Elijah Wald: The Robert Johnson recording speed controversy

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I have no idea why this story seems to surface every few years as if it were news, but we are clearly on another round. The claim was first made back in 2004 that all of Robert Johnson’s recordings were issued at a speed that was about 20% faster than he actually played. This claim reappeared in 2010 in an article published by the UK Guardian newspaper, which added the completely spurious claim that this is a “consensus” among musicologists. So, to start at the beginning: No, it isn’t. The virtually unanimous consensus among experts on prewar blues--musicologists and musicians alike--is roughly what I outline below. Some of Johnson’s tracks may have been issued at slightly inaccurate speeds (for example, recorded at 76 r.p.m. and played back at 78), but it is wildly improbable (bordering on impossible) that all of them have been issued at a single, consistent, wrong speed.

Here are some reasons to rule the "slowed down" theory out:

1. Johnson’s recordings were made on five different days, in November 1936 and June 1937, using portable equipment installed in two different locations in San Antonio. Some of those takes were released on 78 r.p.m. records; some were not. Since many remained unreleased, they could not have been consistently speeded up after the original sessions, unless this was done in the 1960s or the 1990s, for release on LP or CD—and although many people are dubious about how reliable the speed of the 78s is, no one is claiming that the LP and CD releases are consistently 20% faster than the original releases. So the claim is that at both sessions all the songs were recorded at the wrong speed. Clearly, the equipment cannot have malfunctioned in exactly the same way in 1936 that it did in 1937, so this would have had to be a decision made by the recording engineer. And since the only basis for the claim that the records are too fast is that they sound better if you slow them down, this would mean that the engineer made an arbitrary decision to speed them up, though it made them sound worse. Why would he have done that?

One answer is that they sound more exciting that way; but if the issue was excitement, it would only make sense to speed up the fast songs, not slow, moody blues like "Come On In My Kitchen." (As it happens, the first take of that song was considered too slow. But the solution reached in the studio was not to speed it up, it was to have Johnson record a second take that was much faster.)

Another answer is that, as happened with Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie,” the songs were too long, and therefore were speeded up to fit on a three-minute disc. But whereas “Frankie” was a ballad with a fixed set of verses, many of Johnson’s songs were reworked in the studio, with verses added or subtracted on different takes. So if they were too long he could just have left off a verse--and indeed that is what he did with “Kindhearted Woman,” his first recording: The first take has a guitar break, and ran too long for him to sing the final verse, so for the second take he left the break out. (I cover this in more detail in my book, Escaping the Delta, which analyzes each of his recordings at length.)

2. A more logical claim would be that some of Johnson’s recordings were speeded up. This seems especially likely on his first day of recording, since there are alternate takes of four of the songs/arrangements recorded that day, and in each case the second take is a half-tone lower than the first. The most likely explanation for this is that he moved his capo down one fret for the second take of each song—perhaps because he was used to singing at the higher pitch, but realized that he did not need to sing as loudly in the studio and therefore did an alternate of each at the lower pitch—but it is also possible that these discrepancies are a clue that the speeds/pitches at this session are variable and not to be trusted. (The fact that all the alternate takes show the same discrepancy could also be taken as evidence that this had to have been a conscious choice; in fact, if the proponents of the “slowed down” theory want to improve their argument, they might suggest that the engineer was experimenting on the first session, recording each of Johnson’s songs at two different speeds.)

At all of his later sessions, when there are two alternate takes their pitch remains identical. Again, this could reflect reality—maybe after the first session he (or the engineer) had reached a decision about where he wanted to pitch his songs and was no longer experimenting—or it could mean that the first session’s speeds are unreliable, but the bugs in the equipment were limited to that day. In either case, this seems like pretty solid proof that the speeds were not consistently, consciously speeded up to the same degree at all of his sessions.

3. For seventy years there were people alive who knew Robert Johnson, played and traveled with him, and heard him perform in many different contexts, and none of them ever suggested that the recordings sounded higher or faster than Johnson did. (Indeed, Johnny Shines told Paul Geremia that the recordings actually sounded better than he remembered Johnson sounding in person. Since Shines had a deeper voice than Johnson had, it is unlikely that by “better” he meant higher.)

4. Some proponents of the “slowed down” theory argue that Johnson’s slide tunes are mostly in “open G” tuning, and if they are at the right speed he would have had to capo on the fourth fret, which would make the high notes hard to play. The flaw in this argument is that some guitarists tune down to open G while others tune up to open A—indeed, the latter choice is particularly common for slide guitarists, since it makes the strings a bit tighter, which gives the instrument a brighter sound and makes the slide less likely to grate against the frets. If Johnson tuned up to A (or even to Bb, which is not unheard of), then his capo would have been on the first or second fret, which would cause no playing problems—and, as it happens, we know that other songs from those sessions were played in standard tuning, key of A, and end up in the same absolute pitch as the open-tuned songs. Occam’s razor suggests that if the standard-tuned A songs are in B or Bb, and the open-tuned songs are also in B or Bb (which is the case), he is probably tuning his guitar to A in both cases. Not necessarily, but that is the simplest explanation.

5. The only solid argument in favor of the “slowed-down” theory is that the records sound better if you slow them down. This is, of course, a matter of opinion, and some people certainly prefer the way they sound when played more slowly. However…those people argue that what is better about the sound is that the slower, lower Johnson sounds more like Son House or Muddy Waters. Now, House was a major influence on both Johnson and Waters, but by the time Johnson recorded he was not trying to sound like House—an older player who had been unsuccessful on records—but rather like Leroy Carr, Casey Bill Weldon, Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, and Peetie Wheatstraw, who were the big blues recording stars in the mid-1930s, and whose vocal styles he imitated on most of his records. (For example, the ooh-well-well falsetto yodel he often used was imitated from Wheatstraw and Weldon.) These singers tended to have higher, smoother voices than House—exactly the sound Johnson seems to have been going for, and that the House and Waters fans dislike. So their whole argument is based on the fact that they prefer the older, deeper Delta sound to the mainstream popular blues sound of the 1930s—or, to put it differently, that their tastes are different from Johnson’s own tastes at the moment he was recording. Of course, they are welcome to their tastes, and to listen to Johnson’s music at any speed they like, but that has nothing to do with how Robert Johnson sounded in the 1930s.

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