Sweet Home Chicago

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"Sweet Home Chicago"
Single by Robert Johnson
A-side Sweet Home Chicago
B-side Walkin' Blues
Released August 1937 (1937 -08)
Format 78 rpm
Recorded San Antonio, Texas. Monday, November 23, 1936 in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel.
Genre Blues
Length 2:59
Label Vocalion
Writer(s) Robert Johnson

"Sweet Home Chicago" is a popular blues standard in the twelve-bar form. It was first recorded and is credited to have been written by Robert Johnson.[1] Over the years the song has become one of the most popular anthems for the city of Chicago despite ambiguity in Johnson's original lyrics.


The melody was previously used in a number of recorded blues songs, including "Honey Dripper Blues", "Red Cross Blues" and the immediate model for the song: "Kokomo Blues".[2] Some have lyrics of the typical AAB structure e.g.

Oh my days are so long, babe, you know my nights are lonesome too
Oh my days are so long, babe, my nights are lonesome too

I can't find my honey dripper, Lord I don't know what to do[3]

Others have the AB + refrain structure e.g.

If anybody don't believe I've got a Red Cross man
Go out in my back yard to get my Red Cross can

Oh, baby don't don't you want to go
Go with me and my man down to the Red Cross Store[4]

Elijah Wald suggested that the Indianapolis-based Scrapper Blackwell was the first to introduce a reference to the relatively close Kokomo, Indiana with this AAB verse[5]

Mmmm, baby don't you want to go
Pack up your little suitcase, Papa's going to Kokomo[6]

More copied was the version recorded a year earlier in 1927 by Madlyn Davis with the refrain:

And it's hey, hey baby, baby don't you want to go
Back to that eleven light city, back to sweet Kokomo[7]

In 1932, Jabo Williams recorded "Ko Ko Mo Blues," with the same refrain and included the counting line

One and two is three, four and five and six[8]

In 1933, James Arnold laid claim to the song, styling himself Kokomo Arnold and his version as "Old Original Kokomo Blues".

Now one and one is two mama, two and two is four

You mess around here pretty mama, you know we got to go

Cryin O, baby don't you want to go
Back to the eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo[9]

In 1959, Arnold told Jacques Demetre that he had composed "Kokomo Blues". 'The Eleven Light City' was, he claimed, the name of a Chicago drugstore where a girlfriend worked, and 'Koko' their brand name of coffee.[10]

Kokomo was a city of little significance to a Southern audience. Papa Charlie McCoy changed the reference to the better known Baltimore.[11] Robert Johnson changed the character of the song to one of aspirational migration, replacing back to Kokomo with to Chicago, and replacing that eleven light city with another migrational goal that land of California.

But I'm cryin' hey baby, Honey don't you want to go

Back to the land of California, To my sweet home Chicago

Johnson sang this as a refrain, and also as a first verse. Otherwise, his text retained the structure of Arnold's hit record, with similar counting verses:

Ooh, baby don't you want to go

Ooh, baby don't you want to go
Back to the land of California, To my sweet home Chicago

Now one and one is two mama, two and two is four
I'm heavy loaded baby, I'm booked I've got to go

Now two and two is four, four and two is six
You gonna keep on monkeying around here friend boy, you gonna get your business all in a trick

Now six and two is eight, eight and two is ten
Friend boy, she trick you one time, she sure gonna do it again

I'm going to California, from there to Des Moines, Iowa
Somebody will tell me, that you need my help some day


His guitar accompaniment did not follow Kokomo Arnold's bravura bottleneck guitar, but rather the boogie piano accompaniments by Roosevelt Sykes to the 'Honey Dripper' songs and by Walter Roland to the 'Red Cross' songs.[13]

Johnson did not live to enjoy national popularity. If he had become a star with a following in Chicago, he might have altered the chorus with its confusing geographical coupling. As it is, he succeeded in evoking an exotic modern place, far from the South, which is an amalgam of famous migration goals for African Americans leaving the South. To later singers this contradictory location held more appeal than obscure Kokomo. Tommy McClennan's "Baby Don't You Want To Go" (1939)[14] and Walter Davis's "Don't You Want To Go" (1941)[15] were both based on Johnson's chorus. Later singers used Johnson's chorus and dropped the mathematical verses.

Johnson recorded the song during his first recording session in November 1936, and it was released on Vocalion Records (catalog number 03601).[16] He gives a stirring performance, with a driving guitar rhythm and a high, near-falsetto vocal. It was a limited release race record, and was not a big-seller. The song's popularity grew only after Johnson's death in 1938.

The lyrics only obliquely refer to Chicago itself, in the song's refrain, where the song narrator pleads for a woman to go with him back to "that land of California/ my sweet home Chicago". Indeed, California is mentioned in the song more than Chicago, both during this refrain and in one of the stanzas ("I'm goin' to California/ from there to Des Moines, Iowa"). These perplexing lyrics have been a source of controversy for many years. In the 1960s and 1970s, some commentators speculated this was a geographical mistake on Johnson's part. This is clearly untrue, as Johnson was a highly sophisticated songwriter and used geographical references in a number of his songs. One interpretation is that Johnson intended the song to be a metaphorical description of an imagined paradise combining elements of the American north and west, far from the racism and poverty inherent to the Mississippi Delta of 1936.[1] Like Chicago, California was a common such destination in many Great Depression Era songs, books, and movies. Max Haymes argues that Johnson's intention was 'the land of California OR that sweet home Chicago'.[17] A more sophisticated and humorous interpretation (and one more consistent with all of the lyrics) has the narrator pressuring a woman to leave town with him for Chicago, but his blatant geographic ignorance reveals his attempt at deceit. Another explanation suggests that Johnson was conveying a trip across the country, as mentioned in the line, "I'm going to California/from there to Des Moines, Iowa", and that the end destination was Chicago, Illinois, a state sharing borders with Iowa. There is yet another unverified suggestion in Alan Greenberg's Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, that Johnson had a remote relative who lived in Port Chicago, California, which if true would add ambiguity as to which Chicago the lyrics are referring. Finally, using the same tune, Sam Montgomery sang of a land "where the sweet old oranges grow" in a song by that name.[18] It is presently unclear whether the logic of oranges:California was corrective of Johnson's geographical confusion or reflective of an earlier song that Johnson changed.

As the song grew to be a homage to Chicago, the original lyrics that refer to California were altered in most cover versions. The line "Back to the land of California" is changed to "Back to the same old place", and the line "I'm going to California" becomes "I'm going back to Chicago". This altered version dates back to pianist Roosevelt Sykes.[1]

California Avenue is a thoroughfare which runs from the far south to the far north side of Chicago. The original road predates Johnson's recording and may have been the subject of the "land of California" references.

The authorship of the song is a matter of some dispute. The musical atmosphere of the blues and folk community of the 1930s lent itself to considerable borrowing of music and lyrics back and forth. Reportedly, songs recorded by bluesmen Scrapper Blackwell and Kokomo Arnold bear striking similarity to "Sweet Home Chicago", having been recorded years before.[1] Leroy Carr's "Baby Don't You Love Me No More" (Scrapper Blackwell played guitar and accompanied Leroy Carr who played the piano) shares the rhythmic approach and the feel of the initial two verses.[19]

As of 2002, the copyright to the song was owned by businessman Stephen LaVere, who in 1973 convinced Johnson's half-sister Carrie Thompson to sign a contract splitting the royalties with LaVere.[1]

The list of artists who have covered the song is immense, including Junior Parker (who had a #13 R&B chart hit in 1958 with the song), Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Earl Hooker, Honeyboy Edwards, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnny Shines, Keb' Mo' with Corey Hart, Foghat, Status Quo, Johnny Otis, Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan (who performed it live on August 25–26, 1990 as his closing song with Clapton, Guy, Vaughan's brother, Jimmie, and Robert Cray at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. Stevie Ray would later perish in his fated helicopter crash en route from the show later that night), The Blues Band, and The Blues Brothers, while The Replacements and Los Lobos each covered it live but never released it. LaVere once remarked "It's like 'When the Saints Go Marching In' to the blues crowd."[1]

Barack Obama and B.B. King singing 'Sweet home Chicago'

On February 21, 2012, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama hosted, "In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues", a celebration of blues music held in the East Room of the White House. Later on that night, President Obama, encouraged by Buddy Guy and B.B. King, sang part of "Sweet Home Chicago".[20]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Knopper, Steve. "'Sweet Home Chicago' leaves sour taste for some". Chicago Tribune, 30 May 2002.
  2. ^ Komara, Edward (2007). The Road to Robert Johnson, The genesis and evolution of blues in the Delta from the late 1800s through 1938. p. 51. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-00907-9
  3. ^ "Honey Dripper Blues No. 2", Edith North Johnson, Paramount PM 12915
  4. ^ "Red Cross Man", Lucille Bogan (as Bessie Jackson), Banner Ba 3307
  5. ^ Wald, Elijah (2004). Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Amistad. ISBN 0-06-052423-5
  6. ^ "Kokomo Blues", Scrapper Blackwell, Vocalion Vo 1192
  7. ^ "Kokola Blues", Madlyn Davis, Paramount PM 12615
  8. ^ "Ko Ko Mo Blues", Jabo Williams, Paramount PM 13127
  9. ^ "Old Original Kokomo Blues", Kokomo Arnold, Decca De 7026
  10. ^ Oliver, Paul (1984) Blues Off the Record. pp 105-106. The Baton Press. ISBN 0-88254-751-8 (US)
  11. ^ "Baltimore Blues", Papa Charlie McCoy (as The Mississippi Mudder (Papa Charlie)), Decca De 7009
  12. ^ "Sweet Home Chicago", Robert Johnson, Vocalion, 03601
  13. ^ Korma, p. 52.
  14. ^ Bluebird BB B8408
  15. ^ Bluebird BB B9027
  16. ^ Obrecht, Jas. King of the Delta Blues (liner notes). 1997, Sony Music Entertainment,Inc.
  17. ^ Haymes, Max (2002) Back to the Land of California…. - Robert Johnson & "Sweet Home Chicago"
  18. ^ "Sam Montgomery - Where the Sweet Old Oranges Grow", AllMusic.
  19. ^ "Baby Don't You Love Me No More", Leroy Carr, Vocalion 1261, C-2690-A, Chicago 1928.
  20. ^ Matt Compton, "President Obama sings 'Sweet Home Chicago'", The White House Blog, February 22, 2012.

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