SONG: Hellhound On My Trail
ARTIST: Robert Johnson
Listen to it here:
The phrase “hellhound on my trail had been used numerous times in other blues songs for years before it appeared as the title of one of Robert Johnson’s biggest hits. This song is a solo performance by Johnson with his own recognizable vocals and slide guitar. His lyrics are along a similar vein to many rambling blues songs of the time, but are much darker as he’s being pursued. This visual of the hounds of hell coming to catch sinners was a prevalent theme in southern churches at that time, and may have been what Johnson had on his mind when writing the song.
Johnson recorded “Hellhound On My Trail” during his last recording session on June 20, 1937. It was the first song he recorded that day, and he died less than a year later.
For information on Robert Johnson, please take a look at our previous post: Song 14: Cross Road Blues.
Robert Johnson was considered a “Walking Bluesman” – literally a musician who walked, took the train, hitched a ride, or rode on the back of a farm tractor from gig to gig.
Hellhound on my Trail is often hailed as one of the most terrifying blues songs of all time. Some people interpret it as a lynching song, and that the singer is running from his fate.
Oooooo this is bluesy! I’ll admit, I’m not nearly as familiar with this song as I am with Crossroads Blues. It definitely sounds more like delta blues to me. If it was really intended to be about outrunning a lynch mob, then this song gives me the absolute creeps! The sound of the record totally reminds me of some of the old-time-y sounding tracks on the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. Johnson’s voice has a great wailing quality to it and of course his guitar playing is on point. If it comes down to it on our Robert Johnson double header though, I have to go with Crossroads. It’s just such a classic!
It’s a Robert Johnson double-header this week! I found Hellhound on My Trail a little bit of a left turn from Crossroad Blues. There’s something creepy and haunting about this song that I really appreciate. You feel the angst and the strain in his voice, and in his guitar. On a technical note, how does he hum so loud? I have to admit I tried to hum as loudly as possible when I was home by myself, with terrible results! This recording sounds like there’s a really quick fadeout at the end, so I wonder if this is another example of artists phoning in the ending of their songs!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song (include youtube links when possible)
Eric Clapton did a bunch of tributes to Robert Johnson, including this rendition of Hellhound On My Trail. The interesting thing about this one is that Clapton recorded this series in the same room that Johnson recorded these songs:
I get the feeling that RJ wouldn’t be particularly impressed with Fleetwood Mac’s effort here:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: