Album: The Centennial Collection
. . .
All of the Robert Johnson records that are extant were recorded in a pair of sessions in Texas: 1936 in San Antonio and 1937 in Dallas. Of course had he lived, Johnson probably would have gone on to record, and possibly even been feted more fully, as folks like John Hammond and Alex Lomax had heard those recording and wanted more, especially before they knew he was dead.
But, of course, his death is part of the legend. Not how he died, but that he died: it meant that all we would have — all we would ever have — are the fruits of those two recording sessions, meaning that his music get never got changed by time or circumstance.
And the epitome of that music — to me, anyways, is the desperate “Hellhound on my Trail,” which opens with Johnson already in a world of shit.
I got to keep movin’, I got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Hmmm-mmm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
“Blues fallin’ down like hail” is such an incredibly evocative phrase. Which might be why he repeats so often, for emphasis. The blues are pelting him mercilessly, with no end in sight. And that’s only the beginning of his problems.
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail
That’s fucking terrifying. I grew up reading The Hound of The Baskervilles over and over — it was my favorite Sherlock Holmes story — and so my mental image of what people imagined that hound looks like is what I assume is pursuing Johnson. Or, if you want to put a 21st century spin on it, he’s being pursued by those robot dogs in that one episode of Black Mirror.
And yeah, it could all be metaphorical: it’s entirely possible that the hellhounds are his own thoughts, and equally possible that they represent white guys who want to lynch him. Anything’s possible, and the ambiguity is a huge part of why it’s so great. And all along, his guitar playing and vocals are desperate and frightened, even as he tries not to think about it, by thinking of a lover he might never even see again. Certainly not if they catch him.
If today was Christmas Eve, if today was Christmas Eve
And tomorrow was Christmas Day
If today was Christmas Eve, and tomorrow was Christmas Day
Aw, wouldn’t we have a time, baby?
As it goes on, “Hellhound on My Trail” continues to disintegrate — the guitar playing and vocal phrasing get ever more askew, as if he was singing this as he was running — as does his mental state: there is danger everywhere at this point.
I can tell the wind is risin’, the leaves tremblin’ on the tree
Tremblin’ on the tree
I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the tree
Do they ever catch him? The song itself is mute on the subject — it’s really more about the fear and excitement of the chase — but it would seem pretty difficult to outrun hellhounds forever.
“Hellhound on My Trail”
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