The legend and legacy of Robert Johnson, singer-songwriter, quintessential bluesman, and rock and roll template and precursor, continue to this day, as does the shadow of controversy that follows him around. During his short life he traveled over large parts of the south and mid-west, made a few primitive recordings in seedy hotel rooms, had many friends, lovers, and enemies, and supposedly made a deal with Satan in order to play the guitar. His death at 27 years of age guaranteed him membership in a club far in his future – the forever 27 club of musicians and artists who left this world before reaching the age of 28. His influence on countless modern musicians has been widespread and heavily chronicled, and his music, no matter how scanty and poorly recorded, has never been more popular or successful. But modern technology has permitted a question to be raised that just a few short years ago had not been asked – have we been hearing him wrong all these many years?
Johnson’s only recordings were made during the last 2 years of his life. At 2 different sessions he laid down the tracks that would become his life’s work and would reach ahead in time to become unbelievably important. In November of 1936, he journeyed from Mississippi to San Antonio, Texas, for his first recording session for Brunswick records. The company had set up a makeshift studio in the Gunter Hotel, and there in room 414 history was made. Reportedly, Johnson was so shy about being recorded that he faced the wall to avoid the engineer. But anyone who has played and sang in a small room knows that the reflections from the corner can enhance the sound, giving it depth and resonance – something Johnson probably would have known from his many years of performing. Over a 3 day period he recorded 16 sides, several with alternate takes. In the following year he went to Dallas to the Brunswick studios, where he recorded the remainder of his the extant works. Again, many of these were recorded more than once, and this has given musicologists and fans the opportunity to hear different versions of many of the famous songs. In addition to the repackaged Columbia albums from 1961, the entire collection of his recordings has been available since 1990 on compact disc, including 29 songs and 12 alternate takes. This is the music that everyone from Bob Dylan to Jack White has grown up hearing, and that has had such an influence on generations of guitar players and singers alike. So what’s the problem?
A few years ago, an article appeared on the Internet suggesting that the recordings by Robert Johnson that are known and loved the world over are not accurate, that what we hear is the result of speeding up the original tapes laid down at those brief long-ago sessions. This month, I stumbled on this article that revived my interest. The source of this idea is apparently that many of the lyrics and vocal asides sound rushed and unnaturally fast, as do many up-tempo guitar passages. The ability to take a digitized song and slow it down by increments until it sounds more natural became available to the general public several years ago, but it took some time for the technique to be applied to Johnson’s work. Now there are many examples on the Internet of the original and the slowed-down versions, and listened to side by side they make an impact. To ears that are not completely accustomed to the accepted and original versions of the recordings, they do indeed sound a bit more natural and comfortable. Scholars have admitted that it might have happened, that the 78 rpm recordings might have been made at a higher speed to sound brighter or have a more attractive presence on the radio or on primitive playback equipment. But there are many problems with this theory.
For one thing, many friends and associates of Johnson who outlived him would have heard his music on the radio and on records, and none of them have ever suggested, at least for public consumption, that he didn’t sound like the man they knew. While he never had a big hit in his lifetime, he did get quite a bit of airplay over the years and it seems that someone would have noticed if the records were not correct representations. Another problem is the very consistency of the recordings, made at 2 different sessions, on different equipment with different engineers. Listened to as a collection, they sound remarkably and logically consistent, with no obvious edits or changes in speed. And if this consistency is the result of expert manipulation of the studio recordings, surely someone would have taken note of it and taken credit for an amazing achievement.
But the biggest problem with the sped-up theory is that for all these years, the recordings as they stand have been the bible for blues lovers, the original text referred to and followed, mimicked and modeled thousands of times. What Dylan heard in 1961 was what inspired him, and what Jack White listened to a couple of years ago did the same. If the slowed-down versions sound better to modern ears, or to those who have never heard him before, then it seems to be a harmless enough thing to do. Fortunately, Robert Johnson’s work has survived so far, and it will continue to inspire and amaze for the foreseeable future, no matter at what speed he is listened to.
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