ionary Critique of Robert Johnson

An abiding mystery about Robert Johnson is the rpm conundrum. Is it true, as a Japanese musician told me it is widely held to be in Japan, that Robert Johnson’s records play way too fast? Should he actually sound much more like his great mentor, Son House?

One guitar tutorial book, Country Blues Bottleneck Guitar by James Ferguson and Richard Gellis (Walter Kane Publications, New York, 1976), proposes that Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ is played with the guitar tuned to G (i.e. so that the open strings play a chord of G major – D-G-D-G-B-D, from bass to treble) and with a capo on the fourth fret. This means that the opening phrase, played an octave higher than the open strings – i.e. twelve frets down the neck from the capo – has to be played at the sixteenth fret. On the kind of guitar that has the neck joining the body at the fourteenth fret – like the one that Johnson is holding in one of the long-sought-after photographs of him, reproduced above right – this means manoeuvring the slide above the fingerboard a good inch beyond the end of the neck. On a guitar with the neck-body join at the twelfth fret, as in the photograph reproduced above left, it means stretching even further – a most uncomfortable position that would make it hard to play accurately.

There are four other Johnson tunes in the book. One, ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’, is given in an arrangement by Taj Mahal; the rest follow the original recordings, and all of these are supposed to be capoed at the third fret. The only other piece in the book to be played with a capo on the third is by the Georgia-born Tampa Red. The pieces by the other Mississippi Delta slide players in the book – Bukka White, Bobby Grant, Mississippi Fred McDowell – are all played open or, in one case, with a capo on the first fret.

Now if we turn to the song on which Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ is based, namely ‘My Black Mama’ by Son House [example 1], we find that on his recording of it in 1930, he plays in open G, capo on the first. What happens, then, if we slow Johnson’s record until it is in the same key as the song it’s modelled on? [example 2] And what if we bring the rest of his records down likewise, so that those pieces that sound as though they’re capoed on the third would actually be played with open strings? This means lowering the key by three semitones, a quarter of an octave.

If my maths and physics are correct (if !), since a recording playing at half its original speed will be exactly one octave lower in pitch (the frequencies of the soundwaves being halved), then a reduction of quarter of an octave would involve slowing the recordings by quarter of 50 per cent, i.e. 12.5 per cent. So, by my calculation, these slowed down recordings run at 87.5 per cent of the speed at which they normally play, the equivalent of a 33-1/3-rpm record playing at approximately 29rpm.

But I wasn’t working by numbers, only by ear and guitar, and here’s the method (bear in mind that I did this in the last century). I played my King of the Delta Blues Singers LPs (the 1980s reissue, with both the original volumes in a single, budget package) with the pitch control on the turntable turned as low as it would go, and taped them on a variable speed cassette deck with the pitch control turned as high as it would go (which would give an effect of further slowing when the tape was played, or copied, at standard speed). A copy at the desired pitch could then be made by dubbing from this first cassette onto a second, with adjustments to the first deck’s pitch control.

And after all that fiddling what came out of the speakers? For me, a music transformed. The sound of a man, first of all: this dark-toned voice would no longer lend credence to the youth of seventeen or eighteen that Don Law, the only person to record him, thought he might be. Now, especially in the dip of his voice at the end of a line, we can hear the follower of Son House, and the precursor of Muddy Waters. Hear him pronounce his name in ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ [example 3] – now he sounds like “Mr Johnson”, a man whose words are not half-swallowed, garbled or strangled, but clearly delivered, beautifully modulated; whose performances are not fleeting, harried or fragmented, but paced with the sense of space and drama that drew an audience in until people wept as they stood in the street around him [example 4]. (The wordless last lines of ‘Love in Vain’ [example 5], in this slowed form, are the work of one of the most heartbreaking and delicate of blues singers.) This is a Steady Rolling Man, whose tempos and tonalities are much like those of other Delta bluesmen. Full-speed Johnson always struck me as a disembodied sound – befitting his wraith-like persona, the reticent, drifting youth, barely more than a boy, that Don Law spoke of: the Rimbaud of the blues [example 6]. Johnson slowed down sounds to me like the person in the recently discovered studio portrait: a big-boned man, self-assured and worldly-wise [example 7]. It works for me, but listen for yourself.

As for why and how it could have come about, I’ve no idea. But if all the recordings should really play at 87.5 per cent of their current speed, that wouldn’t make them exceptionally long. The sixteen cuts of the first Robert Johnson LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, have an average duration of two minutes 38 seconds. This is noticeably shorter than, for example, the sixteen cuts on an LP collection of Leroy Carr’s blues from 1932 to 1934, which average just over three minutes; or of the twelve cuts on a collection of Blind Willie McTell’s blues from 1935. On the other hand, it matches, almost to the second, the average duration of sixteen tracks recorded in May 1937 by Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams – a month before “poor Bob’s” last session. But this is up-tempo, good-time blues, as suggested by the title of this Williamson/Williams LP – Throw a Boogie Woogie. Two of the songs in this compilation became rocking Blues Boom standards in the 1960s – ‘Good Morning School Girl’ and ‘Please Don’t Go’.

Similarly, on a two-CD set that collects all of the 42 masters cut by the rugged Delta musician Tommy McClennan between 1939 and 1942, the average length is only a wee bit longer than Johnson’s, around two minutes fifty – but McClennan is another purveyor of the boogie, a much simpler artist than our “Robert chile”. When he was recommended for his first recording session by the duke of pre-war Chicago blues, Big Bill Broonzy, it was surely because, despite the rude country style, McClennan’s ever-driving beat and bragging personality could still cut it with the juke-joint dancers – something that ‘Love In Vain’ and ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ weren’t likely to do.

If the theory I’ve advanced is not completely crazy, a possible motive for speeding up Johnson’s records might have been to try to make them more exciting for an age in which the Delta tradition he came out of was already a thing of the past.

Perhaps there are scientific tests that could be applied to the sound that might establish its original frequencies – to the qualities of the voice, for example, like the vibrato, which at full speed sounds to me like an alien nasal flutter but at slower speeds like a proper musical ornament; or perhaps to the decay time of the guitar notes.

Robert Johnson’s records occupy a place of unique esteem in the heritage of 20th-century popular music. In addition to their innate artistic excellence, they exerted a huge influence on the subsequent development of the blues, and on the other forms, like rock, that drew on the blues. They are universally acclaimed by critics: Greil Marcus, for example, the dean of rock writers, while he might not be so blunt as to tag the first Robert Johnson LP as The Greatest Album Of All Time, certainly regards it as An Album Than Which None Better Has Been Made. This cultural prestige is reflected in the continuing demand for Johnson’s music: the 1990 CD box-set of The Complete Recordings, with an expected sale of about twenty thousand, sold half a million. If the records are, in fact, distinctly inaccurate, perhaps we should be told.

Postscript

The ideas outlined above are presented to stimulate further debate and investigation. It’s quite possible, for example, that my detuning of Johnson’s records by a tone and a half is too extreme. Perhaps he did not habitually play with open strings, as I have assumed, but favoured the use of a capo most of the time. Observant readers will have noticed that in one of the two photos at the top of the page, his guitar has a capo on the second fret. Johnson is known to have travelled widely and appears to have absorbed many other styles in addition to the Mississippi Delta blues which provided the original matrix for his music. His practices, therefore, can’t be ascertained solely by those of his Delta models, mentors and contemporaries. I’d be glad to hear the thoughts of you blues aficionados and appreciators out there: johngibbens@touched.co.uk

PPS, Feb 2014

I’ve just found this YouTube video of Dave Van Ronk, performing Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Spike Driver Blues’, and if you watch the interview segment at the end, about the 7-minute mark, he provides the first direct evidence I’ve heard, from the horse’s mouth as it were, of a 1930s blues recording being speeded up. (I assume he’s saying that the tune was mechanically speeded up, rather than Hurt just being told to play it faster – otherwise why would he talk about the voice being higher-pitched?)

Examples:

1. Son House, My Black Mama Part I (1930), last verse

2. Robert Johnson, Walking Blues, last verse, slowed down

3. Robert Johnson, Kindhearted Woman Blues, excerpt, slowed down

4. Robert Johnson, Come On In My Kitchen, excerpt, slowed down

5. Robert Johnson, Love in Vain, last verse, slowed down

6. Robert Johnson, Crossroads Blues, as officially released

7. Robert Johnson, Crossroads Blues, slowed down



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