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Was Robert Johnson Speeding?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010 - 01:32 PM

Like many music fans, I’ve long owned one of the occasional reissues of Robert Johnson: King Of The Delta Blues Singers.  (I think I have the 1990 reissue but there are others.)  And I’ve pretty much accepted that that’s what Robert Johnson sounded like.

So to hear apparently sober music writers now claiming that these iconic recordings have been sped up – perhaps by as much as 20% – is beyond surprising; it’s almost inconceivable. 

On the other hand, record companies were known to play fast and loose with their recordings in those days, either to fit songs onto the restrictive 3-minute duration of one side of a 78 rpm disc or to make the music sound more exciting.  And mistakes in the process of producing a record certainly happen.  The situation here is compounded by the fact that Johnson is a ghost – we know almost nothing about him with any certainty, and he died shortly after the two recording sessions upon which his global reputation is based, so he never got to hear many of these recordings. 

The one thing we do know about Robert Johnson is that he was an amazing guitarist.  But the Robert Johnson I hear on the slowed down excerpts on The Guardian’s website doesn’t sound quite as amazing.  Some of the phrasing is a bit choppier, as if he’s almost losing the rhythm.  If Johnson was playing a faster, more exciting blues, it makes sense he’d be pushing the envelope of what he could do on the instrument, and some tiny imperfections might be slightly noticeable when you slow those recordings down. 

Ultimately, though, Robert Johnson’s legacy isn’t so much about him and his grand total of 42 recorded tracks – it’s about the 70+ years of guitarists who’ve been inspired and shaped by his playing.  And if they’ve been hearing him at the wrong speed, well, that’ll always be the right speed for them. 


Do you believe Robert Johnson’s playing is at the wrong speed?  Why or why not?  Leave a comment.  



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