Robert Johnson recording speed controversy

View previous topic View next topic Go down

Robert Johnson recording speed controversy

Post  pinhedz on Sun May 22, 2011 10:53 am

The Laughing Buddha

I just talked to a friend of mine who told me he had come across this weird thing. Some music scholars have built a theory that the original Robert Johnson recordings were 'sped up' with the idea to make them more commercial. can anyone tell me anything about this?


Stan54

If they are then that's what they are, isn't it? I mean the original recordings are the primary source; the only problem would be if someone dunned in like a horn section or something to those. Whether they're sped up or not makes no difference.


pinhedz

That's what they say about Mississippi John Hurt's recording of "Stagolee." It's very plausible, his voice sounds a bit high and the playing is very fast.

This could also be a way of shortening a recording that was too long for a certain size 78-rpm disc. Those blues players probably weren't used to holding their songs down to 3 minutes. One of Bukka White's recordings ends with him growling "The record run out now!" The engineer was probably signaling him to cut it short so as not to run too long over 3 minutes.

I think this would be a very easy thing to do. If the disc is rotated a little bit slow during cutting, you can get more time on the disc. Then, when it's played at normal speed, it will sound faster.

This is a simple alternative to telling the muscians that they have to play faster in order to fit their song onto the 78-rpm disc. There are classical piano pieces recorded in the early days that are played way too fast, and I suspect one consideration might have been keeping the tracks short enough.


The Laughing Buddha

hmmmm, thanks pin and stan. he told me there was a website where these guys slowed the recordings down to what they felt was truer way RJ did it, but I forgot the site, maybe I'll look it up later. fascinating stuff


Stan54

TIMELINE
May 8, 1911: Robert Johnson was born.

1932: Muddy Waters begins to play the guitar. He is influenced by the music of Robert Johnson and Son House.

November 1, 1936: The first of only two Robert Johnson recording sessions.

June 1, 1937: Robert Johnson’s second and final recording session.

August 13, 1938: Robert Johnson died three days after he was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman he began seeing during a stint at the Three Forks juke joint in Greenwood, Mississippi.

1940: Muddy Waters meets folklorist Alan Lomax, archivist, while he is doing research on Mississippi Delta blues at the Stovall plantation. Lomax is looking for Robert Johnson, when he “discovers” Morganfield. Robert Johnson had been deceased for two years.

1952: Elmore James releases Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom”.

1961: Robert Johnson’s ‘King of the Delta Blues’ is released.

January 23, 1986: Robert Johnson is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


.nowhereman.

I dunno what to make of all this...it's plausable that the recordings would have been sped up to fit them onto a 78, but then there's scenes in the film/documentary 'Can't You Hear The Wind Howl?' where, for example, the film's makers interview Willie Mae, who is name-checked in take one of Love In Vain, who on hearing the record for the first time since Robert sang it to her says: "Yes, that's my Robert"...then the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson II, or Honeyboy Edwards, you'd think one of them would have mentioned in interviews about him what his 'real' voice was like, if it's not the one on the record.



I found this website: http://www.touched.co.uk/press/rjnote.html which, if the links are still working (i'll include em at the end, in case i'm able to copy and paste them), they give examples of the 'correct' speed of the songs:


A Revolutionary Critique of Robert Johnson

An abiding mystery about Robert Johnson is the rpm conundrum. Is it true, as a Japanese musician told me it is widely held to be in Japan, that Robert Johnson’s records play way too fast? Should he actually sound much more like his great mentor, Son House?

One guitar tutorial book, Country Blues Bottleneck Guitar by James Ferguson and Richard Gellis (Walter Kane Publications, New York, 1976), proposes that Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ is played with the guitar tuned to G (i.e. so that the open strings play a chord of G major – D-G-D-G-B-D, from bass to treble) and with a capo on the fourth fret. This means that the opening phrase, played an octave higher than the open strings – i.e. twelve frets down the neck from the capo – has to be played at the sixteenth fret. On the kind of guitar that has the neck joining the body at the fourteenth fret – like the one that Johnson is holding in one of the long-sought-after photographs of him, reproduced above right – this means manoeuvring the slide above the fingerboard a good inch beyond the end of the neck. On a guitar with the neck-body join at the twelfth fret, as in the photograph reproduced above left, it means stretching even further – a most uncomfortable position that would make it hard to play accurately.

There are four other Johnson tunes in the book. One, ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’, is given in an arrangement by Taj Mahal; the rest follow the original recordings, and all of these are supposed to be capoed at the third fret. The only other piece in the book to be played with a capo on the third is by the Georgia-born Tampa Red. The pieces by the other Mississippi Delta slide players in the book – Bukka White, Bobby Grant, Mississippi Fred McDowell – are all played open or, in one case, with a capo on the first fret.

Now if we turn to the song on which Robert Johnson’s ‘Walking Blues’ is based, namely ‘My Black Mama’ by Son House [Example 1], we find that on his recording of it in 1930, he plays in open G, capo on the first. What happens, then, if we slow Johnson’s record until it is in the same key as the song it’s modelled on [Example 2] – and if we bring the rest of his records down likewise, so that those pieces that sound as though they’re capoed on the third would actually be played in the much more natural way, with open strings? This means lowering the key by three semitones, a quarter of an octave – which means slowing the recordings to 80 per cent of the speed at which they normally play. (I accomplished this by playing my old King of the Delta Blues Singers LPs with the pitch control on the turntable turned as low as it would go and taping them with the pitch control on the cassette deck turned as high as it would go, then turning the pitch control down slightly while I dubbed it to another cassette deck. The end result was the equivalent of a 33-1/3-rpm record playing at 26-2/3-rpm.)

And what comes out of the speakers? A music transformed. The sound of a man, first of all: this dark-toned voice would no longer lend credence to the youth of seventeen or eighteen that Don Law, the only person to record him, thought he might be. Now, especially in the dip of his voice at the end of a line, we can hear the follower of Son House, and the precursor of Muddy Waters. Hear him pronounce his name in ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ [Example 3] – now he sounds like “Mr Johnson”, a man whose words are not half-swallowed, garbled or strangled, but clearly delivered, beautifully modulated; whose performances are not fleeting, harried or fragmented, but paced with the sense of space and drama that drew an audience in until people wept as they stood in the street around him [Example 4]]. (The wordless last lines of ‘Love in Vain’ [Example 5], in this slowed form, are the work of one of the most heartbreaking and delicate of blues singers.) This is a Steady Rolling Man, whose tempos and tonalities are much like those of other Delta bluesmen. Full-speed Johnson always struck me as a disembodied sound – befitting his wraith-like persona, the reticent, drifting youth, barely more than a boy, that Don Law spoke of: the Rimbaud of the blues [Example 6]. Johnson slowed down sounds to me like the person in the recently discovered studio portrait: a big-boned man, self-assured and worldly-wise [Example 7]. It works for me, but listen for yourself.

As for why and how it could have come about, I’ve no idea. But if all the recordings should really play at 80 per cent of their current speed, that wouldn’t make them exceptionally long. The sixteen cuts of the first Robert Johnson LP, King of the Delta Blues Singers, have an average duration of two minutes 38 seconds. This is noticeably shorter than, for example, the sixteen cuts on an LP collection of Leroy Carr’s blues from 1932 to 1934, which average just over three minutes; or of the twelve cuts on a collection of Blind Willie McTell’s blues from 1935 (about 80 per cent of the length, in fact). On the other hand, it matches, almost to the second, the average duration of sixteen tracks recorded in May 1937 by Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams – a month before “poor Bob’s” last session. But this is up-tempo, good-time blues, as suggested by the title of this Williamson/Williams LP – Throw a Boogie Woogie. Two of the songs in this compilation became rocking Blues Boom standards in the 1960s – ‘Good Morning School Girl’ and ‘Please Don’t Go’.

Similarly, on a two-CD set that collects all of the 42 masters cut by the rugged Delta musician Tommy McClennan between 1939 and 1942, the average length is only a wee bit longer than Johnson’s, around two minutes fifty – but McClennan is another purveyor of the boogie, a much simpler artist than our “Robert chile”. When he was recommended for his first recording session by the duke of pre-war Chicago blues, Big Bill Broonzy, it was surely because, despite the rude country style, McClennan’s ever-driving beat and bragging personality could still cut it with the juke-joint dancers – something that ‘Love In Vain’ and ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ weren’t likely to do.

If the theory I’ve advanced is not completely crazy, a possible motive for speeding up Johnson’s records might have been to try to make them more exciting for an age in which the Delta tradition he came out of was already a thing of the past.

Perhaps there are scientific tests that could be applied to the sound that might establish its original frequencies – to the qualities of the voice, for example, like the vibrato, which at full speed sounds to me like an alien nasal flutter but at slower speeds like a proper musical ornament; or perhaps to the decay time of the guitar notes.

Robert Johnson’s records occupy a place of unique esteem in the heritage of 20th-century popular music. In addition to their innate artistic excellence, they exerted a huge influence on the subsequent development of the blues, and on the other forms, like rock, that drew on the blues. They are universally acclaimed by critics: Greil Marcus, for example, the dean of rock writers, while he might not be so blunt as to tag the first Robert Johnson LP as The Greatest Album Of All Time, certainly regards it as An Album Than Which None Better Has Been Made. This cultural prestige is reflected in the continuing demand for Johnson’s music: the 1990 CD box-set of The Complete Recordings, with an expected sale of about twenty thousand, sold half a million. If the records are, in fact, distinctly inaccurate, perhaps we should be told.

Postscript

The ideas outlined above are presented to stimulate further debate and investigation. It’s quite possible, for example, that my detuning of Johnson’s records by a tone and a half is too extreme. Perhaps he did not habitually play with open strings, as I have assumed, but favoured the use of a capo most of the time. Observant readers will have noticed that in one of the two photos at the top of the page, his guitar has a capo on the second fret. Johnson is known to have travelled widely and appears to have absorbed many other styles in addition to the Mississippi Delta blues which provided the original matrix for his music. His practices, therefore, can’t be ascertained solely by those of his Delta models, mentors and contemporaries. I’d be glad to hear the thoughts of you blues aficionados and appreciators out there: johngibbens@touched.co.uk

For further informed debate on the topic, check out this forum: http://www.guitarseminars.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/004431.html

Examples:
1. Son House, My Black Mama Part I (1930), last verse (file size: 116KB)
2. Robert Johnson, Walking Blues, last verse, slowed down (132KB)
3. Robert Johnson, Kindhearted Woman Blues, excerpt, slowed down (144KB)
4. Robert Johnson, Come On In My Kitchen, excerpt, slowed down (204KB)
5. Robert Johnson, Love in Vain, last verse, slowed down (176KB)
6. Robert Johnson, Crossroads Blues, as officially released (80KB)
7. Robert Johnson, Crossroads Blues, slowed down (204KB)


pinhedz

It's a convincing case, and the slowed-down samples make it even more convincing. I always used to wonder why Johnson's guitar tones decayed so fast; other slide players seemed to have longer sustain times.


John McLaughlin

Is it possible, then, that his actual vocals were a shade lower also? Mess up people trying to copy Robert Johnson's singing style, I'd guess, if it's so.

pinhedz
Schrödinger's Hepcat

Posts : 11694
Join date : 2011-04-11
Location : DC

http://www.balalaika.org/

Back to top Go down

Re: Robert Johnson recording speed controversy

Post  felix on Mon May 23, 2011 9:21 pm


felix
cool cat - mrkgnao!

Posts : 831
Join date : 2011-04-11
Location : see the chicken?

Back to top Go down

Re: Robert Johnson recording speed controversy

Post  pinhedz on Mon May 23, 2011 10:37 pm

I heard a rumor they got a speed-corrected version out on CD now.

pinhedz
Schrödinger's Hepcat

Posts : 11694
Join date : 2011-04-11
Location : DC

http://www.balalaika.org/

Back to top Go down

Re: Robert Johnson recording speed controversy

Post  felix on Mon May 23, 2011 10:48 pm

I heard similar - not one of the, imo, ridiculous circa 20% adjusted efforts, but a carefully checked-out remaster by a Sony/Columbia technician, who adjusted some of the takes by a small amount to compensate for slight speed errors, the 'correct' speed being determined by referencing the wave form of an existing electricity supply hum present on the original masters. Dunno where I saw this at the mo. But I imagine the new release is the official 100th Birthday celebration set.

felix
cool cat - mrkgnao!

Posts : 831
Join date : 2011-04-11
Location : see the chicken?

Back to top Go down

Re: Robert Johnson recording speed controversy

Post  felix on Mon May 23, 2011 11:04 pm

^ Not Sony/Columbia, it seems, but these people: http://www.pristineclassical.com/LargeWorks/Jazz/PABL002.php

I have also, in preparing this release, been able to make minor speed corrections to some of the tracks, basing my conclusions on analysis of electrical mains hum harmonics found buried in many of the tracks, and repitching to between 0.2 and 2.5% (where a semitone is approximately 6%).


EDIT: there's an unscientific stab at slowing down the rwo King of the Delta Blues Singers albums here: http://globalgroovers.blogspot.com/2010/05/robert-johnson-king-of-delta-blues.html


felix
cool cat - mrkgnao!

Posts : 831
Join date : 2011-04-11
Location : see the chicken?

Back to top Go down

Re: Robert Johnson recording speed controversy

Post  Sponsored content Today at 11:27 pm


Sponsored content


Back to top Go down

View previous topic View next topic Back to top

- Similar topics

 
Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum