Hellhound On My Trail©
by Mitch Myers
It all started out innocently enough. I was sitting in front of my computer around four in the afternoon trying to get some work done while listening to “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings.” To tell the truth, I was well into the second disc by Robert Johnson before I actually started working. I’d been particularly unproductive that day and spent several hours on the phone before typing a single word. By the time I had gotten into a decent groove, the music had ended and I wrote in total silence for about fifteen or twenty minutes. I had forgotten all about the music when suddenly, Robert Johnson’s blues-ridden wail began coming out of my stereo speakers once again. “That’s funny,” I thought. “The disc player isn’t on auto-repeat and I don’t think there are any hidden bonus cuts on this CD.”
I quickly got up, went into the living room and looked at the digital display on my disc player. Strangely, the machine read “TRACK 30” and when I checked the notes on the CD box it listed only 21 tracks on Disc 2. The song ended before I could do much more, so I quickly programmed the machine to play “TRACK 30” again. No such luck, the song seemed to have vanished. Fretfully, I examined the entire disc track by track, but it only went up to 21. I tried going backward and forward from the first track to the last, but there was absolutely nothing extra to be found. I even plugged the damned thing into my computer and read all of the existing data information, still no go.
Feeling rather confused and somewhat desperate, I began calling people who I thought might own the Robert Johnson collection. After several fruitless conversations, I finally located an old buddy who said he owned the same 2-CD set. “Have you listened to it all the way through?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Of course I’ve listened to it.” “Come on, Jim.” I shot back. “You’re no blues fanatic. Are you absolutely sure that you’ve listened to both discs all the way through to the very end?” “Well now that I think about it, I really only remember putting on the song “Crossroads” from disc one to see how it sounded compared to that classic live version by Cream,” he confessed. “Well don’t put it on now!” I yelled. “Wait for me to get over to your place and I’ll see you in twenty minutes!”
When I made it over to Jim’s, I explained the situation and we agreed to play the second disc in its entirety rather than searching around for a phantom track that may or may not exist. As a backup, I suggested using his home cassette recorder to capture the song in case it disappeared again. According to plan, we sat through all 21 tracks on disc two before turning on the tape recorder. Sure enough, the CD kept going on in silence rather than ending after Track 21. Exactly sixteen minutes and thirty seconds later, the same ghostly blues song that I had heard in my apartment was playing on TRACK 30 from Jim’s stereo.
I must admit, I was a little freaked out. It was definitely Robert Johnson, but neither Jim nor I recognized the song and it definitely wasn’t listed anywhere on the CD package. As I feared, the song ended and we could not get the disc machine to play TRACK 30 again. Still, the meters on Jim’s cassette recorder had been moving while the tune played through, so we were confident that somebody would be able to identify the spectral song upon hearing it.
When we tried to play back the tape and it came up blank, Jim started getting really nervous. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “It’s just too weird. The whole thing about Robert Johnson having a hellhound on his trail and selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads. It’s too weird. Think about it, it says in the liner notes of the CD that Johnson was only known to have recorded 29 compositions in his strange, short life. The rest of the tracks listed on these discs are just alternate versions of those same damned songs. 29 songs…TRACK 30? Come on. And the one piece of unidentified music just happens to disappear from two different compact discs on two different stereos and can’t seem to be recorded onto tape when it does play the first and only time? Forget about it, it’s just too weird.”
We fiddled around with Jim’s stereo equipment a little while longer, but there wasn’t a trace of the music that we had just heard. It was obvious that Jim was quite uncomfortable with our discovery and really wanted me (and Robert Johnson) to get the hell out of his house. “Leave it alone, man,” he called after me as I walked to my car. “The thing is just too weird.”
The next day, I began searching for unused copies of “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings.” I also began corresponding with several people at Columbia Records to see if I could get any information that would explain this bizarre phenomenon. The people at
appeared helpful, but I got the sense that most of them thought I was crazy. I also had the distinct impression that the one guy I spoke to who actually participated in the production of “The Complete Recordings” was hiding something from me. When I asked him directly about the existence of a TRACK 30, the man became quite evasive and told me that he’d have to call me back after he checked things out. Columbia
Although I left numerous messages in the weeks that followed, I never heard from him or anyone else at
again. Meanwhile, my search for new copies of the Robert Johnson collection was not going well. None of the local record stores that I called had the box set in stock and neither did any of the on-line retailers. My contacts in the record business told me that while the Johnson collection was supposedly still in print, Columbia had been showing the item on back order for the last eighteen months. Columbia
By this time I became convinced that there was some kind of cosmic blues conspiracy going on. No matter how hard I tried, I was unable to remember anything about the song that I had heard at my home and then over again at Jim’s place. The lyrics and the tune were hidden from my memory like a drunken dream. I felt like the music was lurking somewhere in my subconscious, but I was unable to summon even a portion of the song into my surface thoughts. On top of that, my friend Jim refused to discuss our mutual experience since the day that it had happened.
After doing some fairly serious research, I did determine that there were a few Robert Johnson compositions that (supposedly) had never been recorded by the bluesman himself. Could the song have been Little Boy Blue” or ‘Take A Little Walk With Me”, both allegedly Johnson compositions that had been recorded by Robert Jr. Lockwood, a surrogate stepson to the legendary singer? No clue. The late Johnny Shines had once preserved Johnson’s little known “Tell Me Mama” on vinyl back in 1972, but hearing the Shines version didn’t jog my memory in the least. There was only one sure answer; I had to hear that song again.
In desperation, I found a high-priced record broker whose specialty was locating hard-to-find blues and jazz albums. “Listen,” I told him. “I’m looking for a double CD box set by Robert Johnson. It’s called “Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings” on
. I’m only looking for brand new copies but I’ll pay top dollar for as many as you can find.” Columbia
The broker laughed out loud and then said to me, “Kid, you’re a little bit out of your league here and let me tell you why. I already have a standing order direct from Eric Clapton’s business manager for every copy of The Complete Recordings that I can get my hands on from now until doomsday. You don’t even want to know how much he’s paying; it would make you sick. Now I don’t know what it is about these Johnson discs that all you guys are so hyped up about and the more I hear about it the less I want to know. But I can tell you that I’m not the only one who’s been contacted by people like Clapton, all of us have had similar requests on their desks for two years running. Every once in a while somebody comes across a small batch of these box sets and makes enough money to buy a house. My advice to you is to just scour old record bins and leave the high-priced dealing to folks that can afford it.”
In the months that followed, I split my time between visiting countless record stores and calling music experts and old blues musicians on the telephone. I once reached an old Johnson crony, the eighty-four year old David “Honeyboy” Edwards at his home here in
. He was nice enough when we first spoke but as soon as I asked about the chance recording of a thirtieth Robert Johnson song he abruptly hung up the phone. Established music/Robert Johnson authorities like Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick ignored me, perhaps unwilling to share any real information with a stranger such as myself. I found one copy of The Complete Recordings in a CD shop out in the suburbs near my parent’s home, but it had obviously been used and there were some strange markings carved into the inside cover of the box. Chicago
Then last night, after hours of searching the web for auctions and looking at various blues bulletin boards, I turned off my computer in a state of complete exhaustion. It was well past and a wave of discouragement washed over me. “Damn,” I said out loud. “I’d do anything for another listen to that song.” Almost immediately there was a knock at my front door. Startled, I quickly walked over to see who would be stopping by my home at such a late hour. As I got closer to the door, I felt an extreme heat coming from the outer hallway and the smell of sulfur filled the air. It was at that exact moment I realized I had made a big mistake.
For more stories written by Mitch Myers, go to http://weeklywire.com/ww/archives/authors/chicago_mitchmyers.html
Mike also reads his pieces on occasion on National Public Radio's All Things Considered as well as writes for Downbeat magazine.