Writing the liner notes for the Columbia/Legacy single-CD anthology Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues was a great pleasure, since I’ve loved Johnson’s music since the 1960s. I’ve listened to Robert Johnson so much – along with his contemporaries Son House, Willie Brown, and others – that this music feels ingrained on my soul.
Recently I was asked me to weigh in on the controversial theory that Robert Johnson’s 78s were sped up during the recording or mastering process.I don’t believe they are. Here are my top three reasons:
1) In the early days of recording – from the cylinder era through the early 1920s – companies did issue records at non-standard speeds, usually to encourage customers to buy their particular model of record player. (My 1919 Brunswick wind-up 78 player, for instance, has an ingenious speed-control lever to allow adjustment of the rpm – revolutions per minute – for any 78.) But by the mid 1920s, pretty much everyone adhered to 78 rpm as the industry standard. It’s highly unlikely a seasoned engineer like Don Law would get the recording speed wrong at Johnson’s session. I’ve read reports that Vocalion, Johnson’s label, had on occasion sped up recordings during the mastering process to make them sound more exciting. But I just cannot imagine them doing this consistently for all of Johnson’s issued 78s.
2) Speeding up the rpm would change the pitch of both the voice and guitar – make them higher. None of Johnson’s associates have been known to observe that his records sound off. And since you can match Robert Johnson pitch-for-pitch in the standard and open tunings he used, sometimes with a capo, they’re very likely not sped up. The only exception to this rule of physics would be if Johnson tuned some micro-tones off from standard. I doubt this happened, though, as he was known to perform in public with a rack-mounted harmonica, like Les Paul and Bob Dylan early in their careers. Getting a guitar to match a harmonica requires pitch-perfect tuning. And let’s face it: evidence suggests Robert Johnson was a musical perfectionist.
3) Most important, Robert Johnson’s music– and personality, from what Johnny Shines and others have told me – were on the manic side anyway. After all, he was a heavy drinker, had serious wanderlust, and wrote harrowing lyrics of making pacts with the devil and being dogged by hell hounds. It makes perfect sense that he’d perform with manic energy. It was part of his wiring.
For more insight into Robert Johnson’s recording sessions, check out the Ry Cooder interview at Ry Cooder: Talking Country Blues and Gospel.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.