Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Listening to Robert Johnson

Elaine pointed me to a WNYC.org feature about an ongoing debate concerning the proper playback speed for Robert Johnson’s recordings. Some listeners contend that Johnson’s recordings play at least twenty percent too fast, due to an effort to make the recordings sound more exciting or to faulty equipment.

My knowledge of pre-war blues recording makes the first explanation seem merely outlandish: it assumes on the part of recording personnel an imaginative interest in music and production for which we have no other evidence. Skip James’s 1931 Paramount recording sessions, for instance, involved these elements of production: mints, whiskey, a company guitar, and a board to enhance the sound of James’s stomping.

As for the second explanation, faulty equipment could well play a part in the sound of Johnson’s recordings. But what equipment? And what part? Johnson recorded in San Antonio in November 1936 and in Dallas in June 1937. Can we assume that the same equipment was in use in both places? There are further variables: Johnson’s guitar may have been tuned higher or lower than standard pitch. (Tuning higher gives more punch.) He may have been using a capo (greater punch still). The impossibility of reverse-engineering the circumstances of recording puts me in mind of the title of David Shapiro’s poem “After a Lost Original”: we have no reference point for knowing what Johnson sounded like when recording other than his recordings.

There is though at least one fairly straightforward way to begin thinking about the question of speed: we know the schedule of several days’ worth of recording sessions that preceded and followed Johnson’s, with Mexican musicians, old-timey musicians, and Western swing groups (all listed in the booklet accompanying the 1990 CD release of Johnson’s recordings). Such recordings as are still available could provide a basis for comparison: slow them down too and find out what they sound like. Of course, making these kinds of comparisons would involve thinking of Robert Johnson as one musician among many in a world of makeshift studios, not as a musician whose recordings can be removed from historical context and adjusted to suit the twenty-first-century listener’s sense of what sounds right.

One more consideration: I know of no Johnson associate ever commenting on differences between Johnson’s recordings and his non-studio performances. Indeed, there’s a remarkable moment in The Search for Robert Johnson (dir. Chris Hunt, 1992), when Willie Mae Powell, the “Willie Mae” of Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” hears for the first time the 1937 recording of the song she inspired. Her face opens wide when she hears Johnson sing her name. There’s no question that the voice she is hearing is a familiar one.

And that doesn’t surprise me. To my ears, the drastically slow samples available online are deeply unconvincing. The “Cross Road Blues” played in the WNYC feature (link below) sounds lethargic, lifeless, like someone singing in slow motion. One industrious listener with a Technics turntable has made available very slightly slower versions that may be more convincing. But if they are more convincing, that would be because they sound very much like Johnson’s recordings as we’ve known them.

Further reading and listening
Steady Rollin’ Man (With musical samples)
Slow Down, Robert Johnson! (WNYC)
Robert Johnson revelation tells us to put the brakes on the blues (Guardian)

And earlier today, WNYC linked to a comment on the speed question by Elijah Wald, author of the excellent Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Amistad, 2004). I wrote this post before reading what Wald has written.

[The details of Skip James’s 1931 recording sessions may be found in Stephen Calt’s I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (New York: Da Capo, 1994), the best book on blues I’ve read.]

(Thanks, Elaine!)

comments: 2

Scott Ainslie said...

I actually agree with Michael here.

I actually find this notion, which is back in circulation, to be based more on contemporary ideas about 'how a blues man should sound' than on any historical facts.

As a student of Johnson's music and life and author of "Robert Johnson/At The Crossroads" as well as a teaching DVD on Johnson's music, I find nothing out of the ordinary in Johnson's tempos or pitches. And neither Johnny Shines, nor David 'Honeyboy' Edwards, nor Robert Lockwood, Jr. nor anyone else who we know heard Robert or played with Robert, has ever mentioned that the recordings were too fast. On the contrary, everyone of those folks have said, in so many words, 'Yup. That's little Robert.'

I believe that well-meaning amateur musicologists and blues lovers are simply trying to shape Johnson's sound to their own liking, rather than taking the recordings at face value. Perhaps they are measuring his recordings against recordings of some of the elder statesmen of the tradition who survived later in the century and who we have had a chance to hear, like Honeyboy Edwards, or Johnny Shines, or Son House.

Johnson wasn't in his seventies, eighties or nineties. He was 25 when he cut his first recordings, including his Crossroads Blues.

Here are my questions:

Is anyone suggesting that the record producers sped up Louis Armstrong's recordings a decade earlier? Or Blind Willie McTell?

Are people repeating this idea suggesting that Johnson's masters were all sped up, including the pieces that were never released?

It seems to me that any objective – rather than subjective – evaluation of Johnson's sound and recordings has to take them at face value.

Michael Leddy said...

Scott, thanks for your comments. What you say about the focus on Johnson alone and about listeners shaping his sound to their liking suggests some of the more unfortunate tendencies in modern-day blues fandom.

Maybe we should start speeding up Son House’s recordings. : )