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Slow Down, Robert Johnson!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The handful of recordings Delta blues icon Robert Johnson made in 1936 and 1937 are among the most influential songs in music. Disciples praise his high, moaning voice and fleet-fingered guitar work. But have we been listening to them at the wrong speed?

We examine claims that commercial releases of recordings like “Cross Road Blues” play back up to 20 percent faster than they were recorded. Guests include Jon Wilde, writer for The Guardian, and Howard Mandel, arts journalist and president of the Jazz Journalists Association.


Howard Mandel and Jon Wilde

Comments [46]

fruiot from az

Clapton sucks on both speeds

Apr. 11 2013 08:48 PM
April from Manhattan

Much classical music is too fast as well. For example the two recordings by Glenn Gould, years apart, were both too fast, though the second was much slower. Hillary Hahn also comes to mind. Is the music world on speed?

Jan. 28 2011 01:09 PM
Andre from Houston, TX

I read that when Sony reissued his music in 1991, Lawrence Cohn (the executive of Sony at that time) was quoted saying:
"There's a possibility Johnson's 1936-37 recordings were sped up, since the OKeh/Vocalion family of labels, which originally issued the material, was 'notorious' for altering the speed of its releases. 'Sometimes it was 78 rpms, sometimes it was 81 rpms. It's impossible to check the original sources, since the metal stampers used to duplicate the original 78 discs disappeared years ago."

So after finding out that 78 rpms is 87.654321% of 81 rpms, I'm reduced the pitch of all of the songs (from King of the Delta Blues Singers) by 12.345679%

I don't know how to play the guitar (or any instrument for that matter), so I don't have a musical pitch approach to attempt to decipher (although I do understand some of the points made to a small degree).
I'm just a 17-year-old who likes Robert Johnson :)

Oct. 17 2010 10:00 AM

10% puts Cross Road Blues square into the key of A. The open string on the "E" five chord confirms this. He knew how to play guitar and would have tuned good as he could for recording. A harmonica or piano was likely near. Calibration back then or even now is moot as these can be tuned to pitch now.
I don't know where they get 20%, but it's less likely than 10%.

Sep. 15 2010 12:20 PM
Brian from Boston

It was prevalent back in the old days for recordings to move at the wrong speed at playback. Any musician over the age of 50 remembers the quality of the equipment back then, and that playback often sounded different for one reason or another. It's not too difficult to see the truth in all this. And in my opinion, the Johnson playbacks are much darker and beautiful at the slower speed.

Sep. 14 2010 01:36 PM
bluesyman from brookyln

This is not news at all, this theory has been around for decades, and apparently you people have just heard of it. I played it fof the same way I am playing it off now. He never used standard open tunings for his guitar, and usually found his tuning in between standard notations (in between A and Ab) And as to his voice, microtones, or singing in between two notes like I mentioned before, was a very common way for these blues singers to sing in the day. The only reason old records sound like they are sped up is because our pampered ears are not used to hearing un-edited, un-mixed music, as opposed to raw natural analog recordings. And the reason the room acoustics sound natural slowed down is because he was playing in the corner of the room, facing the wall, so slowing it down would allow more time for the sounds to 'bounce' of the walls.
But like I said, this 'theory' has been around much longer than this, and has been a popular debate amongst die-hard Johnson fans like myself, but ultimately regarded as untrue, even if it may sound good, alot of songs sound better to different people at altered speeds, that's why people like different music.

Aug. 23 2010 02:12 PM
Buck Curran from Maine

Last thought. He could have very easily slid the capo up to the 4th fret to give the song more of a bounce our urgent, vibrant feel. In that case he would have sang a bit higher and swung the guitar rhythm a bit more. I've got lots of experience with sliding the capo around (and using open tunings) and it Easily changes the way you sing. This is definitely a great discussion...nice to be able to analyze things in a different light.

Jun. 11 2010 09:00 AM
Buck Curran from Maine

p.p.s No doubt that guitar on the recording has a capo on matter what key he played it in! Again that photo shows he used one.

Jun. 11 2010 08:30 AM
Buck Curran from Maine

20% or not...The Crossroads version we are used to hearing is in B in standard guitar tuning. When you slow it down it's a whole step lower in A. If he played in open G can play it with a capo at the second fret...and it sure does make sense to play it like that. Someone mentioned the photo with Johnson smoking...and in that photo there is a capo on the second fret (another clue). Playing blues further up the neck without a capo doesn't allow the guitar to ring as much and chokes all the overtones of the guitar. I'm an acoustic guitar maker and a player...and I'm very keyed into how a guitar rings...especially in open tunings. I think the answer lies closer in the doing not the listening. It's great sounding either way though.
p.s. The recording of Stones in My Passway can also be played in Open G Tuning capo second fret. The standard version of Crossroads (possibly speed up) can be played Open G capo 4 fret...putting it in B.

Jun. 11 2010 08:20 AM

All a matter of filtering. The recording is a filter. Our ears and brains. Do our perceptive abilities and "speed" match the listeners of the early twentieth century?

Because physical duration of old recordings was limited some performances on recoding were changed to accomodate the technology. I've got some old Ignaz Friedman recordings that must br impossibly fast because of the high pitch -- but I love them more than slower, lower versions of the same recordings.

Jun. 10 2010 07:11 PM
JennS from new haven

As a swing dancer, I cant help but think about all those Balboa dancers smoking their feet dancing to music that ...might be too fast? ;)

I think it's cool to have both options, it's just MORE music in my opinion.

Jun. 10 2010 03:58 PM
JennS from new haven

As a swing dancer, I cant help but think about all those Balboa dancers smoking their feet dancing to music that ...might be too fast? ;)

I think it's cool to have both options, it's just MORE music in my opinion.

Jun. 10 2010 03:57 PM

There are a number of flawed assumptions about these recordings being off speed.
First, the idea that it can be proven by checking his guitar tuning is problematic. We're talking about an itinerate blues-man in the mid-to-late 30s. It's unlikely that he would have had a reliable reference for tuning, especially playing in the types of places he played, ie. juke joints, store fronts etc. Even if there was a piano in a juke joint, how likely was it that in the poor, black, rural south during the Depression that it was kept in top tuning? It's most likely that Johnson just tuned up "relative" and went for it. Also, in one of the only two photos of him (the "cigarette" photo) there is a capo on his guitar. So, relative tuning and a capo would make referencing to accurate 440Hz pointless.
Second, the recording dates were in two different locations- San Antonio and Dallas- almost seven months apart. What is the likelyhood that at both dates there might have been problems with the equipment that would have resulted in a speed problem? Especially if the supposed speed difference is consistent between locations. It's highly unlikely.
Lastly, the claim that they might have sped up the recordings to "make them more exciting" is unlikely as well. Again, this was the 1930s. Record companies making "race" records would not have given that kind of attention to records that would have been sold almost exclusively to a mostly poor, black audience. They would not have been expecting to make a "hit" in a market where they would normally only expect to sell a thousand or so records at best.
To conclude, while slowing down these recordings might make them sound more interesting, or "correct" (since you can slow them down to a proper key if you wish) there is no way to prove that they were done at the wrong speed and no compelling evidence to suggest that such was the case.

Jun. 10 2010 02:44 PM
Artist from Belize

It goes to show you it is really good music. It is great at both speeds.

Jun. 10 2010 12:10 PM
Elijah Wald

Having written the most thorough work on Robert Johnson's recordings ("Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues") I'm familiar with this claim, which was first made several years ago, and the short version is that it is utterly ridiculous. First of all, anyone who understands the technology of the period knows that it is simply impossible that all of his recordings, made at two separate sessions, released and unreleased, would have been sped up a consistent amount, unless that was standard policy for the record company, which it was not. Second, for seventy years there have been people alive who heard Johnson live, and none of them ever mentioned his recordings sounding too high or fast.

This story begins and ends with the fact that some modern listeners think that Johnson sounds better if you slow him down. That's fine, but it's entirely about their taste, not about Robert Johnson.

Jun. 10 2010 11:45 AM
Joe Hannigan from Philadelphia, PA

There are a few other ways to compare and test for proper playback speed in addition to the guitar pitches.

One way is to listen for what's called "Formants" in the human voice. They change unnaturally when speeded up (witness the "Chipmunk" sound we all know so well). Same for what happens to a voice when slowed down - it starts sounding thick and cartoonish. 20% down should yield a noticeably "Fat-Albert" sound to his voice, and it doesn't appear that way in the clips I've heard online. Actually, he sounds quite natural. (I've always thought he sounded high and thin in the original recordings anyway...)

Another trick to tell proper speed is to listen to any residual AC hum, very often far in the background, if it was an electrical/analog recording. (Not so in an all-acoustic-into-a-horn recording, of course) If it's true 60 Hz hum, (50Hz in some places outside of teh US) that can be detected and used as a guide for proper speed/pitch. I've used this technique many times for any tape in question. Once we got the tapes to play 60hz properly, all worries of correct usually pitch went away.

Jun. 10 2010 09:56 AM
Peter from Berkeley Hts, NJ

Aw, c'mon... there Must be a way....

A low 'E' is a low 'E'! no buts about it! So... is there a low 'E', or is the lowest note played 20% higher? Computers can 'see' that, and we can hear it. (He may have avoided that note - but I doubt it - however, others at 120% of normal would show up as out-of-tune)

Kinda like Henry Fonda's cavalry charge in "Remember the Alamo" - Anyone who knows how a horse moves can tell the film has been sped up... any horse traveling that fast with strides that short would trip on itself!

[also see Marx Brothers or Three Stooges fight scenes... speed carries the message better than truth!]

I like the presentation... seems to me that slower did the music more justice.
As for your top-of-the-show comparison... re-record it speaking slowly... it would sound more realistic, but still 'wrong'!

Jun. 09 2010 03:21 PM
Rich K from UC, NJ

The movie comparison is really good, but for a different reason. Those silent films were shot @ 18-20 fps - the 24 fps standard wasn't established until later. When old films were then played on newer projectors, which couldn't be adjusted to play slower, it resulted in that cartoonish movement we now associate with the era, and after a while folks just assumed that was the way they were meant to be shown.
Andrew's observation about the Greeks also ties in. The folks at Old Bethpage and other colonial restorations long ago established that 18th century homes were very brightly painted. But the pigments were unstable, so everything faded to the base paint pale greens and blues that then became associated with colonial architecture.

Jun. 09 2010 02:43 PM

One guest said "there is no reference point when you hear Johnson". I'd suggest that he and anyone else with an interest in Delta blues check out Skip James. Many of his recordings on guitar (he played piano too) sound uncannily like Johnson. One strongly suspects that Johnson—mind-boggling though he was—was one of many who played in the style for which he is renowned.
Also, did anyone bother to check the pitch of the recordings against an A at 440hz to verify his actual pitch? Bad ass as he was, presumably he knew how to tune his guitar and probably tuned it to a piano, harmonica or other available reference point.
My book of Johnson transcriptions has many of the tunes with capo on the 2nd fret, which would be a flat or sharp key. Perhaps he played without a capo and this theory explains the discrepancy.

Jun. 09 2010 02:43 PM

How about Blind Blake? The mysterious Blind Blake is revered by fingerstyle guitarists, partly for his blazing speed. Contemporary guitarists like Paul Geremia and Stefan Grossman have devoted their lives to playing Blake's sides like West Coast Blues up to tempo and have largely admitted.
I've always wondered if the original recordings weren't speeded up. Now I wonder even more.

Jun. 09 2010 02:37 PM
Hank Wrenn from Manhattan

"Johnson was recorded on a mobile studio, directly to disk (actually, the Library of Congress now holds those original recordings). Therefore, the disks were not actually “remastered” or sent somewhere for enhancing, but simply copied. So in order to be “sped up” we must blame that error on the recording equipment being mis-calibrated. Is it possible to mis-calibrated by 20%? It seems unlikely."

Quoted - All Blues

Jun. 09 2010 02:36 PM
Jeffrey from Upper West Side

Remember, recording in the '30s was still "magic" for its audience. People weren't expecting the verisimilitude we expect today. Look at the speeded up silent movies that people were used to seeing in those days. Johnson may have known it wasn't his actual voice he was hearing back but he wouldn't have expected better.

Jun. 09 2010 02:32 PM
j from bklyn

the room acoustics sound more natural at the lower speed. is there some way to do some math to measure that aspect of the recordings and if anything is known about where they were recorded. also, in reference to the harmonics discussion now going on.

Jun. 09 2010 02:32 PM
Sara from Westchester

I have no emotional investment in this issue, but I just wanted to weigh in with an objective observation.
Regarding the matter of whether or not he would have noticed that his voice sounded different on recording, I would like to point out that we hear our own voices differently than those around us do. I think anyone who has ever listened to themselves even just on an answering machine will notice that their voice sounds higher in recording. I don't know the exact mechanics behind it, but we hear our own voices reverberated through our jaw bones or something. They always sound deeper to us than to others. So Johnson would not have been the best judge of the quality of his voice on a recording -- in terms of determining if something had come out incorrectly.

Jun. 09 2010 02:32 PM
Steve Elliot

I've had this experience with home recordings from the 50s where I found the recordings made the voices of loved ones sounded high. Some of it could have been that they were more youthful, but I think it was a lack of accuracy in the record motor. If Johnson had listened back on the same machine on which he had been recorded, it would have sounded true to him on location. I'm just curious why John Hammond, who recorded him, would have never made note of the difference.

Jun. 09 2010 02:29 PM

One thing that has always struck me about Johnson's work was the ethereal, haunting quality of his singing. I first got into his work by watching John Hammond Jr.'s documentary on Johnson's music, in which Honeyboy Edwards was featured. Why not ask Edwards, one of the last living ties we have to Johnson's music?

Jun. 09 2010 02:28 PM
Joe from New York

How did they arrive at the 20% figure?

Jun. 09 2010 02:25 PM
jj from brooklyn

sounds pretty bad ass regardless if this theory is true or not. where can we get these tracks at this speed? I want em!

Jun. 09 2010 02:25 PM
rob from nyc

the analogy to architecture also reminded me of a similar debate with respect to Monet - did he "invent" impressionism or he just suffering from poor eyesight later in life? In either case, he influenced hundreds of artists so do we really care whether it was intentional?

Jun. 09 2010 02:24 PM
Tom from Williamsburg

After hearing the slowed down version of Cross Road Blues, it's obvious to me that we've been listening to him too fast. Just listen to his voice and the parsing of his guitar licks.

Jun. 09 2010 02:24 PM

Maybe, we should re-language here. Maybe it's not right/wrong speed. Let's call it the "new speed"

Jun. 09 2010 02:23 PM
hugh Hales-Tooke from New Jersey

I agree that it is quite likely that the Robert Johnson recordings are fast - although not by as much as 20%. I have transcribed his guitar parts as exactly as possible and posted one on this blog. Check the endings of the songs - some sound rushed. I think that you can also hear it in his voice - it has a slightly forced sound like the pitch shift you get - as in the Beatles recordings - when the tape is sped up.

Jun. 09 2010 02:22 PM
Lillian from Manhattan

I always thought they sounded speeded up since most recordings like Bessie Smith voice sounds higher too. At that time recordings were limited by the recording equipment available.

Jun. 09 2010 02:21 PM
Jeffrey Vock

I've always had the feeling that music and film from the 30's are speeded up. They just don't sound natural. I think you can really tell in the BW movies where the characters like Cagney and Edward G Robinson are speaking unbelievably fast. I think this could be widespread and I suspect it was the technology and they thought that's the best it could deliver.

Jun. 09 2010 02:21 PM
matthew from brooklyn

AWESOME. We now have new Johnson music

Jun. 09 2010 02:20 PM
Rich K

I'm surprised this wasn't caught sooner. If you know what the guitar tuning was, it should be fairly easy to slow the recording down to match. The overtone series etc., should only be right at the right speed. I had an old HiFi amplifier, and it came with built in multiple de-emphasis curves for the different 78s, as well as info on how much you had to slowdown or speed up your TT for Columbia vs Bluebird or RCA recordings.

Jun. 09 2010 02:18 PM
Jimmy Riot from Ft, Greene

I mean, did he start out tuning his guitar down a 4th? or a 5th? I don't think so...

Jun. 09 2010 02:18 PM
Erica P. from NJ (in exsilium)

Andrew's observation is piquant, but I think the familiar speeds are correct. True, Robert Johnson lived fast and hard, but the slowed-down version makes him sound like a septuagenarian. He died at age 27.

Jun. 09 2010 02:18 PM
bob from bayridge

an artist who signed pact with the devil should have a voice deeper that what we've been hearing for all these years.

Jun. 09 2010 02:14 PM
a g from n j

first impressions undoubtedly leave an imprint that we have an emotional conection to. i don't think it is just esthetic "purity" that troubles us challenging our accepted notion of an auditory imprint that is so much a part of collective as well as personal cultural dna.

Jun. 09 2010 02:14 PM
Jimmy Riot from Ft, Greene

How could they speed it up back then without changing the pitch? The tuning of the guitar? Surely we know how he tuned his guitar & the intended original keys of the songs, right? I checked the originals & they're all in pretty standard keys (E, A, etc. [standard-tuning easy common keys for blues]).

Jun. 09 2010 02:13 PM
Cynthia from long island

Actually, it sounds good slower.

Jun. 09 2010 02:12 PM

I've been listening to Robert Johnson recordings since they were released in the early 1960's. These slowed versions are hauntingly beautiful.
His work is eternal.

Jun. 09 2010 01:59 PM
a g from n j

great point andrew from chelsea.

Jun. 09 2010 12:50 PM
Andrew Barrett from chelsea

It seems like the influence of Greek architecture on the west. In original form Greek Temples were painted bright, garish colors. By the time they were influencing modern ideas of classicism, they were bare stone, but so complete and beautiful we took that style as our own. Maybe great art is beautiful, even without original paint, or played at the "wrong" speed.

Jun. 09 2010 12:46 PM
a g from n j

i wonder if people simply never thought that the recording might be too fast because it fit into a preconceived notion of the blues as filtered through an anglo-american sensiblity. also,isn't virtuosity very much about note selection and other dynamics,this non-musician can't elaborate on,as well as finger speed?

Jun. 09 2010 10:41 AM

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