Robert Johnson on speed

Musicologists are convinced blues icon Robert Johnson’s recordings as released are 20% faster than he performed in two solo sessions in 1936 and 1937. It’s unclear whether they were sped up intentionally (to push their excitement, which seems hardly necessary) or accidentally at some point in the chain between microphone and pressing plant. What is obvious is that since only 11 of the 41 existent Johnson takes were issued by Vocalion on 78 rpm discs during his lifetime (and one posthumously), his complete documented repertoire of 29 tunes issued on two Columbia Records lps, King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961) and King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2 (1970) and finally 41 tracks, alternates and all, released on a best-selling 2-CD boxed set, Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings by Columbia in 1990, we have probably never heard what the blues’ most influential singer-guitarist actually sounded like.

Pity the generations of guitarists trying to match the speed and dexterity of Johnson’s recordings, as they had them at the dawn of the British blues scene (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Mayall, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck are all Johnson acolytes) and the emergence of the white American blues revival (ditto Mike Bloomfield, Jerry Garcia, Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, John Hammond Jr., etc.). Of course it’s possible that the untoward challenge of aiming for an impossible goal produced faster, smarter guitarists than if they’d been imitating the somewhat more relaxed pace of Johnson as he really played.

But still — 20%?!? Listen to the examples of Johnson as we’ve always heard him and as he apparently sounded during his brief, intense life. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, Johnny Shines — these bluesmen heard Johnson live, so they probably weren’t so effected. The razzle-dazzle clip of the guitar as heard in the electric blues and related genres (psychedelia, prog rock, heavy metal) all these years may sprout from a mastering error as much as from young mens’ (mostly — check out Rory Block, Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin) irrepressible energy and eagerness to imitate the hand-jive of a mythic musician whose legacy, it turns out, is somewhat slower — more deliberate, more aching, even more emotional — than we’ve always thought.
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  1. Michael J. West says

    Perhaps they were sped up on purpose so they’d be short enough to fit on one side of a 78 rpm record?
    HM: As I wrote, only 12 sides were issues on 78s, during and shortly after Johnson’s lifetime. Those were the songs, if I remember correctly, issued in 1961 on lp. The 1970 lp doubled the amount of Robt Johnson’s music ever released. The Complete is supposed to be everything else — not quite two dozen alternate takes of the issued tracks. There would have been no reason to speed up material first released in 1990 (The Complete). Except to match the pitch/speed of earlier-released material.

  2. tigress3210 says

    If your argument is there are sides which now can be heard at the right speed (which I concur with, I always knew they were too fast from the timbre of it, it’s munchkinized or chipmunked as they say in the trade), the question is do these sides at the slower speed now exceed the possible time of a 10″ 78 RPM. If these are now over 3:00 long, that might be suspect. There just are no >3 minute songs before the 12″ disk.
    There was no tape recorder available at the time of the actual recordings. Any talk of ‘x number were only ever released on LP’ is irrelevant to a question of ‘was it sped up to fit [that original medium]’. They duped from the original media.
    HM: My comments about the number of tracks released was meant to inform about the relative disinterest in this material when Columbia released it. Though John Hammond, a significant a&r presence at Columbia, was a huge supporter of Robert Johnson, it is hard to believe that the company thought it had a blockbuster on its hands. Considering the Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue — an album recorded by an artist Columbia had big plans for — also was released in a speeded up version “duped from the original media” (though that media was tape, not cut discs), Columbia seems to have had a problem that the label didn’t know about, or else ignored.

  3. says

    But all the Johnson recordings were made on location (in dodgy hotel rooms) by Don Law using, I assume, a “portable” disc cutter. Over an 18-month period. How the hell do you speed that up? And the records didn’t sell well, and weren’t expected to. Would it really have been worth bothering?
    HM: Must have been in mastering at some point — maybe when turned into an lp — and my suspicion is more that it was done carelessly than in expectations it would improve sales.

  4. says

    The Guardian article claims that there is a consensus among musicologists that Johnson’s records have been speeded up, but fails to cite even one such musicologist. Having written a book on Johnson, I tend to be aware of most writing about him, and I have not come across a musicologist or knowledgeable acoustic blues guitarist who believes that the recordings were consistently speeded up, or that any of them were speeded up by as much as 20%. Granting that this may simply be my ignorance, could anyone supply the names of at least one or two musicologists or musicians who have made a serious study of pre-war blues and believe this?
    HM: You’re right, Elijah, the Guardian article does not substantiate its claim that ANY musicologist approves the theory. The samples provided do demonstrate what some Johnson recordings sound like slowed by 20%. There is a link in the Guardian article to a much more detailed series of exchanges that delve into electro-acoustic analysis of the theory. I was/am intrigued by the notion, having listened to the slowed-down Johnson takes, but I took the Guardian writer’s avowal at face value in this posting. But upon subsequent re-listening to the Johnson recordings as Columbia issued them, I hear variations in his voice, his vocal range, and also the guitar pitch and tone from track to track that suggest to me the recording speeds were NOT consistent. I hasten to say I am not an audio engineer or any other sort of specialist who can attest to the truth of the theory — just a listener to the blues, pre-WWII blues included, struck by a sense that RJ sounds more like a grown-up, and his instrument more like a guitar than a mandolin or banjo, when his recordings are played slower.

  5. says

    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.
    HM: We’ve been taking Rob’t Johnson’s recordings at face value since they were released on lp by Columbia in the early ’60s. I for one don’t believe the masters were sped up, but I think it’s worth looking into whether the recorders of 1937 were consistent in recording speed. I’m not comparing Johnson’s sound to elders who survived him, but just responding to his voice sounding less pinched, his guitar having more resonance. No one would have believed Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue was issued on lp too fast, either — yet Columbia says that’s just what they’d done and it was like that for years.

  6. Joe Klopus says

    Has anybody turned up evidence of any other recording on the ARC labels in this 1936-37 time frame being sped up by as much as 20 percent? Until that evidence appears, this should be considered bunk. Just what Robert doesn’t need — another layer of myth.

  7. Dave Rubin says

    I,like some others, have also done substantial research and writing on the music of Robert Johnson. While heading a team of transcribers on the Hal Leonard Complete Transacriptions book, Steve LaVere provided a tape of almost every original 78 corrected for speed on a variable speed turntable. All of the songs were substantially slower than previous recordings, revealing a deeper, even more soulful groove and Johnson’s deeper voice. It was and is a revelation.

  8. Harry Coster says

    I’m absolutely certain that all of Robert Johnson’s SA/DAL-recordings were recorded at exactly the right speed (78.26 rpm). I checked several original 78s recently and they all contain a mains frequency hum (including a pronounced second harmonic at 120 Hz). Very easy to check with a frequency analyzer!

  9. kelly craven says

    It’s true… but the recordings are only about 5% faster than reality. Not 20% – That’s why 80% & 85% speed sound so overly deliberate. It was a common practice in that era across the board. Many recordings, including Johnson’s were made on portable machines with speed control. Speed and consistency of speed were often an issue. Also 10″ 78s had a max side length of 3 minutes. The recordist would drop back the speed to get the length. This would become the “mother” pressing for all future pressings… thus why ALL of his recordings would sound alike, despite the fact that some sides were never officially issued on 78s. They were *recorded* on 78s. More accurately, they were recorded somewhere around 74 or 75rpm on a 78rpm disc.
    The 120hz hum that another person mentioned confirming 78.26rpm — this is most likely the byproduct of duplication. So called “Masters” had to be produced at some point from the original “Mother” discs and used for all further duplication. The “mother” discs designed for making the recordings would not stand up to repeated play. Thus, those “masters” would serve as the basis for all further duplication and remastering.
    Here’s an accurate version of what Crossroads sounded like in reality

  10. Brian Gerheim says

    My understanding is that you can tell whether or not they’ve been speeded up by finding the electrical hum buried in the recording. Since the frequency is standardized, you can figure out if the speed is off by any variation in the frequency of the electrical hum.
    This was done by one engineer, when taking down the 78s, at Pristine Classical. He found that yes, they were speeded up, but only by 0.2% to 2.5%. Six percent would be a semitone. In any case, it is not a difference that would make a significant change in the sound.

  11. Harry Coster says

    Had the privilege to be able to work with original Robert Johnson metal parts recently (this was for a soon to be released Sony-cd) and found that none of them was more that 1% off speed!
    HM: That sounds authoritative.

  12. says

    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.
    HM: Thanks for your note, Ike. Blues lovers have evaluated Johnson’s recordings at face value since their first reissue by Columbia on the album King of the Delta Blues. People also took Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue at face value, though it’s been discovered that record was mastered at a wrong speed, subsequently corrected. This posting is about a re-evaluation of Johnson’s recordings — but at no point does any of the consideration focus on Johnson himself, or suggest that the quality of his artistry be reappraised. But neither is the idea that his recordings reproduce his sound higher (faster) than he sang and played been proved. It’s being discussed, and the serious projection are based not on subjective experience (although I respond subjectively to how I think he sounds more natural) than on parsing what could have happened to the recordings on the way to our access of them, and what is the truest sound.