collapse

* Member Info

 
 
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?
This is an unlucky country, and that's what I've always heard. You'll be looking for me tomorrow, and I'll be disappeared. - Papa Eggshell, "Far From Home"

Author Topic: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?  (Read 9428 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline repeater

  • Member
  • Posts: 20
Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« on: June 08, 2010, 03:23:21 PM »
Apologies if this has been discussed before and a consensus reached, but according to a recent Guardian article, "the common consensus among musicologists is that we've been listening to Johnson at least 20% too fast"--that is, that "[e]ither the recordings were accidentally speeded up when first committed to 78, or else they were deliberately speeded up to make them sound more exciting."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2010/may/27/robert-johnson-blues

Poet John Gibbens makes, to my mind, a very strong case that Johnson's performances were tampered with when mastered:

http://www.touched.co.uk/press/rjnote.html

See also:

http://www.varietysoundcheck.com/2010/05/phonograph-blues-robert-johnson-mastered-at-wrong-speed.html?ref=ssp


Offline Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 13282
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #2 on: June 08, 2010, 04:07:59 PM »
Hi all,
I don't see how the tempo at which the songs play back has any bearing on fraudulence of the recordings, in any event.  If Robert Johnson played and sang the music, and I don't think anyone doubts that he did, than the music itself is genuine, and the brouhaha re tempo and pitch is for those who care to obsess about such things.  I've never understood what it was about the timbre of Robert Johnson's voice, the tempos at which his performances play back or their pitch that made people think the recordings must have been doctored.  In every one of the areas that seem to inspire doubt in some people as to the recordings' authenticity, he falls well within the norms of Country Blues as a recorded whole.  I suspect that this issue is the biggest deal for people who have only listened to Robert Johnson's music out of the entire corpus of recorded country blues. People who have listened to a lot of the music generally don't hear what the fuss is about.
All best,
Johnm
 
« Last Edit: June 08, 2010, 04:11:47 PM by Johnm »

Offline dj

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 2833
  • Howdy!
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #3 on: June 08, 2010, 04:11:55 PM »
I thought this had been discussed here before, but danged if I can find it, either through the tags or through a search.  I'll lay out a quick recap of the cases for and against, just in case we really haven't gone over this before:

The case against:

   Speeding up the recordings at the time of recording would require a conscious decision to do so for two separate sets of sessions recorded over two years.

   Speeding up the recordings post-recording would mean that a decision was also made to speed up unissued and alternate takes.

   No one has claimed that either of the above was ever done for any series of recordings by any other artist of the same era.

   None of Johnson's contemporaries who heard him live ever claimed that his recordings sounded in any way unusual.

   Johnny Shines, who knew Johnson and played with him, is on record as saying that Johnson had "a high voice".

The case for:

   Some people thing Robert Johnson should sound more like Son House.

I think the weight of evidence is very strongly against the case that the speed of Robert Johnson's recordings was ever altered in any systematic way.

But...  If you like listening to them slowed down, there's nothing wrong with that.
      
« Last Edit: June 08, 2010, 04:13:11 PM by dj »

Offline repeater

  • Member
  • Posts: 20
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #4 on: June 08, 2010, 05:17:50 PM »
Hi all,
I don't see how the tempo at which the songs play back has any bearing on fraudulence of the recordings, in any event.  If Robert Johnson played and sang the music, and I don't think anyone doubts that he did, than the music itself is genuine, and the brouhaha re tempo and pitch is for those who care to obsess about such things.  I've never understood what it was about the timbre of Robert Johnson's voice, the tempos at which his performances play back or their pitch that made people think the recordings must have been doctored.  In every one of the areas that seem to inspire doubt in some people as to the recordings' authenticity, he falls well within the norms of Country Blues as a recorded whole.  I suspect that this issue is the biggest deal for people who have only listened to Robert Johnson's music out of the entire corpus of recorded country blues. People who have listened to a lot of the music generally don't hear what the fuss is about.
All best,
Johnm
 

Surely you jest.  If a recording were sped up, say, 100%, and it sounded like the Chipmunks, but was released as reflecting a singer's actual voice, you wouldn't consider that fraud?

Anyway, the issue isn't whether it's Johnson on the recordings.  It's whether the releases are an accurate representation of how Johnson sounded when he performed.

The difference between how he sounds at the released speed and how he sounds slowed down is tremendous.  And contrary to your suggestion, the more country blues one has listened to, the more pronounced that difference is, and the more heartbreaking, because Johnson's playing and singing are no longer as distinctive.

Offline repeater

  • Member
  • Posts: 20
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #5 on: June 08, 2010, 05:31:27 PM »
I thought this had been discussed here before, but danged if I can find it, either through the tags or through a search.  I'll lay out a quick recap of the cases for and against, just in case we really haven't gone over this before:

The case against:

   Speeding up the recordings at the time of recording would require a conscious decision to do so for two separate sets of sessions recorded over two years.

IF YOU DO ONE, YOU PRETTY MUCH HAVE TO DO THE OTHER, ELSE YOU'RE ADMITTING TO DOCTORING THE FIRST.

   Speeding up the recordings post-recording would mean that a decision was also made to speed up unissued and alternate takes.

IF YOUR EQUIPMENT'S SET UP TO DO ONE, THEN IT WOULD BE A MATTER OF COURSE TO DO THE REST.

   No one has claimed that either of the above was ever done for any series of recordings by any other artist of the same era.

THE MARKET FOR COUNTRY BLUES WAS SHRINKING BY THE TIME JOHNSON RECORDED. MAKING HIS RELEASES MORE DISTINCTIVE/OTHERWORLDLY/WHAT-HAVE-YOU WOULD HAVE MADE GOOD COMMERCIAL SENSE.

   None of Johnson's contemporaries who heard him live ever claimed that his recordings sounded in any way unusual.

   Johnny Shines, who knew Johnson and played with him, is on record as saying that Johnson had "a high voice".

HE MAY HAVE SAID AS MUCH TO PROTECT JOHNSON'S LEGACY.

The case for:

   Some people thing Robert Johnson should sound more like Son House.

THAT'S HARDLY THE CASE.  COMPARING THE NOTES/TUNINGS AND NOTING THAT JOHNSON'S SONGS AS RELEASED ARE SIGNIFICANTLY SHORTER ON AVERAGE THAN THE STANDARD THREE-MINUTE SIDE ARE STRONG EVIDENCE OF TAMPERING.  AS IS THE FACT THAT YOU CAN MAKE OUT HIS LYRICS MORE CLEARLY WHEN IT'S SLOWED DOWN. THAT WOULD NOT BE THE CASE IF HE WERE A MUMBLER OR SLURRER OF WORDS.

I think the weight of evidence is very strongly against the case that the speed of Robert Johnson's recordings was ever altered in any systematic way.

But...  If you like listening to them slowed down, there's nothing wrong with that.
« Last Edit: June 08, 2010, 05:36:43 PM by repeater »

Offline Mr.OMuck

  • Member
  • Posts: 2596
    • MuckOVision
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #6 on: June 08, 2010, 05:54:38 PM »
Wait a minute....I just had this argument with someone on facebook! Oh...no..that was about whether or not Carravaggio used a camera obscura, but the tenor was so similar....hmm.  ;)
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

http://www.youtube.com/user/MuckOVision

Offline dj

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 2833
  • Howdy!
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #7 on: June 08, 2010, 05:56:29 PM »
Quote
IF YOU DO ONE, YOU PRETTY MUCH HAVE TO DO THE OTHER, ELSE YOU'RE ADMITTING TO DOCTORING THE FIRST.

The best selling recording from Johnson's first session sold around 800 copies.  The public at large would never have noticed, or cared.

Quote
THE MARKET FOR COUNTRY BLUES WAS SHRINKING BY THE TIME JOHNSON RECORDED. MAKING HIS RELEASES MORE DISTINCTIVE/OTHERWORLDLY/WHAT-HAVE-YOU WOULD HAVE MADE GOOD COMMERCIAL SENSE.

Then why not do the same for Tommy McLennan, Booker White, Robert Petway, and others?  Why only Johnson?  Why not for hillbilly artists, or jazz or swing, or pop?  Or other ethnic musicians?  Why did this make good commercial sense only for Robert Johnson?  

And you can't deny that no one who knew Johnson - not Calvin Frazier, not Johnny Shines, not Son House, not Honeyboy Edwards, not Sonny Boy Williamson - ever said "Man, his voice sounds funny on records".  H. C. Spier, who sent Johnson to record never said that, and Don Law, who recorded him never referred to any doctoring.

EVERY day that Johnson recorded, other people also recorded in the same studio.  Why would the recording engineers adjust the recording equipment to run fast for Johnson and not do the same for W. Lee O'Donnel & His Hillbilly Boys, Hermanas Barraza, The Chuck Wagon Gang, Andres Berlanga y Francisco Montalvo, Al Dexter, Eva Garza, The Hi-Flyers, Roy Newman & His Boys, The Crystal Springs Ramblers, Zeke Williams & His Rambling Cowboys, The Light Crust Doughboys, Clifford Gross and Muryel Campbell, The Blue Ridge Playboys, John Boyd & His Southerners, and Bill Nettles & His Dixie Blueboys?  The obvious answer is, they wouldn't.

« Last Edit: June 09, 2010, 04:56:53 AM by dj »

Offline Slack

  • Administrator
  • Member
  • Posts: 9227
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #8 on: June 08, 2010, 06:01:50 PM »
Ouch!   :P 

Offline repeater

  • Member
  • Posts: 20
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #9 on: June 08, 2010, 06:28:04 PM »
Quote
The best selling recording from Johnson's first session sold around 800 copies.  The public at large would never have noticed, or cared.

Who cares about the public at large?  I'm talking about fans of Johnson's.

Quote
Then why not do the same for Tommy McLennan, Booker White, Robert Petway, and others?  Why only Johnson?  Why not for hillbilly artists, or jazz or swing, or pop?  Or other ethnic musicians?  Why did this make good commercial sense only for Robert Johnson?

And you can't deny that no one who knew Johnson - not Calvin Frazier, not Johnny Shines, not Son House, not Honeyboy Edwards, not Sonny Boy Williamson - ever said "Man, his voice sounds funny on records".  H. C. Spier, who sent Johnson to record never said that, and Don Law, who recorded him never referred to any doctoring.

First, I'm talking about country blues, not jazz, swing, what-have-you.  As for White, his initial recordings were done, if not in the heyday of recorded country blues, then at least before the market dropped off.  His later prewar recordings were done for the Library of Congress, not a record label.  And in any case, even if McLennan or Petway or whoever else wasn't speeded up, that hardly means that Johnson wasn't either.

Second, how do you know they NEVER said anything?  Maybe they did, but their remarks haven't survived.  Or maybe such studio trickery was par for the course and not particularly remarkable back then.

Quote
EVERY day that Johnson recorded, other people also recorded in the same studio.  Why would the recording engineers adjust the recording equipment to run fast for Johnson and not do the same for W. Lee O'Donnel & His Hillbilly Boys, Hermanas Barraza, The Chuck Wagon Gang, Andres Berlanga y Francisco Montalvo, Al Dexter, Eva Garza, The Hi-Flyers, Roy Newman & His Boys, The Crystal Springs Ramblers, Zeke Williams & His Rambling Cowboys, The Litght Crust Doughboys, Clifford Gross and Muryel Campbell, The Blue Ridge Playboys, John Boyd & His Southerners, and Bill Nettles & His Dixie Blueboys?  The obvious answer is, they wouldn't.

Again, country blues, not other genres.

At any rate, I would very much like to believe that the releases we have are 100% accurate.  But what we really need is a scientific appraisal.  The closest I've come across is Gibbens' tuning/note analysis.  And that's quite damning.

Offline Stuart

  • Member
  • Posts: 3185
  • "The Voice of Almiqui"
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #10 on: June 08, 2010, 07:55:44 PM »
But what we really need is a scientific appraisal. The closest I've come across is Gibbens' tuning/note analysis.  And that's quite damning.

It's not. Cf. my IGS post.

Offline waxwing

  • Member
  • Posts: 2805
    • Wax's YouTube Channel
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #11 on: June 08, 2010, 08:20:37 PM »
But what we really need is a scientific appraisal.  The closest I've come across is Gibbens' tuning/note analysis.  And that's quite damning.

There is absolutely nothing scientific about poet Gibbens' appraisal, which seems to be that of a beginning guitarist, maybe. Most players in the pre war era tuned Spanish at A not at G. I believe both House and Waters were recorded stating tunings they used were "Spanish A". There is no reason whatsoever to claim as fact that RJ was tuned Spanish at G as Gibbens unscientifically seems to assume (because some mook said so in a book?). In fact, given his high singing range he would have more likely tuned to A or possibly higher. It is somewhat accepted (from interviews) that Patton did not use a capo yet played in this tuning as high as B!. By Gibben's logic he would be capoed at the 4th or sped up by, what somewhere around 25%? Ridiculous. Patton would have to be singing 4 semitones lower than the deep baritone we already hear? Not! Johnson could have been tuned anywhere and capoed anywhere. Many modern players play easily above the neck join and there is no reason to think that RJ couldn't.

Nor was Gibbens scientific enough to test his theories on all of RJ's material, a rather simple task. Take Love in Vain for instance. It's pitched at about G# I believe. There seems to be some discrepancy as to whether he played this in Standard with G forms or in Spanish, but either way, he would have to be tuned two frets below either Standard or "Open G" for the three semitone boost to end up at G#. So does that mean that RJ was in collusion with the A&R guy and tuned down?

Virtually everything Gibbens states is based on the totally unprovable assumption, entirely unscientific, that RJ was tuned to "Open G". I can't imagine any musicologist would concur in this.

Let's look at the logistics of how this would have been done. First, watch this, paying attention to the process of replication from the original disc:



From this you can clearly see that the final disc sold to the public was essentially a mold of the first "wax" cut in the studio. There was no chance to speed up the recording after the fact. If there was a decision to speed up the recordings it had to have been made before the first recording of Kindhearted Woman, of which we actually have two takes both at the same pitch. So, this is where the Devil comes into it, whispering into the A&R guys ear, "Sure he sounds good. But sped up about 20%, you'll sell millions." And they make a decision to slow down the turntable by 20% to around 63 rpm, so that when RJ is played back at 78 rpm he will sound like, what proponents of this theory call "a chipmunk". Yeah, that'll sell records! How can people believe this? And then, they would have told Robert he was gonna sound a little, uh, different, yeah, that's it, when he heard his records. And they wanted him to tune down for some of his songs, because...well, they thought they needed to cover up some how? It just doesn't make sense as a conspiracy. Sorry. And it couldn't have been an accident, obviously, because they wouldn't have duplicated the same accident at the second session. And would RJ have gone back to record for a company that made him sound like a chipmunk on his records??? He listened to a lot of records. He knew Son House sounded like Son House on his records, If RJ sounded like Son House, don't you think he'd be a little miffed if he sounded like "a chipmonk" on his records? This is just too goofy.

Unfortunately for Gibbens, he was listening to the LPs that Columbia put out in the '60s. IIRC Larry Cohn mention that the engineers for those issues, which were taken from transfers often made by the owners of the 78s, upon noticing that some songs were not pitch exactly on key, bumped them up to the next key. So, the ones Gibbens was listening to may have been bumped up by a couple percent, but nowhere near the 20% he claims. But the argument rages across the internet that the issues we hear today, which are as close to the 78s as Larry Cohn could get them, are sped up 20% and that is just not the case.

The best test which has been suggested is to examine an actual 78 recording sonically and find the spike at 60Hz. All electricity at the time of RJs recordings was supplied at 60Hz and light bulbs and other electric appliances in the room, including the recording equipment, would give off a hum at this frequency and it should be detectable. If there is a spike at about 72Hz than it has been sped up by 20%. To my knowledge no one has put together an original RJ 78 and an oscilloscope. Andrew, at Pristine Sound, who has done remasterings of most of RJ, used existing transfers but claims he discerned that they were approximately at the correct playback speed. You can find discussion about that either at the Pristine site or on the Blind Man's Blues Forum, which I think you are familiar with.

You can sleep soundly tonight, safe in the knowledge that RJ sounded just like the chipmunk you hear.

Wax
« Last Edit: June 08, 2010, 08:34:14 PM by waxwing »
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
CD on YT

Offline eric

  • Member
  • Posts: 786
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #12 on: June 08, 2010, 09:41:29 PM »
No.
--
Eric

Offline Mr.OMuck

  • Member
  • Posts: 2596
    • MuckOVision
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #13 on: June 08, 2010, 10:03:03 PM »
Then of course there is the theory that RJ was in fact a chipmunk, and that the records were artificially slowed down to make him sound more Norwegian. ;)

But seriously folks what was the verdict on MJH's Frankie? Last I heard that HAD been speeded up. Is that still the general consensus? Speed irregularities have been known to occur, usually in transferring for reissue.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

http://www.youtube.com/user/MuckOVision

Offline eric

  • Member
  • Posts: 786
Re: Are Robert Johnson's recordings fraudulent?
« Reply #14 on: June 08, 2010, 10:20:35 PM »
It think its a ridiculous argument,  If you look at it like chance or odds, the probability of the recordings all being sped up or slowed down accidentally in the same way over multiple sessions is infinitesimally small. Electrical recording technology was well advanced by 1936.  What would be the point of changing the speed of all Robert's songs but no one else's?  It just makes no sense.  Robert's Robert:  Might as well enjoy it for what it is.
--
Eric

Tags:
 


SimplePortal 2.3.7 © 2008-2024, SimplePortal