Wednesday, January 19, 2005

robert johnson on speed

James Russell over at Hot Buttered Death has just posted a wonderful bit on Robert Johnson and how there is a theory that he has been recorded, or at least played, at too fast RPM. That is, by slowing down his songs to about 80% of the normal speed we get a more accurate approximation of what his playing and singing might well have been. The argument is that we would hear more of his influencers and contemporaries such as Son House.

There are a few small MP3s of slowed down bits of
Love in Vain, Come on in My Kitchen and Crossroads over at Steady Rollin’ Man: A Revolutionary Critique of Robert Johnson which also has some detailed information on the guitar tunings and fingerings that some guitar players might like to comment on. irant - you there?

Funnily enough I have been listening to RJ for the last few days, specifically to listen to "They're Red Hot". This was sparked by the links over at irants on
Robert Johnson and the Myth of The Golden Age and the comment that Red Hot is more like a Fats Waller tune. There are further explorations of the definitions, particularly whose definitions, of authenticity that dominate, in selections and arrangments for recording and releasing. Many releases of Johnson's work leave out Red Hot because it doesn't conform to certain blues purists idea of what Johnson is/was.

Although James Russell says that at present he can't hear much difference in the slowed down RJ tunes, I reckon I can and I like it. It excites me. It's a theory I like. Johnson's voice sounds more powerful. Less reedy and disembodied. Engages me more. Sounds more close miked. I even think the guitar work sounds better.

This wrong speed / pitch theory isn't so far fetched given that a re-issue of Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue has had jazz fools nerds experts fans agreeing they had been listening to one side of Kind Of Blue at the wrong pitch for about 40 years. [no wonder some of the poor trumpet players who tried to imitate Miles found it a bit difficult]

In addition recent remasters of Dylan suggest that the vinyl version of Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands from Blonde on Blonde was perhaps mastered at the wrong speed as it plays at a quarter-tone below the remastered CD version.

When I get some time I'll be fiddling with RJ tracks on the PC and slowing them down. Thanks James.

Update: More on this from Dave Rubin - taken from: where there is more discussion.

"I headed the team that produced "Robert Johnson: The New Transcriptions" for the Hal Leonard Corporation and I wrote a companion book for Guitar School that analyzed 15 of the most popular songs. We approached the tunings (A add 9 for "Dust My Broom" and "Phonograph Blues" take 2, open Em - like Skippy James - for "Hellhound On My Trail," etc) and keys with fresh ears and came up with new findings which I believe to be correct.

Most importantly, we had access to virtually all of the original 78s as owned by Steve LaVere. It was quite a thrill to hear these recordings in person. It sounded as if RJ was in the room playing and singing. Steve had corrected the speed with his variable pitch turntable so that the platters turned at exactly 78 RPMs. This produced slower tempos and pitch, resulting in Johnson having a deeper voice and, in my opinion, it gave the songs (especially the uptempo ones like "Preachin' Blues" and "32-20 Blues") a better groove. The 1996 version of the Columbia CD set basically reflects these corrections.

The problem started in the 1960s when they original engineers "corrected" their original source material by bringing all tunes up to natural keys like G and A, not realizing that Johnson really was playing in F#,G#, etc. remember, Johnson was playing SOLO guitar and likely tuned by ear before each session (perhaps each take) without a reference tone like, say, from a piano. Why would he care about concert pitch or A 440? In additon, with a new guitar with new strings, for example, in a hot environment, his guitar may have gone flat. In addition, he capoed extensively like most of his contemporaries. Re; "Love in Vain Blues": I maintain that it is his only song in Spanish (open G) tuned up a half step. Check out our transcription on page 192, the last measuer, where he ends with the tonic chord "open" (actually capoed - the dead giveaway of the tuning. "

Dave Rubin NYC