The last mystery of the blues: were Robert Johnson's recordings sped up?

Last time I was here, I speculated on how country blues genius Charley Patton held his guitar. Indeed, I'm a huge fan of pre-war country blues and that led me into an interesting (but failed) project a little while month back. I don't do much magazine work these days (except for the one that pays my mortgage, of course), but I had an idea for a magazine article that wasn't right for HBR. It went a little like this:

Robert Johnson Complete Box Set Robert Johnson isn't merely the best-known and most popular blues singer ever; he's the performer through whom millions of people have been introduced to the form. For most people who hear Robert Johnson the first time, it's the voice that grabs them. High-pitched, on the edge, filled with authority, lust, and fear, that voice inspired everyone from Eric Clapton and Keith Richards to generations of lesser performers and enthusiasts. There's only one problem: that voice might be a fraud.

Much of Johnson's life is semi-known and extrapolated (including his tragic death at the age of 27 in 1938), but his recordings and the thick shadow they cast on all blues that followed them were the part everyone could agree on. No more. A group of diehard blues fans are claiming that Johnson's recordings (he was recorded twice; once in San Antonio in 1936, again in Dallas the following year) were sped up as much as 20 percent for release. That speed increase is not enough to rename his signature album Alvin and the Chipmunks Sing the Blues, but it does make one wonder whether one of the most important American musicians of the century is known to us only via some sort of falsifying technical manipulation. The theory, which may have started in Japanese collector circles (it goes back at least to 2002; I'm still hunting for the original source) and has been taken up by several people in the UK, most notably John Gibbens, a poet and musician who has researched the matter and produced alternate versions of the recordings in which he slows down the existing recordings roughly 20 percent. We still hear those amazing words and that tough, doomed voice, but we hear a dramatically different Robert Johnson: his voice sounds more like the masters who preceded him (Charlie Patton, Son House) and his guitar playing, while still intricate (Johnny Shines, another outstanding bluesman who travelled with Johnson for a time, once claimed Johnson used a bizarre seven-string guitar), is more deliberate and dour. He sounds older, nastier, as if the hellhound on his trail that he sang about had caught up to him already. He sounds, in essence, like a different man. Speeding up the recordings, if it happened, changes how we hear blues and rock history. If Gibbens is right, this would change the way we hear and understand the blues. Johnson's raw, on-the-edge voice? Fake. The wild guitar runs that made thousands of aspiring guitarists' fingers bleed? Ditto.

Theories abound on why these manipulations might have occurred: It was an equipment failure, perhaps. Some say the recordings had to be sped up to fit on 78-rpm records, which, at the time, had a maximum playing time of three minutes. Others contend it was a conscious decision to make the songs more commercial.

Think of the article as CSI: Delta Blues. There's no question that it's possible the recordings were sped up. The performances sound credible at both speeds. The question is whether they were and, if so, how. I'll talk to people who know how records were made in the 1930s (indeed, a few of the people who made them are still with us and I have begun consulting with them) and I will work with original equipment to figure out how it happened (if it happened). I'll take the reader with me as I experiment with a wide variety digital recording and manipulation technologies (both those I can use on my MacBook and those that necessitate a full-fledged recording studio) and learn from the many people who have devoted their lives to blues research to discover more, go deeper, and find the answer. I intend to solve this mystery once and for all, through both audio forensics and old fashioned journalism; this will be a mix of the cutting-edge and the hand-made. Regardless of whether the sped-up theory is true, this is a deep, broad story about how we hear things, how technology, memory, and culture change the way we hear things. Have we, at last, found the first authentic way to listen to the most authentic of American musicians? Or are people just trying to find a new excuse for not being able to play the guy's breakneck guitar parts?

That was the pitch. I developed the article with an enormously helpful editor, but the magazine passed on it, in part because it wasn't clear where the story would take me. So before I submitted it elsewhere, I figured I'd do some more research. If I knew for sure that the recordings were altered, I'd have a much stronger pitch. If not … well, I might not have a story. Good to know that before I promised something to an editor.

It was hilarious how quickly the theory fell apart. A quick listen to the recordings of the Light Crust Doughboys, who recorded the same weekend as Johnson in Dallas, reveal no such speed weirdness. And there were some mild fluctuations in tempo that are easily heard in the existing recordings: the version of "Hellhound on My Trail" that came out originally was the off-tune one. Even more damning to the theory, Johnson recorded two versions of "Crossroads," released the faster one, and there's hardly any change in the tone of his voice between takes. Something similar happened with "Stop Breaking Down Blues." There's also the problem that no one who heard Johnson play in real life ever suggested the recordings were sped-up. Johnny Shines told Pete Welding, more than 40 years ago, "most of the time [Johnson] sang in a high-pitched voice."

I've got plenty more evidence (Elijah Wald has published a conclusive summary of his own research), but I won't bore you with it. Just because it sounds possible doesn't mean it happened. So why does this theory still float around the Interweb? Because we want a mystery. Like many people who learned about Robert Johnson, I did so as a teenager, a time when boys are particularly susceptible to mythmaking; all that talk of selling his soul to some supernatural entity or another makes the music sound more enticing when you're 14 and looking for a way in. But as we learned more about Johnson from some dogged researchers and developed a more nuanced view of his music and his life, the romantic accoutrements fell off. He was a smart, ambitious man with diverse tastes and extraordinary talents who didn't want to be a sharecropper. The records are amazing, without ridiculous stories that seek to claim a different Johnson for a new generation. That should be enough. The songs still sound great even when someone with a theory plays 'em at the wrong speed. Well, that just shows how great Robert Johnson still is.