This is Deep Tracks: the show where I give you the entire history of rock music through podcast-sized chunks every week. I am your outstanding host, Doug “That’s Not a Hashtag, That’s a Sharp” McCulloch.

I want you to imagine something. Imagine you’re a struggling black musician in the 1930s in the American Deep South. It’s late at night, you’re travelling by foot down an old, dusty, country road. You’ve got a few personal items in a knapsack over your shoulder, and in your other hand you’re carrying a guitar—your most prized possession. You eventually come to an intersection, and it’s there at the crossroads that you stop and set your things down for a moment to rest and try to get your bearings. It’s a clear night, with a full moon, but there’s no other light. While you’re determining which direction you’re going to go next, you notice some movement down the road. It’s an indiscernible shadow at first, but eventually it materializes into a shadowy figure walking towards you. You fumble around in your knapsack for your knife, unsure whether this stranger will be friend or foe. Eventually he comes to stand before you: he has on a black overcoat with a black, broadbrim hat. His face is shadowed so that you can’t see it. He speaks, and you’re transfixed by his voice. There’s something strange about this stranger.

He says, “Yo kid, sell me your soul and I’ll make you the greatest guitarist of all time.”

And you say, “Okay!”

Robert Johnson was one of the most talented blues guitarists that ever lived. It was said of him that the way he became such a phenomenal guitarist was from an encounter with the devil at a crossroads where he sold his soul in exchange for some killer guitar chops. This Faustian mythology has been ascribed to more than one blues musician and has been retold and explored in a thousand different ways, not the least of which was in the Cohen Brothers’ movie, “O, Brother, Where Art Thou,” and even on Saturday Night Live in which Garth Brooks sells his soul to a devil played by Will Farrell in exchange for a hit song, only to realize that the devil really sucks at coming up with hit songs.

But Robert Johnson’s association with this myth is perhaps the most well-known within both rock and blues circles. People who knew him personally commented on how he seemed to become a guitar prodigy practically overnight. His whole life’s story is smothered in lore and mystery—we don’t even have a birth certificate for him! In 1938 Robert Johnson died at the auspicious age of 27 from drinking poisoned whisky, which, of course, has only added to his mythos. His career lasted a mere six years and he only did two recording sessions that we know of. Britannica’s entry on Johnson points out that, “Despite the limited number of his recordings, Johnson had a major impact on other musicians, including Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones.” The entry also points out that he had only one moderate hit in his lifetime. The New York Times did a belated obituary on him in 2019 entitled, “Overlooked No More: Robert Johnson, Bluesman Whose Life Was a Riddle,” and it has the tagline that reads, “Johnson gained little notice in his life, but his songs—quoted by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin—helped ignite rock ‘n’ roll.”

By the time Johnson’s music came on the scene, blues was already a fully-fledged musical genre. It had been so for at least fifty years. In fact, let’s pause in our story of Robert Johnson to look at the birth of the blues.

If we revisit that musical family line that I mentioned last episode, we would see the progenitors of the blues are field hollers, spirituals, and work songs. When the American Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation ostensibly freed the slaves, many African Americans found they had traded one form of bondage for another. A large percentage of them became sharecroppers, while others found other forms of heavy, back-breaking manual labor, like building railroads and such. I want to share a rather lengthy quote from the University of Pittsburgh’s Voices Across Time series: “Field hollers undoubtedly have a long history among African Americans, but they first began to be noticed by others during and after the Civil War, when Blacks began farming their own land and working as sharecroppers. Field hollers were a practical way of communicating over long distances in competition with other noises. Laborers working on individual tasks almost always sang hollers solo, so they differ from work songs that were sung by a group to keep time to rhythmic work like rowing or hammering.

Field hollers were predecessors of the blues. Solo performance and descending tones after a long tiring day in the field led naturally into the first blues songs that originated in this era.

Yodeling is similar to hollering. It originated in Switzerland to communicate through the Alps and was used later in the southern Appalachians in America. Cowboys yodeled to compete with the noise of wind and cattle across distances on the prairies.”

We’re going to revisit yodeling when we go up the country & western side of rock’s family tree. For now, we’ll focus on field hollering. I’m going to play a sample of a field holler…

And in case you don’t remember what spirituals sound like, I’ll re-play the clip of “Wade in the Water” from last episode.

That quote I read a minute ago also mentioned work songs, which were often used by groups of workers to stay in rhythm with one another. I’m going to play a few clips of some work songs that demonstrate how they almost acted as a sort of “proto-blues” in a way, combining field hollers with the vocal inflections of spirituals, but they’re not quite the blues yet:

Here’s a tie-tamping chant from some old field recordings made in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s in Texas:

And here’s a track-laying holler from that same collection of field recordings:

And here’s a song from Alan Lomax's Sounds Of The South collection, the song is "Eighteen Hammers" by Johnny Lee Moore & 12 Mississippi Penitentiary Convicts:

For those of you who are fans of the ‘90s band, VAST, you’ll notice that this was the song sampled in their song, “Dirty Hole”…

One last example of a work song displays the practice I mentioned before about using coded language in music. This clip comes from a song called, “possum was an evil thing.”

Possum, in this and many other songs of the period, was referring to the overseer. Slavery may have ended in name, but it hadn’t ended in practice, and singing about the evil possum was a way to essentially trash talk their boss while he was standing right in front of them.

We’re done listening to work songs but we’re going to stay on the topic of work songs a little bit longer before we move on in our story.

A popular song many of us grew up with that is a…whitewashed, nursery-rhyme-esque version of work songs is, “I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THE RAILROAD.”

We generally think of this as an innocent sort of fun little song to teach children, but, when you learn a little bit more about its history, it’s kind of like that moment when any of us Gen X-ers grew up and realized how un-woke and un-PC most movies we grew up with in the ‘80s really were. I mean, 16 Candles alone…

Anyway, the song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” first appeared in 1894 in an old Princeton songbook. The original version has the verses most of us are familiar with:

I've been working on the railroad

All the live-long day.

I've been working on the railroad

Just to pass the time away.

Blah, blah, blah, you know the words. But there’s a verse in the original that is designed to mimic the African American work songs. This redacted verse starts off with a little intro that the other verses don’t have. I’m going to read the lyrics slightly exaggerating the phonetic spellings of the words so that you can visualize how they’re spelled:

So in the intro, A soloist sings: (SOLO) I once did know a girl named Grace--

And then a quartet sings: (QUARTET) I'm wukkin' on de levee; (the original name of the song was “Levee Song” before the title was changed to “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad”)

Then the soloist again: (SOLO) She done brung me to dis sad disgrace

And then the quartet: (QUARTET) O' wukkin' on de levee.

And then the verse continues with these lyrics:

I been wukkin' on de railroad

All de livelong day,

I been wukkin' on de railroad

Ter pass de time away.

Doan' yuh hyah de whistle blowin'?

Ris up, so uhly in de mawn;

Doan' yuh hyah de cap'n shouin',

"Dinah, blow yo' hawn?"

And then it continues on with more…racially insensitive language, some of which I don’t feel comfortable repeating. But there are a few things to point out here in this verse. First of all, notice how even in 1894, one of the ways the songwriter sought to capture black culture in the music was to incorporate some call and response in that intro. The other thing to notice is the use of minstrel dialect in that verse. The minstrel dialect comes from something called “the minstrel show.” The minstrel show, which was also called minstrelsy, is sometimes referred to as the first uniquely American form of theater. It was a form of racist theatrical entertainment that developed in the early 19th century. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that depicted people specifically of African descent. However, the performers in those shows were predominantly white. So, the way they portrayed African Americans was—you guessed it—through the use of blackface. Now, there were also some African-American performers and black-only minstrel groups that formed and toured, but on the whole, minstrel shows caricaturized black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky.

many of the tunes from minstrel shows would continue on as incarnations of country tunes—called “hillbilly music”—and, more importantly for our current discussion, blues tunes—called “race music.” Blues music has an interesting history with minstrel shows. The form of blues that would come out of minstrel shows was generally more of a vaudeville style of blues.

Aside from minstrel shows, however, in those early years the different types of blues were usually designated by their region—so, Delta Blues was the style of blues that came out of the Mississippi delta (which was the style of blues that Robert Johnson played). There was also New Orleans blues, which would incorporate Dixieland music. And eventually, as a result of the Great Migration during the first half of the 20th century, you would see delta blues performed with an urban style in what would come to be known as Chicago Blues.

The name of today’s episode comes from a line in the 1987 film, Adventures in Babysitting, which takes place in Chicago. There’s a moment when the babysitter—played by a very young Elisabeth Shue—is leading the kids she’s babysitting away from some bad guys who are trying to capture them and she ends up leading them into a blues club where she intends to just pass through real quick. However, her progress is stopped by real-life blues guitarist Albert Collins, who tells her, [“Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues.”]

At first she’s scared, of course, and she starts her song—rather lamely—by introducing herself and the kids she’s babysitting, but then she starts singing about all the troubles they’d faced that night. The style of blues they’re performing in that scene is Chicago blues. You’ll also notice that as she’s singing about her terrible trials and everything, that’s when she’s smiling.

Obviously this is a fictional portrayal of the blues, but it captured one of the traditional roles the music: it was a release valve for difficult lives.

The blues would be performed all over the place, but early on you would see the creation of blues night clubs and dance halls called “juke joints”—and yes, that’s where the word “jukebox” comes from—which would help spread the blues as an underground sensation, though the music still remained almost exclusively within the black community.

That is until 1903 when a college-educated black man named W.C. Handy had his first encounter with the blues. It was on a train platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi. He sat down on the bench to wait for the train and seated next to him was a “lean, loose-jointed negro vagrant,” who was playing blues guitar using a knife as a guitar slide. Handy, who was the leader of a colored band, was transfixed by the music. A little while later he heard an African American string band playing the blues in another town and saw people throwing coins at the feet of the musicians, which showed him there was a market for this type of music. Having a formal education in music, Handy used it to translate the blues into what would become for him a music publishing empire. I’ll play a clip of Muscle Shoals Blues:

Notice the heavy syncopation in there. I actually still remember as a kid playing simplified versions of W.C. Handy songs on the piano as part of my piano lessons. Those were some of my favorite songs to play. On an unrelated note: my least favorite song to play on piano was “Suzy Snowflake,” and my piano teacher would assign that song to me every year at Christmas. It drove me nuts.


W.C. Handy would be the instrument—no pun intended—that would bring blues into the mainstream. White audiences would have their first exposure to a type of music that had existed in black communities for decades due to Handy’s compositions and arrangements.

This is where we’ll bring minstrel shows back into our narrative. Despite being horribly racist and cringey, they would come to feature blues music quite heavily, providing a literal showcase of blues music as they toured the countryside, as well as a steady gig for blues musicians. This was kind of a big deal for blues musicians. You see, this is in the era before recordings. W.C. Handy had that fancy college education that allowed him to notate the music and sell it as sheet music. He and his band certainly made decent money performing his music, but the real money was in music publishing. And since most blues musicians only knew how to play, with no clue how to read or notate music, this also meant most blues musicians were confined to making a living at those aforementioned juke joints or these minstrel shows.

This would start to change in 1920 when Perry Bradford—who was a competitor of W.C. Handy’s—recorded “Crazy Blues,” with Mamie Smith singing.

This would launch what were called “race records”: essentially black music for black audiences. Now the blues were available not just in live performances or to the elite who could afford music lessons, but it took its first step in truly becoming a music for the masses.

One of the effects the fledgling recording industry would have on the blues would be the creation of hokum blues. Pre-WWI, hokum referred to a performance practice within minstrel shows. I’m going to give props to Wikipedia here—which has a pretty good entry on hokum—and quote from it: “In a general sense, hokum was a style of comedic farce, spoken, sung and spoofed, while masked in both risqué innuendo and "tomfoolery". It is one of the many legacies and techniques of 19th century blackface minstrelsy. Like so many other elements of the minstrel show, stereotypes of racial, ethnic and sexual fools were the stock in trade of hokum. Hokum was stagecraft, gags and routines for embracing farce….. W. C. Handy, himself a veteran of a minstrel troupe, remarked that, "Our hokum hooked 'em," meaning that the low comedy snared an audience that stuck around to hear the music. …hokum was a component of all-around performing, entertainment that seamlessly mixed monologues, dialogues, dances, music, and humor.”

After world war I, hokum would go from simply being a sort of performance practice in minstrel shows and split off into its own musical genre known as hokum blues. Quoting from that Wikipedia entry again: Hokum blues lyrics specifically poked fun at all manner of sexual practices, preferences, and eroticized domestic arrangements. Compositions such as "Banana in Your Fruit Basket", written by Bo Carter of the Mississippi Sheiks, used thinly veiled allusions, which typically employed food and animals as metaphors in a lusty manner worthy of Chaucer. The hilariously sexy lyric content usually steered clear of subtlety.”

We’re going to drop this story thread here and revisit hokum blues later when we discuss leerics (spelled l-e-e-r-i-c-s). But for now, just remember this element to the blues that makes heavy use of double entendre.

As the blues were becoming a huge presence in the recording industry, there was a scramble by record execs to find new sounds and new artists within the blues (with the creation of hokum blues being one of the results of that scramble). In 1926, blues recordings got into a new market with the discovery of a Texas street performer named Blind Lemon Jefferson. Up to this point, the type of blues that had been popularized was more akin to early jazz, ragtime and Dixieland. The sort of blues that you think of when you picture some tired old guy sitting on his porch with a guitar singing about his troubles—that had remained in the underground all this time and would only come to light here in the mid-1920s. I like the way Chuck D put it in the documentary “Woke Up This Morning.” In describing how this blues contrasted with the kind popularized by Perry Bradford and Mamie Smith, he said, “It was a different kind of blues: it’s one-on-one. A person is just kinda hollerin’ at the moon. …[the performer] is expressing his or her soul to the universe.”

The Mississippi delta was inhabited only because of the levees built throughout the 1800s. Before that it was completely flooded—but the soil was super fertile. So, enter the Army Corps of Engineers and levee camps begin to spring up all throughout the region. Cotton farms enter the picture and laborers are brought into the region to work the fields and the machines. The most famous of these—Dockery Farms—would be the birthplace of Delta blues. These cotton farms were veritable towns, and quite often you’d have long lines of workers waiting to get paid and blues performers would set up nearby and play their music. One of these was a guy named Charlie Patton, a.k.a. the Father of the Delta Blues.

Charlie Patton was a rockstar before there were any rockstars. He put on a show. He would engage with the audience, clown around; he would play the guitar while holding it behind his head—he was proto-Hendrix.

There were essentially two types of people going out and recording blues music: those who were looking for the new sound that could be sold, and those who were looking to preserve the sound that already existed—i.e., folklorists.

One of these folklorists I mentioned earlier: Alan Lomax. Lomax would go into these all-black penitentiaries and record the prisoners singing their work songs. One of these prisoners he recorded was a guy named Huddy Ledbetter—otherwise known as Leadbelly. When he got out of jail, he skyrocketed to fame (despite no shortage of bad press that tried to play up his prison record as a means of stinting his success). Here’s a sample of one of his songs:

You Nirvana fans who didn’t perk up at the mention of Leadbelly have probably perked up by now after hearing his music.

I still remember watching Nirvana’s Unplugged performance and when Kurt Cobain mentioned that was a Leadbelly song, I remember thinking, “Hm, Leadbelly. I’ve never heard of that band.” But like so many other teens of my generation, my introduction to this blues artist came thanks to Kurt Cobain.

The other type of person recording delta blues in the 1930s that I mentioned earlier—the type looking for the new sound—brings our story to a furniture store in Jackson, Mississippi owned by a white man named H.C. Speir. This furniture store also functioned as a venue for blues artists to be recorded and discovered. This was their way out. And in 1936, a 25-year-old blues musician entered Speir’s furniture store for this very purpose.

This brings our story back to Robert Johnson. The thing that made Robert Johnson unique to other blues artists before him is, as Elijah Wald put it in “Woke Up This Morning”: “He’s the first person we have from the blues world who had heard all the blues records. And as a result he’s the first person who doesn’t just play a style from his place. He’s, like, already this compendium of the greatest blues styles of the ‘20s and early ‘30s and he’s putting it all together.” He also didn’t just rehash old tunes with his own style, but also composed original songs, which set him apart from a lot of his contemporaries.

During his lifetime, Johnson would remain somewhat obscure and almost completely unknown. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that he would then be acclaimed as the “King of the Delt Blues Singers.”

We’ll stop our exploration of the blues backstory there. The next step in the blues journey will be boogie-woogie and rhythm & blues, but before we dive into that, we need to go back in time and talk about the other side of rock’s family tree: the country & western side.

Until then, you can access a transcript of this episode on my website,, where you can also sign up for my newsletter and gain access to the show notes, more resources for any rabbit holes you’d like to go down in your own research, as well as some fun merchandise designed by yours truly.

Show Notes

  • The Blues documentary that I reference in this episode is entitled "Woke Up This Morning."  At the time of publishing these show notes it can be accessed via YouTube here.  It doesn't appear to be available for streaming anywhere else.
  • The Brittanica entry on Robert Johnson can be accessed here.
  • You can check out the New York Times obituary on Robert Johnson right here.  No wait, right here.  Okay, I'm kidding you can access!
  • Click here to access the Voices Across Time entry on Field Hollers.
  • Visit the Alan Lomax Digital Archive to access the field recordings featured in this episode, as well as hundreds of others!  It's a fantastic resource for exploring America's musical past.
  • This Sara Stewart article for the NY Post gives a compelling argument on the... I guess you could call it "un-woke" elements to the movie Sixteen Candles.  You'll never see the movie the same way after reading it.
  • Here's a link to the WatchMojo video I played clips of while discussing "I've Been Working on the Railroad."
  • You can access W.C. Handy's sheet music in the IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) collection for free.