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Slow Down, Robert Johnson!

Monday, October 11, 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.

This is a repeat edition of Soundcheck.


Howard Mandel and Jon Wilde

Comments [7]

Pat from Los Angeles

Boingboing just posted an update on the topic.

Jimmy Guterman says no-way - there were 2 versions of Crossroads, one faster than the other with voice tone change. Nor did contemporaries complain about the recordings. More at the posting.

Oct. 22 2010 03:23 PM
Dan Robinson from Anza, Cal.

No one voice sounds right to themselves. Robert Johnson most likely or rather for a fact had never heard his voice recorded before, so how would he know it wasn't suppose to sound that way.

Oct. 12 2010 01:52 PM

So, that's what's wrong with my Robert Johnson CD's. I always listened to him with a furrow in my brow...convinced --- something is off!

Oct. 11 2010 02:27 PM

I've played some guitar though I am by no means a good guitar player. However, to my ears, the guitar in slowed down version sounds somehow unnatural, maybe a little choppy. To me, the "sped up" version sounds more natural and it's not because I've been listening to it all my life (I haven't).

Oct. 11 2010 02:21 PM
Lew Yedwab from Melville, NY

Sheesh; this is fascinating. The slowed-down "Crossroad Blues" sounds EXTREMELY plausible.

Oct. 11 2010 02:16 PM
peter from jersey city

Also the low notes sound possibly too low for the type of instrument used when pitched?

Oct. 11 2010 02:14 PM
Scott Ainslie from Brattleboro, VT

Mr. Wilde has breathed new life into this canard, which seems to be just another excuse for remastering and re-selling Johnson's tracks to the gullible.

There may be some pitch variation in the speeds of Johnson's recordings, but the desire of the uninitiated to slow them down is more reflective of their own aesthetic hopes borne of listening to seventy year old blues guys than history or fact.

If you listen to Johnson's music and are versed in acoustic blues guitar playing and the music of his time, there is nothing to suggest that Johnson's recordings were sped up. Nothing at all.

And the thought of slowing down his entire catalogue is foolish, musically. One can't imagine Cross Road Blues paced any more deliberately than it was.

If there were a fact, rather than just opinion, in this story, it would be different. There isn't.

Oct. 10 2010 02:12 AM

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