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Robert Johnson's initial recording sessions, in a temporary studio set up in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, were under the supervision of Don Law, A&R executive for the American Record Corporation. These sessions produced 16 blues standards in over 32 takes on November 23, 25, and 27, 1936. Johnson's most famous and widely covered songs were recorded in the first three sessions, including “Kind Hearted Woman,” “I Believe I'll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Rambling On My Mind,” “When You Got A Good Friend,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” “Terraplane Blues,” “Phonograph Blues,” “32-20 Blues,” “They're Red Hot,” “Dead Shrimp Blues,” “Crossroad Blues,” “Walkin' Blues,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped The Devil),” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day.”
Displaying a unique command of synthesizing the blues of his Delta contemporaries Son House, Charley Patton, Willie Brown, and Tommy Johnson—while absorbing the influences of prominent national blues stars Leroy Carr, Tampa Red, Kokomo Arnold, Peetie Wheatstraw, and Lonnie Johnson—Robert Johnson created a body of work that had a lasting impact on musicians decades after his untimely death at 27.
After years of constant road work in juke joints and on street corners and plantations, Johnson matured into a remarkable, advanced and complex professional musician with skills beyond the average bluesman. Robert entered the studio confident and prepared to record with outstanding original material.
Utilizing a driving boogie rhythm, the third song in the first session recorded November 23, 1936 was the blues standard “Sweet Home Chicago.” Destined to become one of Johnson’s most popular songs, it was recorded numerous times over the years by such prominent artists as Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Earl Hooker, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Fleetwood Mac, Freddie King, Eric Clapton, and Junior Parker.
The origin of “Sweet Home Chicago” is loosely based on two songs, “Kokomo Blues” recorded by Scapper Blackwell in 1928, and Kokomo Arnold’s “Old Original Kokomo Blues” recorded in 1934. While both songs made reference to going back to Kokomo, Indiana, Johnson changed the character of the song to reflect the desire to leave the South for better opportunities (a common goal of many discriminated African Americans in the Deep South): “Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago.”
The fourth song in the third session recorded November 27, 1936 is the classic ‘Walkin’ Blues,” written by Johnson’s mentor Son House. Johnson’s interpretation of “Walkin’ Blues” incorporates elements of House’s “My Black Mama” and “Death Letter Blues” with a similar slide guitar technique and vocal approach inspired by House. “Walkin’ Blues” remains a popular song among musicians, recorded by Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, and The Grateful Dead.
Producer John Hammond, an early champion of Johnson, attempted to recruit Johnson for his December 23, 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York City. Unfortunately, Johnson died a few months earlier, so Hammond featured “Walkin’ Blues” as one of the records played at the packed Carnegie Hall event as an example of Delta Blues.
“Sweet Home Chicago” backed with “Walkin’ Blues” were released on Vocalion Records in August 1937.
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