Saturday, June 20, 1987

On This Day (1937): Robert Johnson “Hell Hound on My Trail” recorded

Hell Hound on My Trail

Robert Johnson

Writer(s): Peter Green, Robert Johnson (see lyrics here)

Recorded: June 20, 1937

Released: September 1937

First Charted: --

Peak: -- (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): --

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 2.1 video, -- streaming


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About the Song:

This is one of “the deepest and darkest of Robert Johnson's legendary blues masterworks.” BH In his book Delta Blues, blues historian Ted Gioia said “Hell Hound on My Trail” might be Johnson’s greatest work. WK This “agonized performance” SS is a showcase for “a disturbing vision of a blues poet haunted by spirits, doomed to die before he would ever see the fruits of an alleged deal with the devil.” BH

“Whether he was singing of escaping from a creature from hell or from the ‘hell hounds’ used by Parchman Penitentiary guards to track escaped prisoners, there is no doubting the harrowed and forsaken depth of Johnson’s performance.” BH Johnson wasn’t the first to reference hell hounds. They are referenced in the Biddleville Quintette’s “Show Pity Lord” (1926), Sylvester Weaver’s “Devil Blues” (1927), and “Funny Paper” Smith’s “Howling Wolf Blues No. 3” (1931). WK There are some lyrics even adapted from Peetie Wheatstraw’s “Police Station Blues” (1932). BH all which made references to hell hounds. WK

Johnson proved to be “a master synthesizer, pulling together bits and pieces of existing material and infusing them with something entirely his own.” SS “The melody, the lyrics, and the hellish connection all bore elements of other records Johnson must have heard,” BH most notably “the emotional intensity, guitar tuning and strained singing style” WK of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” from 1931. James’ “Yola My Blues Away” from the same year also exhibited the same tuning and vocal styles. WK Other songs included Johnnie Temple’s “Evil Devil Blues” (1935) and Joe McCoy’s “The Mississippi Mudder” (1934). BH

Of course, it was Johnson’s commitment to “relentless practicing [and] listening to other bluesmen” SS which made him one of history’s most legendary guitarists, not the supposed deal he signed with the devil. The song has gone on to influence generations of blues singers and guitarists to come. It was one of the first five songs inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1983.


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First posted 9/7/2023.

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