The Blues On Speed

To certain readers: Beware, this might just blow your mind.

If you are a music lover you've heard of Robert Johnson, the mysterious voodoo guitar player who sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in return for fabled fingerboard skills. If you are a guitarist, you probably went through a blues phase when you wore the ferric-oxide coating off a cassette tape (or perhaps the silver off a CD) featuring the 29 known Robert Johnson compositions, a magical canon of works. And if you're me, you probably watched Crossroads about hundred times and rewound the Steve Vai duel every time.

I always loved the blues and I followed Clapton's influences back through Freddy King and Buddy Guy all the way to Johnson ('the keystone of my musical foundation,' he says). I, too, spent endless hours rubbing the strings with a bottleneck trying to emulate his vibrato and odd rhythms.

This week, in a strange rush, a memory came back to me of a casual suspicion that I had held for a brief moment in my youth, but which I dismissed out of hand as soon as I purchased the double-LP of the Complete-complete-complete Recordings, including various outtakes from the 1936 sessions (41 recordings). Obviously, the veracity of this lovingly created document was beyond reproach.

So what was the passing thought I had entertained? Quite simply that the recordings had been SPEEDED UP! The whiney tone of his voice, the impossibly high playing, and most tellingly, the manic shimmering of his slide vibrato, all told of some dodgy business with the knobs. Even though I was in my teens, I had experimented with home recording for years and could easily recognise the effects of altering the speed of a track. How I have managed to suppress that early intuition for so long is testament to the power of authority over youth–I guess I wasn't much of a rebel.

Back to the present, while re-learning Come On In My Kitchen for a recent show, the old doubts came back to bug me. I had a bit of time this week so I opened up the RJ folder and did some work with Adobe Audition and came up with gold. When stretched to 110% of normal, the voice is fuller, richer, more human. The guitar is more resonant, natural, believable. Above all, the pacing is now magnificent; you can feel your heart pause between his beats–this finally is the Robert Johnson that mesmerised his audiences with sounds they could only ascribe to a midnight Faustian pact.

Compare the accepted version with my slowed-down version.

Robert Johnson – Come On In My Kitchen (clip at original speed) by MrDarwin

Robert Johnson – Come On In My Kitchen (clip at 110%) by MrDarwin

For a full account of the phenomenon, read more research here: Steady Rollin’ Man: a revolutionary critique of Robert Johnson