Hellhound on My Trail
|"Hell Hound on My Trail"|
Original 78 record label
|Single by Robert Johnson|
|Format||10-inch 78 rpm record|
|Recorded||Dallas, Texas, June 20, 1937|
"Hellhound on My Trail" (originally "Hell Hound on My Trail") is a blues song recorded by Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson in 1937. It was inspired by earlier blues songs and blues historian Ted Gioia describes it as 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".
Blues writers, such as Elijah Wald, see Johnson following 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. "Devil Got My Woman" shares the tuning and vocal styles 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". Blues historian 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; Charles Shaar Murray describes "the bottleneck ... mak[ing] the treble strings of his guitar moan like wind through dead trees".
Gioia notes that the lyrics "[deal] with the familiar blues theme of the rambling musician, but now the trip takes on darker tones, the traveler is pursued". Music historian Samuel Charters believes 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
Johnson recorded the song during his last recording session in Dallas, Texas, on Sunday, June 20, 1937. It was the first song he recorded that day and the first single released from that session.
Recognition and influence
In 1983, Robert Johnson's "Hell Hound on My Trail" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame as a "Classic of Blues Recording". Writing for the Foundation, Jim O'Neal describes it as "among the deepest and darkest of Robert Johnson's legendary blues masterworks." The song is listed as one of NPR's "100 most important American musical works of the 20th century".
- Pearson, Barry Lee; McCulloch, Bill (2003). Robert Johnson: Lost and Found. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-252-02835-9.
- Gioia, Ted (2008). Delta Blues (Norton Paperback 2009 ed.). New York City: W. W. Norton. pp. 181–182. ISBN 978-0-393-33750-1.
- Breslow, Peter (June 5, 2000). "Hellhound on My Trail". NPR Music. Retrieved July 1, 2014.
- "Robert Johnson". Murder with Southern Hospitality: An Exhibition of Mississippi Mysteries. University of Mississippi. Retrieved August 8, 2007.
- Okeh Records OK 8534
- Vocalion Records Vo 1614
- Paramount Records Pm 12424
- Vocalion Records Vo 02987
- Decca Records De7822
- Paramount Records Pm 13088
- Wald, Elijah (2004). Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (1st. ed.). New York City: HarperCollins. p. 171. ISBN 978-0060524272.
- Calt, Stephen (1994). I'd Rather be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues. New York City: Da Capa. p. 194. ISBN 0-306-80579-0.
- O'Neal, Jim (November 10, 2016). "1993 Hall of Fame Inductees: Hell Hound On My Trail – Robert Johnson (ARC/Vocalion, 1937)". The Blues Foundation.
- Paramount Records PM 133072
- Komara, Edward (2007). The Road to Robert Johnson. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-634-00907-5.
- Murray, Charles Shaar (1989). Crosstown Traffic. New York City: St. Martin's Press. p. 115. ISBN 0-312-06324-5.
- Charters, Samuel (1973). Robert Johnson. New York City: Oak Publications. pp. 15–17, 69. ISBN 0-8256-0059-6.
- Shaw, Arnold (1978). Honkers and Shouters. New York City: Macmillan. pp. 38–39. ISBN 0-02-061740-2.
- Oliver, Paul (1990). Blues Fell This Morning (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 285–287. ISBN 0-521-37793-5.