Monday, January 08, 2007

A Sense of Motion in the Blues

The Words and Music of Robert Johnson:
A Sense of Motion in the Blues

Probably one of the most emotionally evocative musicians I have ever been exposed to is the blues singer Robert Johnson. From the first time I heard his songs I realized that there was an enormous power in the words and music that he created so long ago. I wish I could relate some interesting and relevant information about the musician that I hold in such high regard, but I can’t. Not much is really known about Robert Johnson. Most of the information available is based on conjecture, rumor, and myth. What is known is that he was a traveling musician who lived in the American South during the first decades of this century. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was fortunate enough to attract the attention of the people who were involved in producing “race” records. Forty-one recordings, some second takes, are what remain of those sessions. Shortly after their completion, Robert Johnson died under mysterious circumstances.

Other than his songs, he did not keep a record of his thoughts or feelings during his short life. It would be presumptuous of me to assume that I could know what Johnson’s motivations and intentions as an artist were. Not only are we from completely different social, economic, geographical and racial groups, but he died some sixty years before my birth. Still, by looking closely at his music and lyrics, it is possible to put together a composite sketch of a character; a composite sketch that has served as a blueprint for the modern stereotype of the rambling bluesman.

All the songs I am exploring are fairly demonstrative of traditional blues forms. They follow a more or less “12 bar blues” chord sequence (not without variation), and all except Walkin’ Blues follow the verse pattern of one line sung then repeated, followed by a third, “punch” line. Each song has a fairly distinct beginning or introduction, several verses, and a distinct ending. Since the songs have such similar structure, the question arises as to how Johnson is able to achieve a sense of expressive variety from song to song. One way in which he does this is by playing in different keys and tunings, which enables him to produce a wider variety of tones. Ramblin’ on My Mind and Hell Hound on My Trail are both played in an open D tuning, Walkin’ Blues and Stones in My Passway are in open G. However, what makes one song really stand out from another (at least instrumentally) is that fact that Johnson improvises freely within the narrow framework of the songs’ arrangements. While he keeps the beat by strumming the roots of the chords with his thumb, he is at liberty to play additional notes of the chord with his fingers, or to use some kind of slide. He also varies the tempo slightly from song to song. By playing in this way, Johnson is able create the illusion that there is more than one guitarist at work at times. Add to this the impassioned cries and spontaneous falsettos that he breaks into while singing and you suddenly have expressive variety in plenty.

In Ramblin’ on My Mind, Johnson starts with a moderate speed bottle-neck introduction with an underlying strolling pulse. Each verse follows basically the same instrumental format. He sings the first line with a bottle-neck accompaniment that continues until he begins to sing the next line. In the second and third lines, the lower register rhythm part predominates on the guitar with only a few other notes sounded. This makes it possible for the increased emphasis of the second sung line to stand out. Despite this restrictive format, the improvisational guitar breaks create a sense of spontaneity in the piece.

Verse one begins with the singer’s statement, “I’ve got ramblin’ on my mind.” The pace of the song and the strings singing under the bottle-neck seem to indicate a forward motion. At about 150-160 beats per minute, the tempo is a little more than twice as fast as a resting heart beat, suggesting the gait of someone who is moving along at a determined pace, though not quite running. He repeats the first line with slightly more emphasis, then sings, “Hate to leave my baby, but you treats me so unkind.” There is a bit of ambiguity here as to just who his “baby” is and if it is the same person who treats him so unkindly. Is the baby a literal child of his that he is abandoning on the account of his dislike for its mother? Or is baby used figuratively as the object of both his romantic love and his anguish? This is never really made clear, and it is possible that either meaning is equally valid. In either case, the plaintive tone of his voice paints the picture of a man in despair, yet his words are surprisingly matter-of-fact. He seems to be caught on the horns of a dilemma: he does not want to go, but he is considering it because of the unkind way he is treated.

In the second verse, his emotions have begun to gel into something a little more ominous. Now he has not just rambling, but “mean things” on his mind. There is something in this slight change that indicates that Johnson is feeling a touch of guilt in addition to his heartbreak, if only in that he acknowledges the meanness of abandoning his “baby.” Again he finishes the verse by telling his baby that he hates to leave, but it is her poor treatment of him that is driving him away.

In the third verse things take on a slightly different form. Instead of just thinking about taking some kind of action, he is doing it. “Running down to the station” he sings while sliding the bottle-neck up the strings in imitation of flight. He intends to hop the first train he can, and in a spoken aside he tells us he thinks he hears one coming and, indeed, we hear it too as he imitates the sound of a train on the guitar. This verse, the central verse of the song, is significant because for the first time in the piece the singer is placed geographically and temporally. We now can see him at the station, waiting for a train, and going over his troubles in his mind. The punch line of this verse again brings up the question of just whom he is singing. “I got the blues about Miss So-and-So/And the child got the blues about me” he tells us. Does “the child” refer to Miss So-and-So, or are they two distinct people? Again, there is no definitive answer to be found in the text, but in a way the uncertainty itself adds a certain dimension to the experience of the song. It is a song about a man who is considering heading out on an uncertain course, and the ambiguous nature of the song seems to add to that feeling, if only indirectly.

In the fourth verse, the singer gains emotional depth as we see him as he was in the morning before he arrived at the train station. He is leaving in tears, yet his arms are folded up resolutely. Apparently something has happened that his pride cannot allow him to endure no matter how much the alternative may hurt him. Again the verse ends with a declaration of how much the singer hates to leave and a reaffirmation of how badly he has been treated.

The fifth verse is basically a repeat of the second verse with just slight variations. It is followed by a brief descending figure (similar to that played between verses) that functions as a closing.

After the last note of the song dies out we are left with the image of a man who is trapped in a complex web of conflicting loyalties and emotions. He has been hurt by the woman he loves and he feels that his only alternative is to leave her. As an added twist the possibility of the existence of a child is introduced in a couple of places in the song. The general sense is that of being caught having to decide between the lesser of two evils. The music itself reflects this tension. On the one hand, there is the driving rhythm played on the lower strings that suggests forward motion or “ramblin’.” On the other hand the swooping runs played on the higher strings with the bottle-neck seem to imitate some sort of dismayed wailing. The protagonist of the story has made up his mind to leave his old life and troubles behind, yet he recognizes the pain that this separation brings with it. The repetition of the punch line “Hate to leave my baby/But she treats me so unkind” and its variations in each of the verses (except for the middle one) suggests that the singer is being forced to take action by events that are beyond his control.

In Walkin’ Blues, the thematic content is similar to Ramblin’ on My Mind. Like Ramblin’, it deals with a man caught in the heartbreaking dilemma of whether or not to walk away from an unhappy home life. Both songs deal with the ideal of riding the “blinds,” or freight trains, in order to escape. The responsibility for the problem is transferred to a party other than the singer in both songs as we are told how he has been “mistreated” and that this mistreatment is the reason for his flight. The songs differ greatly, however, in how they are structured and in the instrumentation. There are five verses in each song, but in Walkin’ Blues, rather than following the three-line verse pattern (line 1, repeat, punch), it follows a pattern like this: line 1, line 2, repeat line 1, repeat line 2. The tempo is close to that of Ramblin’ on My Mind, but for some reason it seems to convey a different sensation of movement. Where the previous selection seemed to have a kind of shuffling cadence that augmented every other beat with a slightly different colored chord, this song seems to stick to the same chord on every down beat. Movement in this case seems to be conveyed by the employment of a slide on every fourth beat. The way Johnson employs the slide throughout the song differs greatly from Ramblin’ in that he uses it extensively in the lower register as well as on the higher strings.

In the first verse the singer employs some starkly symbolic references to indicate his state of mind. “I woke up this morning/feeling around for my shoes/know about it I got these/old walkin’ blues” is clearly a reference to the fact that the singer has decided to leave home, but as is traditional in blues songs, he avoids stating it outright.

The second verse starts as if it was a prayer, addressing the “Lord.” It is in this verse that Johnson lets us in on just what the problem is with the singer. Apparently his woman, Bernice, has left him. The singer repeats the first line of this verse in the third verse, but breaks into falsetto on the word “blowing.” This sudden elevation in pitch conveys the sense that the singer is on the verge of breaking into some kind of lamentation. Then in the next line, where we expect him to repeat what he previously sang about Bernice being gone, he instead replaces her with “all I had was gone.” He thus equates Bernice’s presence in his life as being equal to everything for which he had to live.

In the next verse, the singer expands on this sense of loss as he sings of how he plans to leave even if he has hop a freight train. In fact, he is so despondent at the Bernice’s abandoning him that he “don’t mind dying.” It is in this verse that he explains that, like the singer in Ramblin’, he has been mistreated and is seeking asylum from that mistreatment, even if it lies in death.

In the third verse, the narrative changes from simply being about how the singer feels and why, to a kind of aside that relates the kind of advice that people have been giving him: “Some people tell me that the worried blues aren’t bad.” However, he goes on to confide that, indeed, these blues are “the worst old feeling . . . [he] ever had.” Johnson uses an interesting technique to emphasize this passage on the second time through it. After he sings “People tell me that these...” he punctuates each phrase with a single “pop” on the root note by plucking the string. This creates a kind of staccato drumming that works to create the image of something that is being pounded into him against his will.

The final verse of the song refers to “Elgin movements.” I have to admit that the significance of Elgin eludes me. The word does not appear in either of the dictionaries that I own, so I assume that it had some kind of regional or time-specific meaning. Nevertheless, the general sense of the verse is not completely lost on me. Whatever Elgin movements are, this woman has them “from her head down to her toes” and it helps her to “Break in on a dollar most anywhere she goes.” This fact seems to evoke a particularly agonizing feeling in the singer as he breaks into a non-verbal howl as he finishes the line. It seems that our singer has fallen for a woman who is no stranger to the economics of love. This implies, of course, that once again the singer has transferred responsibility of the situation away from himself to forces beyond his control. He is at the mercy of his own uncontrollable urges as well as the unpredictable actions of the women to whom these urges lead him.

Though very similar in some respects, these two songs, Ramblin’ on My Mind and Walkin’ Blues create somewhat different experiences for the listener. As discussed earlier, Ramblin’ has ambiguous aspects to it that lend to the tension in the piece. It deals strictly with how the singer feels and what he does, leaving us somewhat unsure as to the exact nature of his dilemma other than that it apparently has to do with a woman. In Walkin’ Blues, on the other hand, the dilemma is pretty well spelled out for us. Our leading man has fallen for a woman who also could be referred to as “fallen.” This song also differs from the previous selection in that it not only deals with the singer’s actions and feelings, but introduces the actions of the woman (breaking in on a dollar) and the advice of “some people” concerning the severity of the “worried blues.”

In the first two selections I have attempted to describe how the performer conveys the idea of movement (Ramblin’ and Walkin’) with the rhythmic pulsing of the guitar and the way in which the singer is apparently being swept away by circumstances beyond his control. In the third selection I again take up the idea of movement, but this time the forces behind the movement take on a more symbolic and ominous shape. Structurally, the verses follow the same three-line pattern that was present in Ramblin’. However, the instrumental arrangement differs greatly from either of the previous two selections. Rather than having a pulsing rhythm that relies on the dominance of the lower registers with the higher pitched tones being used predominantly to emphasize certain parts of the lyric line, this song abandons the use of a consistent pulse on the lower strings. Instead there is an alternation between the use of the slide on the higher strings in imitation of the vocal line, and a rather droning down beat on the low strings during certain parts. The latter technique seems to be a fairly successful attempt at creating an instrumental depiction of the line “blues falling down like hail” that occurs in the first verse. Still, the song adheres to the set format of having a distinct beginning, middle, and end. In addition, in this song Johnson introduces a new level of figurative language. In Walkin’ Blues we encountered the idea of how feeling around for one’s shoes could be taken as a euphemism for feeling the need to abandon an unhappy home life. However, in the rest of the piece, and in most all of Ramblin’ on My Mind, the lyrics are fairly straight forward. In Hell Hound, however, there is almost no straightforward lyrical content at all. It seems that the song moves from one symbolic reference to another with only the theme of the need to keep moving tying it all together.

In the first line of the first verse the singer tells us that he’s “got to keep movin’.” It is no longer a matter of having “ramblin’ on [his] mind” or having “these old walkin’ blues,” now movement is a prerequisite for survival. He seems to be fleeing some kind of tempest in which the blues are “falling down like hail.” During this part of the song Johnson simulates the vocal line by playing what sounds like a two-note “lead” on the guitar with a slide. This accompaniment continues until he repeats “Blues falling down like hail” at which time he seems to pound down on the low strings to illustrate the severity of the storm. In the third, “punch” line of this verse, the singer refers to a “hell hound” being on his trail. This could be interpreted in one of several ways. The most literal interpretation would be that of a dog from hell, perhaps the legendary Cerberus of mythology, being in pursuit of the singer. However, the concept of flight combined with pursuing dogs seems too closely related to the historical legacy of the fleeing slave of the American South being pursued by hound dogs to be ignored. This is not much of a stretch when one considers that Johnson probably was no stranger to first hand accounts of the days of slavery. Whichever interpretation one chooses, it is clear that the singer is being driven forward in his flight by some terrible force that can only be described in highly symbolic language.

The next verse moves into yet another realm of figurative language. On the surface it appears to be some kind of wishful thinking about Christmas. As the singer relates his wishes about Christmas, the guitar makes a valiant yet discordant attempt at mimicking the vocal line. As to the meaning of the verse, the only interpretation that I can come up with is that the singer is making reference to the hope of better things to come. The verse ends with the rather earthy remark that if tomorrow was indeed Christmas day, all the singer would need to be happy is his “little sweet rider.” I can only imagine that the reference to Christmas is representative of all the wishes, hopes, and desires that a person can have for the future. The metaphor can be taken even further to include the idea that as most of the “magic” of Christmas is a childish illusion, so are the dreams held dear by the singer.

The next verse is beyond my ken. I can only guess that the reference to “hot foot powder” is either related to some superstition with which I am not familiar, or has to do with some aspect of sexuality that goes beyond my own experience (in the latter case, I have to plead that ignorance is bliss). Still, the punch line of the verse, “It keeps me with ramblin’ mind, rider, every old place I go” seems to be in keeping with the general tone of the song. In other words, whatever this hot foot powder has to do with the singer’s relationship with his woman, it seems to encourage his urge to ramble.

The fourth verse moves even further away from the straight narrative form. Instead of relating anything that has to do with the singer, it veers off into a discussion of the forces of nature. Despite its seeming disconnectedness from the singer’s problem, the reference to the rising wind evokes a feeling of impending doom, with the trembling of the leaves acting as a metaphor for the fear that such a storm could inspire. The guitar seems to recreate this trembling by vibrating on a high note as the singer finishes the line. Finally the idea of a storm brings us back to the beginning of the song when the singer tells us of “blues falling down like hail.”

Of the three songs I’ve discussed so far, this last one is the most difficult to pin down. This is partly due to the language that Johnson has employed. At times it is so abstract that it is hard to determine whether the ambiguity lies in some forgotten conventions concerning foot powder and Christmas, or is simply the result of a use of metaphor that is beyond the grasp of the interpreter. In any event, one thing is made clear through the lyrics: the singer is compelled to move. As in the songs previously mentioned, there are forces at work that are beyond his control. This is not only made evident in the lyrics, but by the fact that the guitar parts seem to fly off uncontrollably during various sections of the song (most notably in the “If today was Christmas . . .” section).

The final selection, like Hell Hound, departs from the first two songs in several ways. First off, rather than allowing the basic rhythm or pulse to be carried by notes played on the lower strings, it is played on the mid and high strings as more of a “full” chord. This creates a more colorful tone spectrum for the song, though to a certain degree it seems to diminish its driving quality. Another interesting instrumental occurrence happens just before the last line of each verse. What I am referring to is the “sproing” that Johnson creates by ceasing all guitar activity save for a dramatic bottle-neck slide just before he delivers the punch line of each verse.

Another difference lies in the fact that although like the other songs, Stones in My Passway deals with the idea of motion, it is more concerned with how extraneous forces are attempting to block the singer’s flight than it is with the forces that caused the flight in the first place. This is made apparent from the first line: “I’ve got stones in my passway/and my road seems dark as night.” Obviously the singer is being hindered by someone or something. This hindrance manifests itself physically as well as temporally as it apparently causes loss of appetite and heart pains.

The second verse acts as a metaphor for the fact that the singer apparently has all his bases covered in the woman department. Yet, as is apparent from the last line (set off by the “sproing”), that even his having “a woman that [he’s] loving” doesn’t mean a thing in comparison to the troubles that plague him.

In the third verse a note of paranoia begins to appear in the narrative. This is not a new concept. In each of the selections the singer has alluded to the fact that there are forces beyond his control that are responsible for his misfortunes. Finally the singer identifies these forces as his “enemies.” The fact that “[they] have overtaken poor Bob at last” seems to indicate that they have been out to get him for some time. In any event, “. . . ‘ere’s one thing certainly/They have stones all in [his] pass.”

At this point in the song the music changes. The first two lines of the third verse take on a different feel both musically and in the direction of the lyrics. Instead of talking about himself, the singer suddenly switches to an indictment of an unknown party: “ . . . you trying to take my life . . . what are you trying to do?” and at the same time the music moves from fully voiced chords to a single note line that lasts until he begins “ . . . cryin’ please . . .” By using this different musical approach, Johnson has set his singer’s feelings apart from those who seek to harass him.

The final verse of this song is difficult to decipher. The reference to having “three legs to truck home” could mean that the singer is in such a big hurry that it seems like he is using three legs rather than the usual two. Then again it could be some thinly veiled reference to his abundant manliness or on a less erotic level it could mean that he’s really got to go to the bathroom. In any case, the important thing about this verse is that he is in a hurry to get home and there is the probability that someone will try to stand in his way. The last line, “I’ve been feelin’ ashamed ‘bout my rider/Babe, I’m booked and I got to go” seems to refer to the singer’s having some kind of illicit relationship that he is not in a hurry to make public. This makes even more sense when looked at in reference to the second verse (birds to whistle and sing). Perhaps he is hurrying home from an illicit affair with one of his birds.

Each of these songs has elements that set it off from the others. The degree of musical complexity and use of figurative speech is different in each one. One thing that remains constant in all of the songs, however, is the idea of motion, and especially motion as controlled by forces exterior to the protagonist of the particular song. It would be easy to state that this sense of compulsive “rambling” is a result of social factors stemming from the racist policies of Post Civil War America. We all know of the purposefully destabilizing influence that such things as the Jim Crow laws must have had on young black males during the early decades of this century. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what could have driven a man to seek something more than the back side of a plow horse or a chain gang. Being denied the opportunity to rise to the status of other men, it is no mystery why men such as Johnson would have spent their lives searching for something more. However, these are things that I, as well as most other residents of the late twentieth century, can never know for sure. So much of our heritage, and especially our heritage as it pertains to “pop music,” is clouded by legend that, without extensive research (and perhaps despite it), it becomes dangerous to make broad generalizations about the motivations of artists like Robert Johnson. For that matter, it is dubious as to whether such statements contain anything of any real value. For what these songs really are about is that which they create in each listener as he or she listens to each song. For me, these four songs create the image of a spirit on the move, driven by often unseen and frightening forces, sometimes frustrated and without direction, yet always with ramblin’ on its mind.


All selections from Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings. Robert Johnson. Columbia CD #C2K 46222. (1990).

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