Lyrical Content

The lyrics of Robert Johnson’s music, like most artists of the blues, are rarely about the words themselves but more about larger themes that symbolize the personal, spiritual and cultural.  “While some see the blues as autobiographical laments, others have seen them as a recounting of “species experience.” In reality they can be either or both.”[1]  Johnson’s music can be embodied in two themes; actual deeds and desires, which emphasize the personal over the communal, and conflict which expresses helplessness and empowerment, indicated by themes of lust and impotence.  An analysis of Johnson’s lyrics will show that several of his pieces embody the theme of conflict. Enigmatic

In the songs; “Walkin’ Blues,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” and “Terraplane Blues” an element of conflict between women and relationships can be found.  Johnson conveys in his text alternating ideas of women as objects and important figures in relationships.  These contrasting ideas express the elements of helplessness and empowerment.  In “Terraplane Blues” Johnson derogatorily compares a woman to a Hudson Terraplane, which is an inexpensive automobile of the 1930’s.  This particular piece exemplifies the lust and anger themes that permeate Johnson’s music.   Johnson doesn’t seem interested in the emotional state of this woman; instead he is only concerned with the physical aspects.  The beginning of the piece, Johnson is angry at her infidelity as he questions; “who been drivin’ my Terraplane for you since I been gone?”   The lusting, physical connection can be seen in other phrases as well.  “I’m on'h'ist your hood, mama I'm bound to check your oil,” and “I'm on get deep down in this connection keep tanglin' with your wires.”  Both of these phrases suggest a physical solution, that Johnson sees this woman’s sexuality as something as common as working on a car.  “The woman here, like a common car, works like any other, has the same parts, needs the same things and starts the same way. He continuously fiddles with her, trying to find the loose connection, the reason she isn't "giving him fire."[2]  Johnson’s continued use of aggressive physical ‘solutions’ demonstrates the idea that this association is merely lustful, and that this woman is merely a piece of property he can use as he sees fit. 

In the piece “Walkin’ Blues” Johnson seems to portray a different element, this time he expresses helplessness over the loss of a woman.  The immediate context of this song seems to be a man totally depressed over the departure of his woman.  He says; “I woke up this mornin’ feelin’ round for my shoes, know ‘bout where I got these old walkin’ blues.”  However the initial line suggests that Johnson is not surprised by the way he feels.  A literal reading of these two verses would suggest that the performers had no hope and were extremely depressed. …..Johnson's slashing bottleneck technique, register an effect on the listener that suggests anything but defeat or resignation.”[3]  The next line “Lord I feel like blowin’ my old lonesome horn, got up this mornin’ my little Bernice was gone,” shows again the lustful context of Johnson’s relationships.  The lyrics appear to be describing an “arranged encounter” between Johnson and this woman.  Johnson says he will ride the blind, which is an alliteration to hoping on the next freight train without any regard to where it is going.  This disconnected emotional state that would allow Johnson to leave so easily, does not seem to convey a feeling of helplessness over the parting of these two people.  Instead it summarizes Johnson’s lustful themes, that women can be used to satisfy himself however he chooses. 

The last piece, “Come on in my kitchen,” illustrates a different theme altogether.  Johnson seems to speak to the importance of a woman in a relationship.  The lyrics do not seem to convey a sexual longing for a woman, but rather an emotional need for attachment or Johnson’s helplessness in the longing for a relationship.  There are lyrics that provide the double entendre descriptions of sexual acts in this song as well.  The song begins with the lyrics: “The woman I love, stole her from my best friend, Joker got lucky and stole her back again.”  The vocal delivery along with Johnson’s guitar make this line sound “moodily soulful, the sort of music that sounds as if the singer is somewhere off alone, absorbing all the world’s sorrows and transforming them into a perfectly formed, deeply personal gem of poetic wisdom.”[4]  This is the first example of Johnson exhibiting something that is desperately human, a longing that seems like it can never be fulfilled.  Several times Johnson makes reference to difficult or hard times, each time offering the woman a place to find shelter:  “It’s goin’ to be rainin’….you can’t make the winter..” finishing each line by pleading for the woman to come in to his kitchen.  The interesting thing about this piece is how Johnson offers the woman a place for shelter, if she’ll join him in a relationship.   The intentions may be somewhat chauvinistic; however this piece differs from the others in the mournful delivery of vocals and guitar. 

These three pieces exemplify the idea that Johnson’s lyrics are rarely about the words themselves.  Johnson alternates between helplessness and empowerment, lust and impotence in many of his songs.  The stark contrast between a woman as a sexual object and woman as someone to long for and desire are seen clearly in these examples.  The contrasting ideas affect the way Johnson interacts; whether it is forcefully or carefully depends on the way in which he views the woman.  Pieces like “Walkin’ Blues,” “Terraplane Blues,” and “Come In my Kitchen” illustrating the conflicting thoughts.  It is unclear what Johnson’s intentions are, however it appears that the contradictory sentiments exhibited in these pieces reflect the conflicting mind set of Robert Johnson himself. 

[1] Steven Tracy. Blues Lyrics. Houghton Mifflin Company. http://www.college.cengage.com/english/lauter/heath/4e/students/author_pages/modern/blueslyrics.html (24 July 2008).

[2] Maggie Gordon. “Women as Sexual Object or Healer in Terraplane Blues and Come On In My Kitchen.” http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MUSIC/blues/gordon.html. July 24, 2008.

[3] Ralph Eastman. "Country Blues Performance and Oral Tradition." Black Music Research Journal 8, no. 2 (1988).

[4] Elijah Wald. Escaping the Delta. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.