Rolling Stones unreleased: 32-20 Blues
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Written by: Robert Johnson
Recorded: Rolling Stones Mobile, Nellcote, France, June-Nov. 1971
From Rate Your Music:
This was the second single of Robert Johnson. Both sides were highlighted in Samuel B. Charters’ 1959 book The Country Blues and consequently included in Columbia’s 1961 compilation LP King of the Delta Blues Singers.
“32-20 Blues” is obviously based on Skip James’ “22-20 Blues”, in fact it was a straight cover, only that Johnson adapted the original piano blues to his guitar and enlarged the caliber in the title – apparently because there is no common handgun or pistol as a 22-20. (Skip James initially also refers to a .32 pistol in his song, and later he sings about a .44 caliber, like Roosevelt Sykes on his exemplary “44 Blues”.)
Robert Johnson altered the lyrics only slightly (amusingly he shifted the location of the doctors who cannot help from Wisconsin, where James happened to make his recording, to Hot Springs, a health resort), and at the end he refers to the old “In the Pines” (or “Black Gal”) song (“where did you stay last night”). Apart from the unalteredly violent lyrics (he still sings, “If she gets unruly, thinks she don’t wanna do / Take my 32-20 now and cut her half in two”), Robert Johnson’s recording is a thrilling rendition, versatilely sung to a steady rhythm beaten on the bass strings of the guitar.
“Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, showing the wide range of Johnson’s repertory, is influenced by hillbilly music, namely “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, previously performed by Charlie Poole and Fiddlin’ John Carson. This older sixteen-measure lyric form, with the first line sung three times and a contrasting closing line, was also used in black sacred music though. It is a hopeful song about “working my way back home”, sung with passion, and makes an appealing contrast to the other side of the record.
32-20 Blues was recorded on Thursday 26th November 1936. The following day he recorded Last Fair Deal Gone Down and six other songs. During that week he recorded about half of the music he would ever make. Some people find Robert Johnson’s music repetitive and difficult to get into. But the guitar parts are in fact filled with endless variations and innovations. My advice to anyone who doesn’t like this music is to listen again and pay close attention to the guitar playing. It is full of sorts of intricate and wonderful twists and turns.
Musically, “32-20 Blues” was one of the simplest, most straightforward songs Johnson ever recorded. It was also one of the best. Written and originally recorded as “22-20 Blues” by Skip James, the lyrics are absorbing. A man calmly discusses the woman who he believes has done him wrong and the violence he plans to do in return (a 32-20 was a kind of gun): “Oh, baby, where you stay last night? / You got your hair all tangled and you ain’t talkin’ right.”
Johnson bangs out a slow, percussive beat on his guitar strings, adding some spare finger work here and there. And he sings with a slow, deliberate voice in a narrow register. Despite the lack of fireworks, or perhaps because of it, the song is amazingly deep. Stripped of all gimmicks, Johnson’s stunning talent remains undiminished. In fact, listening to him perform this way, with nothing but his raw charisma on display, adds extra weight to the cold, calculated lyrics, making this performance as electrifying as anything in his catalog.
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