12 comments on “Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Trail

  1. Unfortunately, the (latest) picture you used is not Robert Johnson…photoshop can do amazing things…

    • Thanks Leroy. I’ve done some research on this and I know there are mixed opinions. What I can tell you from personal contact is that Robert Johnson’s grandson, Stephen, is convinced that the photograph is authentic. John Kitchens, the lawyer for the Johnson estate, is on the record as saying, “It is impossible to say with 100 percent certainty that this is Robert Johnson, but we strongly believe that it is.” I don’t think there’s a photoshopping issue here, the discussion is more around who are the young men in the photograph.
      Thanks for raising this. rgds Gary

      • There are more than mixed opinions. As a Johnson scholar for over 40 years I don’t believe that’s Johnson or Shines for a lot of reasons – 1) There is DEFINITELY some sort of tampering that was done to the photo – the “Shines” figure has been reversed – look carefully and you’ll see that the buttons on his clothes are all on the wrong side – both his jacket and his pants – indicating that at least his half of the photo was reversed and superimposed on the picture… if the entire photo was reversed to correct Shines’ buttons then the man supposed to be Robert Johnson is holding a guitar left-handed, which Johnson wasn’t. This is unquestionably the most damning piece of evidence. How their “expert” Lois Gibson could have missed the fact that “Shines’ clothes are backwards is unbelievable… it just shows very sloppy work; 2) the clothing is inappropriate for the time – yes, I’ve heard all the arguments that zoot suits first show up on jazz musicians in the 1930s so it’s possible that Shines could had been wearing a zoot suit – but that’s an enormous stretch… zoot suits of the kind the “Shines” figure is wearing were exceedingly uncommon back in the 1930s and it’s highly unlikely that an itinerant blues musician would have spent his money on such an elaborate, uncommon, and expensive suit of clothes… most likely the photo is from a period after Johnson’s death; 3) Johnson was “at best” 5’8″ tall… the “Johnson” figure in the photo is a few inches taller than the “Shines” which would have made Shines about 5’5″… which he was not… I knew Johnny and he was taller, and by his own accounts Johnny said that Johnson was about the same height as he was. 4) The chin of the Johnson figure is thin and pointed… look at the two photos we know are Johnson – his chin is broad and flat, almost square shaped… I could go on and on but there’s just so much wrong, and almost every other Johnson scholar I know also does not believe that this is Robert.

        I know Stephen and I have to say that the Johnson family and Kitchen have more than a vested interest in saying this is Robert: they are STILL not allowed to use either of the known Johnson photos without permission of (and that means paying) Steven LaVere. The family had no photos of Robert they could use without paying off LaVere and so it’s in their financial interests to claim they have a “new” photo, one they can freely use without having to pay anyone.

        Now, about your article.. in general it’s pretty good (my own biography of Johnson is being published the end of this year), but I have a few comments…

        I know Gussow’s work well, and while he has a point to make I think that he overdoes it a bit injustifying it… I think he belongs to a small group of contemporary white blues scholars who seem to be apologists for earlier sentiments that the blues were a-political. In this regard they go overboard imbuing every blues song with overt anti-capitalist, anti-racist, political sentiments. A bit of an exaggeration I think. When he, or you, talk about Johnson’s Hellhound, and say that it’s “hard to miss the lynching tree in these lyrics” –

        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

        I’m forced to ask “why?” It’s a very poetic image and it’s found in lots of other songs, like King Solomon Hill’s 1932 song “Down On My bended Knee”:

        I can see the sun a-shining : leaves shaking on the tree
        I got a letter from my dona : my babe sung a song to me
        Mmm : hear my lonesome plea
        I’m worried about my baby : down on my bended knee

        Are we to also assume that the leaves shaking on Hill’s tree are also from a lynching tree? I think that would be quite a stretch. The fact is we don’t know to what Johnson was referring, and he might have not even been referring to anything, just using a good image that he had heard before. We, blues aficionados and scholars alike, get into a heap of trouble when we start imposing what we think we hear, or what we would like to believe we hear in songs that were recorded 80 years ago.

  2. I thought all these things ONLY from hearing the songs. It’s IN the songs, all this. The man had a poet’s gift. He could sense himself, his life’s boundaries, within the flow of time in which he he knew he was trapped to live (we all share this, maybe not aware of it until we age a little ore). He knew his destiny was “confined” however talented he knew he was..and I’m am sure he knew. That’s the most tragic part of this man’s life. It also gave him a power to meld on earlier works with his intense poetic and musical gifts, his technical prowess (well ahead of his era) and determination to leave his mark on record. One of the most moving examples of the human spirit in all music, I think and feel, equal to Beethoven’s advancing deafness and will to struggle.

  3. There are more than mixed opinions. As a Johnson scholar for over 40 years I don’t believe that’s Johnson or Shines for a lot of reasons – 1) There is DEFINITELY some sort of tampering that was done to the photo – the “Shines” figure has been reversed – look carefully and you’ll see that the buttons on his clothes are all on the wrong side – both his jacket and his pants – indicating that at least his half of the photo was reversed and superimposed on the picture… if the entire photo was reversed to correct Shines’ buttons then the man supposed to be Robert Johnson is holding a guitar left-handed, which Johnson wasn’t. This is unquestionably the most damning piece of evidence. How their “expert” Lois Gibson could have missed the fact that “Shines’ clothes are backwards is unbelievable… it just shows very sloppy work; 2) the clothing is inappropriate for the time – yes, I’ve heard all the arguments that zoot suits first show up on jazz musicians in the 1930s so it’s possible that Shines could had been wearing a zoot suit – but that’s an enormous stretch… zoot suits of the kind the “Shines” figure is wearing were exceedingly uncommon back in the 1930s and it’s highly unlikely that an itinerant blues musician would have spent his money on such an elaborate, uncommon, and expensive suit of clothes… most likely the photo is from a period after Johnson’s death; 3) Johnson was “at best” 5’8″ tall… the “Johnson” figure in the photo is a few inches taller than the “Shines” which would have made Shines about 5’5″… which he was not… I knew Johnny and he was taller, and by his own accounts Johnny said that Johnson was about the same height as he was. 4) The chin of the Johnson figure is thin and pointed… look at the two photos we know are Johnson – his chin is broad and flat, almost square shaped… I could go on and on but there’s just so much wrong, and almost every other Johnson scholar I know also does not believe that this is Robert.

    I know Stephen and I have to say that the Johnson family and Kitchen have more than a vested interest in saying this is Robert: they are STILL not allowed to use either of the known Johnson photos without permission of (and that means paying) Steven LaVere. The family had no photos of Robert they could use without paying off LaVere and so it’s in their financial interests to claim they have a “new” photo, one they can freely use without having to pay anyone.

    Now, about your article.. in general it’s pretty good (my own biography of Johnson is being published the end of this year), but I have a few comments…

    I know Gussow’s work well, and while he has a point to make I think that he overdoes it a bit injustifying it… I think he belongs to a small group of contemporary white blues scholars who seem to be apologists for earlier sentiments that the blues were a-political. In this regard they go overboard imbuing every blues song with overt anti-capitalist, anti-racist, political sentiments. A bit of an exaggeration I think. When he, or you, talk about Johnson’s Hellhound, and say that it’s “hard to miss the lynching tree in these lyrics” –

    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

    I’m forced to ask “why?” It’s a very poetic image and it’s found in lots of other songs, like King Solomon Hill’s 1932 song “Down On My bended Knee”:

    I can see the sun a-shining : leaves shaking on the tree
    I got a letter from my dona : my babe sung a song to me
    Mmm : hear my lonesome plea
    I’m worried about my baby : down on my bended knee

    Are we to also assume that the leaves shaking on Hill’s tree are also from a lynching tree? I think that would be quite a stretch. The fact is we don’t know to what Johnson was referring, and he might have not even been referring to anything, just using a good image that he had heard before. We, blues aficionados and scholars alike, get into a heap of trouble when we start imposing what we think we hear, or what we would like to believe we hear in songs that were recorded 80 years ago.

    • Thanks very much for the response – appreciate the detail on the photograph. And yes, you’re right that its important in looking back in history and reviewing either literature or song lyrics, not to stretch the evidence to fit – but on reflecting recently on the horrors and frequency of lynchings in this period, I did feel that Gussow had a point with this particular song. Best regards and thanks again. GB

    • Oh – also meant to say – keep me informed regarding your book. I could give it a push once it comes out, perhaps a review?

  4. I agree that Adam has a point “in general” – but look at the concluding line in Hellhound:

    I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the trees,
    I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the trees,
    All I need’s my little woman, and to keep my company,
    Hey, my company.

    Is it really so far-fetched to think that all he was referring to is being lonesome? In fact the sentiment is almost exactly the same as in Hill’s song… talking about being lonesome, wanting his woman… Johnson “borrowed” a lot of lyrics, why shouldn’t we consider that he may have just borrowed this one too and it had no deeper meaning?

    It’s tempting to try ascribe that deeper meaning, more in keeping with a contemporary interpretation of social/political awareness because it gives Johnson or other blues artists the persona of being incredibly socially and politically astute and trying to send out some deep esoteric meaning… but as Angela Davis has said:
    “[there is a] tendency among blues scholars and critics… [that] fails to consider the interpretive audience to which the blues is addressed and [which] treats potential protest as necessarily constructed in terms established by an imagined white oppressor.”

    We shouldn’t try to establish our own ideas of what protest would or wouldn’t have been… we can’t construct, or reconstruct these lyrics in ways that we want them to sound or with meanings we want them to exhibit. To paraphrase the great old line: Sometimes leaves tremblin’ on the trees are just leaves tremblin’ on the trees.

    But we can agree to disagree.

    • Nice one – “sometimes leaves tremblin’ on the trees are just leaves tremblin’ on the trees.” And am mindful of Elijah Wald’s point that whatever else we might want to say about the blues, it was entertainment – it was music to dance to. Always useful to remember!

  5. I completely agree with bluesprof’s critique of the lynching reading in this case. It’s not a reading that I have offered for this particular song, and when a young scholar submitted an essay on this song to a journal, making the lynching argument, and I refereed it, I pointedly pushed back against his reading–a reading that invoked my book, SEEMS LIKE MURDER HERE–as reductionist.

    I’ve written extensively on this song, and Robert Johnson as a whole, in my soon-to-be-forthcoming study of the devil and the blues tradition. Among other things, I offer a new interpretation of Johnson’s life and art that disagrees with pretty much everybody who has ever written on him. I think that “Hell Hound on my Trail” (and please notice the five-word title of the song, since everybody, including most scholars, gets it wrong) gestures at a lynching scenario, but no more than that. I don’t think that’s the primary meaning. I think that it’s a seduction song, designed to woo a woman into his bed. But I also think it images Johnson’s fear of jealous women, and jealous husbands, all of whom he has in effect created as pursuing phantoms by being as notably promiscuous as he was. (See Johnny Shines about this.) And of course he did eventually die at the hand of one of those jealous husbands.

    • Very many thanks for taking the time to respond, Adam, and for clarifying your take on this. Apologies if I misrepresented you. I did greatly appreciate your book. And thanks for the corrective on the “Hell Hound.”

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