The Length of a 78
Recently, one of the list correspondents commented:
“I’ve gotten the impression from reading about early Delta blues and country blues that the white A & R men who lugged “portable” recording devices into the South starting around 1926 and on into Robert Johnson’s time were looking for two things. 1) marketable vocal & instrumental skills, and, perhaps more important 2) original lyrics…It seems to me that these two skills reached a flowering in the person of Robert Johnson.
No other blues performers I’ve heard from the ’20s & ’30s come close to Johnson’s lyric breadth and depth.”
While Johnson’s work represents a kind of genius at once communal and individual, drawing as it did from the rich work of earlier performers and his contemporaries; I believe there is another reason that Johnson’s work really stands apart from the recordings of earlier performers: Johnson understood just how long a 78 r.p.m. side was.
The Delta blues performance practice was driven by grabbing and holding people’s attention. Once you had it, the best way to keep it was to keep playing. Once the dancer’s were up, best to keep them up. So verses had a habit of wandering among various songs with little regard for theme, lyric compactness or the intensity of the imagery.
The first recordings of Delta blues were slices of this performance medium and were often made with an engineer in the room to tap the performer on the shoulder when they were running out of disc. We can here these truncated performances in the recordings of Charlie Patton and many others—it seems like they are just warming up when the side runs out. The vitality and sheer brilliance of the performers makes many of these earlier recordings critical to our understanding and admiration of the tradition and their music in particular, but with Johnson comes a sort of polish and density of image and lyric that is rare in the earlier recordings.
I believe that Johnson knew exactly how long the recordings were because he learned so much from the recordings of earlier musicians. I also believe that he was crafting his songs for the medium he hoped to enter, and that his live performances were likely to have been very different, much more rambling affairs.
The recorded evidence for this exists in his alternate take of “Come On In My Kitchen” which contains verses from all over the place and is a dilution of the recording we’ve come to love and admire in every respect: instrumentally, lyrically, and vocally. My guess is that Don Law, while likely admiring the beauty and intensity of the first take, probably suggested to Johnson that it would never sell, perhaps asking for something a little more up tempo. It sounds to me like Johnson obliged. Had it been a Juke audience or street corner crowd, you can bet he would have saved that slow, plaintive masterpiece for the very late hours of the evening when the exhaustion, alcohol, and explosive violence of the joints had all taken their tolls, leaving the audience open and receptive to something of such remarkable beauty.
Johnny Shines recalled looking up after they played it that way, and in the unexpected silence of the moment, seeing all the people crying, in his phrase, “the women and the men”. My guess is that Johnson understood and exploited the limitations of the medium in ways that earlier recording artists may not have and that that is part of his appeal. He’s not simply a great musician, but a recording artist, too.