It’s the Monday Morning Blues again, folks! The selection this time around is my version (humble as it is) of what is certainly one of the greatest blues songs, Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail.” By the way: see below for an explanation of this pic, which may seem incongruous!
There are several stories that can be told about “Hellhound On My Trail”—some Johnson fans look at it as evidence of Johnson’s pact with the devil; the hellhound in that sense is the devil coming to collect his end of the bargain for giving Johnson his “supernatural” guitar-playing ability. Of course, there’s no real proof that Johnson himself believed in this legend; Son House made reference to it in the 1960s, but given House’s health problems, including his proclivity for strong drink, he was not necessarily the most reliable witness. Still, there’s no denying that Johnson’s songs are dark, & this—perhaps his strongest set of lyrics—seems particularly chilling, especially when rendered in Johnson’s eerie falsetto.
Moving away from the stuff of legend & the supernatural, it’s also interesting to see how this song places Johnson within the larger blues tradition. For lack of a better term, blues is a “folk” tradition, & as such, doesn’t value originality in the same way that this is valued in our current culture. Putting one’s stamp on material is valued in such a tradition, but there isn’t the same imperative to make something completely new. In fact, from a musical standpoint, “Hellhound On My Trail” is recognizably a re-working of Skip James’ great song “Devil Got My Woman.” As sung by Johnson, the melody is very close, & the basic musical background has many similarities. Would Johnson have been able to record “Hellhound On My Trail” under copyright laws as they’re currently enforced? I’m no lawyer, but I think it's an open question. For those who wonder what has happened to evolving folk music, this is worth considering—especially when we consider how many prominent traditional musicians played repertoires that contained many “re-worked” songs—not just Johnson, but a number of other old-time musicians, including such notables as the Carter Family & Woody Gurthie.
Before moving on to the song, I should explain the third verse: “She sprinkled hot foot powder all around my door; it keeps me with ramblin’ mind, rider, any old place I go.” Here’s the lowdown from Harry’s Blues Lyrics Online:
Hot Foot Powder and Hot Foot Oil are old Southern hoodoo formulas that are used to rid oneself or one's home of unwanted people, to send enemies packing and to keep peace in the home by eliminating troublemakers. Similar formulas, known as Drive Away Oil or Get Away Oil contain virtually the same ingredients, namely a proprietary blend of Guinea Red Pepper, sulfur, and essential oils that include Black Pepper and other herbal extracts. The scent is hot and spicy, but it is not at all unpleasant.
Hope you enjoy the song!
Top pic: Eberle & I playing “Hellhound On My Trail” at the opening of the Wild Hare Salon in Cambridge, Idaho earlier this month. We were joined by Valerie on slide whistle. I believe this could be the only time the song was ever played by a young girl on a slide whistle. Valerie was good—she & Eberle rocked out!