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Robert Johnson: Hell Hound On My Trail

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Ian Tasker

On a blisteringly hot Sunday in June 1937 a young man walked into the striking art deco office building that stands at 508 Park Building in Dallas, Texas and – with guitar in hand – made his way up to a makeshift studio on the third floor that was primarily used for storage.

At 26 years old, the itinerant musician from the rural Mississippi delta had only been recorded on four occasions – three in a San Antonio hotel room seven months earlier, sessions that had produced 16 songs, and a relatively limited shift in Dallas the day before in which he cut a further three. His fifth session, on that Sunday, was to be his last but the 10 blues tracks he laid down have ensured that the name of Robert Johnson will be forever revered.

Johnson’s output – just 29 songs in all – was one of the most influential on 20th century music. His uniquely distinctive voice and incredible guitar playing provided the bridge between country and electric city blues and, later, the inspiration for the middle-class English blues revival of the 1960s that in turn took the music of the Delta back to its roots. Eric Clapton, one of Johnson’s biggest devotees, has described it as ‘the finest music I’ve ever heard’.

The first track Johnson recorded that day in Dallas was Hell Hound On My Trail which is arguably his – and the blues’ – greatest piece of music and it has haunted me since I first heard it on the classic King Of The Delta Blues Singers album as a 13-year-old in 1969. Blues music is not exactly meant to be laugh-a-minute but Hell Hound is quite simply terrifying. Johnson, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar, is being chased through the night by a hell hound; a man possessed, he sees demons everywhere – real or imagined, or both. His use of a signature pulsing bass line (open Em tuning helps) propels the song with an intensity that is accentuated by the anguished and frenetic licks on the guitar’s top strings. It is undoubtedly the product of a troubled mind.

Samuel Charters, the renowned blues historian, has written that ‘the first and last verses are the finest moments in all blues poetry’ and it is easy to see why:

I got to keep moving, I’ve got to keep moving

Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail

And the day keeps on worrying me

There’s a hell hound on my trail

Hell hound on my trail

It is not clear what the terror is that is enveloping him. But that hell hound is surely after him. Johnson loved giving women the eye – including the married variety – a predilection that often saw him fleeing furious husbands, a predilection that ultimately did for him in 1938. Is he fleeing one now, or is this the devil chasing him down wanting payback for their deal forged at the crossroads? Maybe it’s just the demon drink (another of his predilections) giving him hallucinations.

If today was Christmas Eve, today was Christmas Eve

And tomorrow was Christmas Day,

If today was Christmas Eve, tomorrow was Christmas Day

Oh, wouldn’t we have a time, baby

All I would need is my little sweet rider, just to pass the time away

To pass the time away

This verse seems out of place in the song but Johnson is possibly just wishing that instead of running for his life he was enjoying a cosy time (Christmas Eve and Day were slang words for the weekend) with his latest ‘rider’ girlfriend.

You sprinkled hot foot powder all around my door, all around my door

You sprinkled hot foot powder all around your daddy’s door

It keeps me with a rambling mind, rider, every old place I go

Every old place I go

This is all about voodoo, which was prevalent in the folklore of the South. Hot foot powder was supposed to drive away unwanted people. To make it you just needed, among other things, cayenne pepper, graveyard dirt and gunpowder!

I can tell the wind is rising, leaves trembling on the trees, trembling on the trees

I can tell the wind is rising, leaves trembling on the trees

All I need’s my little sweet little woman and to keep my company

Keep my company

This, to me at least, is the most powerful verse. The wind is rising. Leaves trembling. Trees in the deep south in the 1930s often bore ‘strange fruit’ so perhaps Johnson pursued the wrong white girl and was fleeing an angry lynch mob. But if it was to be the end of him, he just craved some time with his girl.

It seems incredible that after starting his final session with such a powerful and emotional performance there was still enough in Johnson for him to record another nine songs, including the classics Me And The Devil Blues, Travelling Riverside Blues and Love In Vain.

Hell Hound On My Trail is an extremely difficult song to cover. Just how do you convincingly convey the terror that Johnson projects? Jeremy Spencer produced a piano version for the original Fleetwood Mac album in 1968 but the best cover is, not surprisingly, by Eric Clapton. His 2004 DVD, Sessions for Robert J, features a stunning example of how Johnson might have sounded if he had lived longer, moved to Chicago and got his hands on an electric guitar and a band. One thing, though, has always puzzled me about the Clapton version. For some reason he alters the lyric to ‘spinning’ on the trees, a baffling decision. ‘Trembling’ is surely far more evocative of approaching terror, and poetically alliterative too. Perhaps, for all his chequered history, Clapton could not feel as terrified as Johnson had been.

* * *

Just under 60 years after Johnson walked out of that building in Dallas and into blues immortality I was sitting in a busy departure lounge at Heathrow airport waiting to board a plane for Chicago. I watched closely as an elderly black man with a guitar case shuffled across the room and sat down next to me. Being a fan of the blues – and Robert Johnson in particular – the combination of old man, guitar and destination Chicago made me think he might be a famous player. Being painfully shy I didn’t engage him in conversation (to be honest he looked a little scary) but I craned my neck to get a look at the label on his guitar. ‘Mr D Edwards’ it read and – unimpressed – I returned to my paperback.

Four hours later, halfway across the Atlantic, it hit me like a sledgehammer:

Mr D Edwards

Mr David Edwards

Dave Edwards

Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards.

Honeyboy Edwards: the man who was with Robert Johnson the night he was murdered in Greenwood, Mississippi on 16 August 1938.

Regrets, I’ve had a few. But few more than not talking to Honeyboy that day.

Robert Johnson

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