Hellhound on My Trail
|"Hellhound on My Trail"|
|Single by Robert Johnson|
|B-side||"From Four Till Late"|
|Format||10" 78 rpm record|
|Recorded||Dallas, Texas, June 20, 1937|
|Robert Johnson singles chronology|
"Hell Hound on My Trail" is a blues song recorded by Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson in 1937. It was the first song recorded during Johnson's last recording session in Dallas, Texas on Sunday, June 20, 1937 and the first single released from that session. Inspired by earlier blues songs, it is considered one of Johnson's "best known and most admired performances—many would say it is his greatest".
According to legend, Johnson sold his soul to the devil in a Faustian deal at the crossroads in return for his musical talent. This song fuels the mystery and lore surrounding him as it suggests a man in the grip of evil, and his deal with the devil has become part of popular culture.
Prior to Johnson's song, the phrase "hellhound on my trail" had been used in blues songs. Sylvester Weaver's "Devil Blues", recorded in 1927 contains: "Hellhounds start to chase me man, I was a running fool, My ankles caught on fire, couldn't keep my puppies cool" and "Funny Paper" Smith in his 1931 "Howling Wolf Blues No. 3" sang: "I take time when I'm prowlin', an' wipe my tracks out with my tail ... Get home and get blue an' start howlin', an' the hellhound on my trail". The Biddleville Quintette's 1926 religious recording "Show Pity Lord" opens with a religious testimony declaring that "The hell hound has turned back off my trail".
According to blues scholars, Johnson followed bluesmen Johnny Temple (1935 "The Evil Devil Blues") and Joe McCoy (1934 "Evil Devil Woman Blues") in adapting Skip James's 1931 song "Devil Got My Woman". The emotional intensity, guitar tuning and strained singing style of "Hell Hound on My Trail" are also found in James' performance. In the 1980s, however, another James record "Yola My Blues Away" (1931) became widely available on reissue recordings. It was found to share with "Devil Got My Woman" the same similarities of tuning and vocal style that Johnson displayed, but the "Hellhound" melody is closer to "Yola" than to "Devil". From the latter Johnson took the device of repeating the end of lines with an attached musical phrase. Additionally, he used the lyrics of one of the verses from "Come On In My Kitchen". Edward Komara concludes "It is probable that Johnny Temple used the "Devil" attachment phrases and lyrics while teaching "Yola" to Johnson". 
Composition and lyrics
"Hell Hound on My Trail" is a solo performance by Johnson with vocal and slide guitar. He used an open E minor guitar tuning with the lower strings providing a droning accompaniment, with "the bottleneck ... mak[ing] the treble strings of his guitar moan like wind through dead trees".
Lyrically, the song "deals with the familiar blues theme of the rambling musician, but now the trip takes on darker tones, the traveler is pursued". According to music historian Samuel Charters, the first and last verses may be the finest found in the blues. The poetic imagery is brilliant and intense with a feeling of personal frenzy. The song's lyrics reflect an agonized spirit for whom there is no escape. The vision of the hounds of hell coming to catch sinners was prevalent in southern churches at that time and this may have been the image in Johnson's mind:
- I got to keep movin', I've got to keep movin', blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail
- Umm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail
- And the day keeps on worrin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
Recognition and influence
In 1983, Robert Johnson's "Hell Hound on My Trail" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the "Classic of Blues Recording" category. The song is listed as one of NPR's "100 most important American musical works of the 20th century". Eric Clapton's tribute album to Johnson Me and Mr. Johnson includes a version of "Hellhound on My Trail". A 1968 solo performance by Jeremy Spencer on vocal and piano is included on Fleetwood Mac, the debut album by Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac.
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