Guitar blues of the 1930s brought to life in UHD 4K video, for the second century of recorded blues fans.
Episode 01: "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" by Robert Johnson (1936)
So the idea here is to breathe some life into a very old style of music called “Blues”. As we begin this channel here in September 2016 it has now been more than a hundred years since the very first blues songs were recorded. Of course blues as a musical form existed well before then, but it was around 1912 when the first blues songs were published as sheet music and around 1914 when they were first cut to record.
So as we enter the second century of recorded blues and look back upon how it has evolved over the last hundred years, for me, as a guitar player, the real “golden age of blues” was the 1930s. Perhaps it should come as no surprise to you that The Great Depression was an excellent time for blues.
There are many names used to refer to blues music of this era: Country Blues, Acoustic Blues, Folk Blues, Fingerstyle Blues, PreWar Blues, none of which were actually used at the time, when it was simply called “Blues”. So I’m going to use a new term, Vintage Blues, for this music from long ago that has only gotten better with age.
Vintage Blues Era
This was a time when recorded music came out as 3 minute singles on 10 inch, 78 rpm phonograph discs made of mostly shellac. Electronic recording was developed in the mid 1920s but the instruments themselves would not be electrified until the 40s and 50s. So it was often just a guy, an acoustic guitar, and his voice to record a hit record, in one take, with no edits or overdubs. What you recorded went straight onto the disc and that was it. There was a vibrant and competitive marketplace for hit records and blues was a new and popular style of music.
Record collectors have done a wonderful job of preserving and reissuing digital versions of these primordial recordings for us to enjoy. But today if you're interested in music from this era you're still going to be listening to a scratchy, old, lo-fi recording, in mono. Maybe you’ll find a few old monochrome photographs of the musician, or maybe not.
So to give a little push to this style of blues from the vintage era of the 1930s I wanted to present this document of blues as it was played at that time, but recorded digitally, in stereo, on a modern guitar, in ultra high definition 4K video, with picture-in-picture (to see exactly what my little fingers are doing) and digitally distribute it on YouTube for all the world to enjoy, hopefully for the next hundred years.
Perhaps someday some 22nd century bluesman will be influenced by my crusty old 4K videos from 2016 just as I have been influenced by the scratchy old phonographs from the old timers of the 1930s.
For now I have about 24 songs ready and we’ll see how things go. Each episode will be one song and it will work like this: there are a lot of guys on YouTube these days playing cover songs in their bedroom with a webcam or something, so I wanted to do something a little bit different, to hopefully attract a wider audience than the sliver of people who might be searching for 80-year-old guitar songs. For each episode we're going to open with a bit of cinematography and acting, as an intro to set the scene for each song. Of course in this vintage era there were no music videos, and this won't be a music video, but each of these blue songs tells a little story and I wanted to add a bit of the visual to something that until now we’ve only had a rare, hazy glimpse of. So each episode will be three parts: the cinematic intro, then I'll play the song, and finally I'll have a blog article written up with a discussion about the song, why I picked it, and what it's about.
Like most listeners these days who have become interested in this era of blues, I got here from Robert Johnson, and I’ll pass along what I have learned after many years of studying and learning to play his music: he has been presented as “The King of Delta Blues Singers”, or “the most important bluesman who ever lived”, or the “Godfather of Rock ’n’ Roll”, which are all sort of true, from a certain vantage point, but the reality is that Robert Johnson was really just a great synthesizer and arranger of the music of those around and who came before him, and he really came at the tail end of this Golden Era of recorded blues. He was not one of the founders or main writers of the style of blues from this era and certainly wasn’t a commercial success as a recording artist in his lifetime. His music was a bridge between the classic blues era and the electrified Chicago-style blues that took the genre in a new direction.
Of the 29 songs that he recorded, almost nothing is just Robert Johnson. In every song he recorded he picked bits and pieces of music and lyrics from the first generation of recorded bluesmen and then conveniently packaged them into his classic recordings from 1936 and 1937, which did not sell well in his lifetime, but have had a tremendous influence on later generations of musicians.
In fact Robert Johnson may have been one of the first guitarists in the world to study and master his craft by listening to the records of others. There’s the well-known legend about Robert Johnson making the Faustian bargain after being known as “the kid” who wasn't very good on guitar, who then in a very short period of time became a master. Of course the conclusion was that he sold his soul to the devil for his proficiency on the guitar, which was then cashed in when he became the founding member of the infamous “27 Club”, which includes other musical legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, who all enjoyed early musical stardom only to not make it past their 27th year.
In reality I think it's more likely that Robert Johnson happened to find a phonograph player or a jukebox someplace because in a very short period of time he had mastered the commercially successful style of blues from a wide variety of early blues stars and in some cases you can take the original record that he based his famous recordings on and play the Robert Johnson version right on top of it. And that is in fact the case with this song.
For this series I'll be playing mostly Robert Johnson songs but also I'll be including some selections from his contemporaries and the early influences that his recordings are based on.
Kind Hearted Woman
To get this channel started I'm beginning with the very first song Robert Johnson recorded, in his very first recording session, in San Antonio, Texas, on November 23, 1936. And it was also the first Robert Johnson song that I learned to play. Apparently it was also the song he used to audition at H. C. Speir’s music store in Jackson, Mississippi that got him his first recording gig.
It is also a perfect example of how Robert Johnson could take elements of other hit blues recordings, change the lyrics around a bit, and synthesize it into a tidy three minute record that is now the blues standard that we know today.
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell
Kind Hearted Woman originated as Mean Mistreater Mama, which was a hit recorded in 1934 by Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, a piano-guitar duo based in Indianapolis. Now there are countless documentaries and books about Robert Johnson, but you probably won't find any about Leroy and Scrapper. Robert Johnson of course was inducted into the founding classes of the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Leroy Carr was only inducted into the Blues Hall many years later and Scrapper has not yet at all. But in my mind it was these guys who really set the sound for this era and all those who were to come after. In 1928 Leroy and Scrapper had an instant hit with their first record “How Long, How Long Blues” which became the first blues standard and has been covered and recovered in many forms and in many genres of music ever since. Leroy Carr was an alcoholic and drank himself to death in 1935 at the age of 30. After his partner’s death, Scrapper drifted out of the music industry into obscurity until he was briefly rediscovered only to be shot dead in some alley in 1962. Just as generations of bluesmen have nibbled at Robert Johnson’s musical pickings upon his untimely demise, Robert Johnson himself lifted a healthy share of music from Leroy Carr after his early passing.
Mean Mistreater Mama
It was common in this era if somebody came out with a hit record, contemporaries, or sometimes the original artist, would record an answer song. And that was the case with Mean Mistreater Mama. As it was a hit, several answer and reply songs came out shortly afterwards and one of those was "Cruel Hearted Woman Blues" by Bumble Bee Slim, which is the one that “Kind Hearted Woman” is thought to be directly based on.
In the original, it is Leroy on piano and vocals with Scrapper on guitar. In the Bumble Bee Slim version he plays neither and just sings over a two piece backing band. In the Robert Johnson version he's doing all three parts himself.
This is a great example of what Robert Johnson is most famous for as a guitar player: transposing the piano blues sound to guitar and synthesizing that with pieces from other blues songs. In this case he's taking the bridge section from the another hit record from 1934, Milk Cow Blues by Kokomo Arnold. The high extended falsetto section is in a style similar to Joe Pullum or Tommy Johnson.
Lyrically, Kind Hearted Woman is considered harsher than the two songs it was based on. When he changed the title and lyrics he reversed the meaning of the song. Mean Mistreater Mama and Cruel Hearted Woman had ugly titles but were lyrically somewhat endearing toward the woman in question. Kind Hearted Woman has the sweet title but is a song about breaking up with her.
Kind Hearted Woman is also special in that it contains Robert Johnson's only known recorded guitar solo. There are 42 surviving takes of his 29 recorded songs and he did just one guitar solo on the very first take of his first recording and never again.
There has been lots of speculation on why only one guitar solo made it into his recorded canon but I think there's an important clue: in the first take of Kind Hearted Woman with the guitar solo, he left off the last verse. It seems that he was still getting used to the three minute time limit that was afforded on these early records. There was a little stop light that would blink when he was getting close to the end of the time limit and he must have seen that the last verse wasn't going to make it in. So for the second take he left out the solo and picked up the tempo a bit and managed to fit all five verses in.
In general with these videos I'm trying to re-create as closely as possible what was originally recorded but in this case I'm already making an exception in the very first episode. What I've played here is actually a composite of what I think Robert Johnson wanted to play for his recording of Kind Hearted Woman: which is including the guitar solo from Take 1 and all five verses from Take 2.
For students of his guitar playing, the tunings that Robert Johnson used on his famous 29 recordings have always been a topic of mystery and controversy. It’s been determined that in addition to standard tuning, he used six different open tunings in his recorded canon, one of which is completely unique to him. Additionally, in the majority of his recordings his guitar was not pitched exactly to concert (A=440Hz) tuning. I believe only 4 of his 29 recordings are close to concert tuning. Kind Hearted Woman is even odder in this respect as his guitar is tuned flatter in Take 1 than Take 2, but in both cases at least a quarter step flat to concert tuning.
It is meant to be played in standard tuning but tuned a half-step higher. How he physically did this was rather than tuning each string a half-step higher (which would increase the tension on the strings) he tuned a half-step lower and capoed at fret 2, effectively raising the register of his guitar by a half-step.
Why did he record this song (almost) a half-step higher than standard tuning when several of his other songs are in normal standard tuning? I believe it’s because that’s the key Leroy and Scrapper recorded “Mean Mistreater Mama” in and he learned the song by copying it straight off their record.
Regarding his picking technique, the key to sounding like Robert Johnson is: palm muting and a thumb pick. We have good evidence that he used a thumb pick because he’s wearing one in one of his two known photographs. Personally I find it nearly impossible to palm mute correctly when picking with a bare thumb. The thumb pick changes the angle at which the thumb can strike the strings and allows you to keep the heel of your hand firmly planted on the bridge of the guitar. Muting the bass strings and letting the treble strings ring is the key to creating the two part separation between the thumping rhythm and the lilting melody.
The only Robert Johnson tablature book that I recommend is this one: Robert Johnson: The New Transcriptions. It is uncannily accurate and I believe at least 98% correct. This book was the key that opened the door to me playing this style of blues.
Some Robert Johnson tabs are also available online on this incredible site, which I highly recommend: http://www.52weeksofblues.com/?song=kindhearted-woman-blues
When I got the original (Grammy winning) Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings double CD box set when it was first released back in 1990, I honestly didn’t like it. I could tell it was important music by a genre shifting artist, but to my modern ears it was just too scratchy and lo-fi compared to what I was used to listening to. I just couldn’t get into it and that probably delayed my study of his music (and subsequently this channel) by many years. Sony/Columbia released remastered versions a couple of times, incrementally improving the sound quality slightly, but it wasn’t until I found a remaster by Pristine Audio in 2007 that I got remotivated to learn his songs. It was a big improvement in listenability and I felt like I could finally hear what he was doing well enough to try to play it. Of course Sony/Columbia later released yet another remaster (using state-of-the-art audio archaeology) called the Centennial Collection in 2011 which is even better than Pristine Audio’s and is the version I (currently) recommend if you’re trying to play along.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, this channel was a long time in the making, as I’ve been playing guitar for 30 years and not really ever performing for anyone. What changed in the last year and motived me to finally hit the record button is this trio:
- bluesnoodler_ and the /r/bluesguitarist community on reddit. When you’re a fan of 80-year-old music, the moments are few and far between when you can cross paths with someone else who shares your passion. The constant onslaught of new blues posted everyday has opened my ears to plenty of new things and kept me motivated and inspired to continue my current phase of playing blues. Several of the songs I’ll be playing on this channel I heard for the first time right on this subreddit.
- Last year, one member of this community in particular, newaccount, created something truly incredible, a site called 52 Weeks of Blues. Every week for (over) a year he posted a new transcription of a finger style acoustic blues song, along with a detailed article, photos, biographical info, and a copy of the original recording. Many of these songs have never been published or transcribed before, and if it weren’t for his efforts, probably would never be tabbed out ever. Many of the songs I selected for this channel I can now play thanks to his talent for transcription (which I so sorely lack).
- And finally, my son Dante, who despite being only 6 years old has shown me how cool it is to have your own YouTube channel! He is a creative and prolific artist. Already with 70 video productions to his credit, it is unlikely that I will ever catch up to him.
This channel is dedicated to all of you!
Next time I’ll be playing a selection from Skip James, one of Robert Johnson’s most important influences and a founding father of recorded Mississippi blues.
Thanks for watching, listening, and reading. Until next time, “I will shake your hand goodbye…”
Guitar: 2002 Carvin Cobalt C850LH
Audio interface: Resident Audio T4
Camera: iPhone 6S
Editing: MacBook Pro Retina
Video Editor: Final Cut Pro X
Audio Editor: Logic Pro X