Sweet Home Chicago: Robert Johnson; Buddy Guy; Eric Clapton

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Sweet Home Chicago. This is one of the classic ‘roots’ blues songs. We will start with the original version by the legendary blues artist Robert Johnson, and then discuss covers of that song by Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton.

Robert Johnson and Sweet Home Chicago:

We covered Robert Johnson in our blog post on the song Crossroads. So here we will briefly review the details, such as are known or surmised, of Johnson’s life.

The fact is that we know very little for certain about Robert Johnson’s life. He is believed to have been born in Hazelhurst, MS in 1911. He performed as an itinerant musician in the bar circuit in the Mississippi Delta, but during his career also traveled further afield to Chicago, New York and Canada.

Johnson died in 1938 at age 27. He is rumored to have been poisoned, perhaps by a jealous husband. Apparently Johnson had a distinct fondness for both liquor and women. But again, this story of his death could be completely false.

During his lifetime Johnson was a rather minor figure, known primarily to a small group of musicians who frequented the Mississippi juke-joint scene. Johnson would be completely unknown today were it not for the products of two recording sessions.

"Photo-booth self-portrait” of Johnson, believed to have been taken in the early 1930s. From the Granger Collection, New York..

“Photo-booth self-portrait” of Johnson, believed to have been taken in the early 1930s. From the Granger Collection, New York..

The first took place at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio in 1936; there, Johnson recorded 16 different tunes, with multiple takes of several songs. These include Cross Road Blues, Kind-Hearted Woman Blues and Sweet Home Chicago.

The second session took place in Dallas in 1937. On this occasion Johnson recorded 13 songs plus some multiple takes, including Hellhound on My Trail and Love in Vain.

Here are two of the only known photos of Robert Johnson and his guitar. They are believed to have been taken in the early 1930s. In the first “photo booth self-portrait,” take a look at Johnson’s incredibly long fingers.

The second photo below, was a studio portrait, which may have been intended for a record album or other publicity purposes.

Robert Johnson Robert Johnson Studio Portrait Hooks Bros., Memphis, circa 1935 ©1989 Delta Haze Corporation

Robert Johnson Robert Johnson Studio Portrait Hooks Bros., Memphis, circa 1935 ©1989 Delta Haze Corporation

In 1961 on the urging of the great popular music entrepreneur John Hammond, Jr., Columbia Records issued a compilation of his work titled King of the Delta Blues Singers. At this time his work became recognized by blues musicians around the world.

This was particularly true in Chicago, where musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf had emigrated from the South. Johnson’s work was also noted by musicians like Eric Clapton and Brian Jones, who were leaders in a British blues revival movement.

Jones introduced his Rolling Stones bandmates to Johnson’s music and they subsequently recorded a couple of his songs. Robert Plant was also influenced by Johnson’s music, and his blues-rock group Led Zeppelin later issued a cover of Johnson’s Traveling Riverside Blues.

Here is the audio of Robert Johnson singing and playing guitar on Sweet Home Chicago.

The song Sweet Home Chicago is a classic twelve-bar blues song. It refers to a journey far from the South, and in a later verse introduces a counting rhyme.

Oh baby don’t you want to go (2x)
Back to the land of California
To my sweet home Chicago

… Now one and one is two
Two and two is four
I’m heavy loaded baby
I’m booked I gotta go

First off, although the song is credited to Robert Johnson, it is clear that this song is simply a modification of earlier blues tunes. For example, the 1920s song Kokomo Blues includes the extremely similar refrain

Mmmm, baby don’t you want to go (2×)
Pack up your little suitcase, Papa’s going to Kokomo

Also, the geographic references are extremely puzzling, in particular “the land of California … Chicago” – huh? There has been much speculation as to Johnson’s meaning here. Some have suggested that he was referring to a long road trip, one that would take him first to California and from there to Chicago.

Others have speculated that Johnson may have lifted the line from an earlier song’s lyrics that went something like “the land of California, where the sweet oranges grow.”

In any case, the song Sweet Home Chicago has become one of the great blues classics. Any number of bluesmen have taken on the song. As we will see, the song lends itself to “jams” of blues performers, particularly for guitarists who can improvise extended riffs on the basic melody.

In this song Johnson’s high-pitched vocals are paired with some extraordinary guitar work. In particular, Johnson’s ability to simultaneously play a ‘walking blues’ line on the low strings, rhythm notes on the middle and a lead line on the treble strings was unique at the time.

In 1990 Columbia Records issued a 2-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. As advertised, this contained all 29 of Johnson’s recordings. By this time Johnson’s legacy was sufficiently well established that the album sold a million copies.

Buddy Guy and Sweet Home Chicago:

About 30 years ago, I saw the great blues singer and harmonica player Junior Wells perform at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge. I have to say, the venue was pretty striking – it was really a dump! Everything about the place, from the storefront to the club’s neighborhood to the décor, struck me as grubby and low-class.  Also, the food was also nothing to write home about.

The music, on the other hand, was terrific. Junior Wells was an extremely talented blues musician. Both his singing and harmonica playing were first-rate and a real treat.

After the show I was talking with my friends, and I remarked on another thing that had really impressed me. “The house band was really rocking,” I said, “particularly the guitarist, who could really play.”

“I’ve got news for you,” said my friend, “That was no ‘house band’ — that was Buddy Guy performing with his old friend Junior Wells.” I was embarrassed to tell my friend that I didn’t know who Buddy Guy was, so I bought one of his albums the next chance I got. And I was really blown away to experience one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time.

Below is a photo of Buddy Guy performing in New York in 1970.

Buddy Guy has had an epic career. After he arrived in Chicago from his native Louisiana in the late 1950s, he began backing up musicians such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf at Chess Records studios.

Theoretically, Guy’s career could have taken off at this time, but the Chess Records brass were convinced that Buddy Guy’s personal performing style would never be commercially successful. In fact, Chess Records CEO Leonard Chess described Guy’s music as “noise.”

So Chess Records relegated him to backing up their stable of stars, or saddled him with soul ballads or jazz instrumentals for his solo releases. In the meantime, blues guitarists who heard Buddy play were blown away by his talent and creativity.

Listening to artists like Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck and Bill Wyman rave about Buddy Guy’s playing style and his technical innovations, one would expect that Buddy was a proven superstar. However, although he had an established reputation in Chicago blues circles and amongst professional musicians, on the popular level he was still toiling in relative obscurity until the early 1990s.

Buddy’s big break finally occurred when Eric Clapton produced an epic series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall over a several-week period in 1990 and 1991. Clapton invited many of the world’s premier guitarists to appear on those shows, and Buddy Guy was one of the invitees.

The sessions produced a couple of CDs and a DVD of the performances, titled 24 Nights. Buddy Guy’s guitar playing at these concerts established him as a legitimate superstar, and soon after that he signed a recording contract that jump-started his career.

Since then Buddy Guy has gained worldwide fame as one of the great blues guitarists. In fact, Eric Clapton readily admits to “borrowing” various of Buddy’s licks, and apparently Jimi Hendrix copied several of Buddy’s theatrical trademarks, such as playing the guitar behind his back, or with his teeth.

Until now we have emphasized Buddy Guy’s guitar playing. However, he is also a terrific blues vocalist. He has a very powerful voice, and is a really impressive singer.

So here is a live performance by Buddy Guy of Sweet Home Chicago.

Here, Buddy is in concert in Houston. For the proprietor of Buddy Guy’s Legends Blues Club in Chicago, it is only natural that Sweet Home Chicago is one of his signature tunes.

And Buddy does not disappoint. He pulls out several items from his bag of guitar tricks. Some of his runs and trills are really breathtaking. Buddy can instantly switch from ear-splitting power chords to barely audible notes, and he has clearly mastered (and sometimes invented) a host of playing styles and special effects.

In fact, upon watching Buddy Guy perform, one has to ask – what was Leonard Chess thinking? Why didn’t Chess see what appears to be immediately obvious, namely that Buddy Guy is one of the great guitar heroes?

Perhaps Chess resembled the students in the 1985 movie Back to the Future. Remember the scene where Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) appears as a guitarist at his mother’s 1955 senior prom? He plays Johnny B. Goode, initially just repeating Chuck Berry’s classic chords, but eventually taking off into an 80s-style ‘head-banger’ guitar solo.

The students from 1955 are totally unable to relate to McFly’s music from a later era. Perhaps Buddy Guy’s guitar technique was so advanced that Leonard Chess could not appreciate it?

Eric Clapton and Sweet Home Chicago:

Eric Clapton is one of our favorite musicians. Over his career, he has been affiliated with a number of bands before embarking on a solo career. We discussed his cover of Crossroads as a member of Cream, his cover of Under My Thumb with the group Blind Faith, the song Layla with Derek and the Dominoes, and his cover of Willie and the Hand Jive.

So here we will give a very brief review of Eric Clapton and his career.

Eric Clapton is one of the premier guitarists in the world. Although he is incredibly versatile, his first love has always been the blues.  Clapton got his start in 1963 while still in his teens, as the lead guitarist for the British blues-revival group the Yardbirds.

After about 18 months, Clapton quit the Yardbirds when they changed their focus from blues-revival music to more straightforward rock and roll. He then joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where he lasted about a year, just long enough for “Clapton is God” graffiti to begin appearing in London Underground stations.

Next, Clapton solidified his ‘rock-god’ status in the power trio Cream. Although Cream received tremendous acclaim for their blend of blues and hard rock, personal tensions within the group were exceptionally high. Clapton found himself caught in the middle between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, who loathed each other. In addition, Clapton was convinced that the group often ‘skated’ on their great talent, frequently turning in sub-par performances.

Below is a photo of Eric Clapton appearing on the Johnny Cash Show in 1970.

Cream broke up after about three years, and Clapton once again found himself searching for a group. He formed Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker, but that lasted for only one year and a single album. After a short hiatus, Eric formed the quartet Derek and the Dominos. The Allman Brothers lead guitarist Duane Allman sat in for roughly half the songs on the Derek and the Dominos double album.

Duane Allman’s tragic death, together with additional personnel issues, cut short the Dominos’ lifetime after a single album. Following that, Clapton embarked on a long and distinguished solo career. Although he has dealt with a number of difficult personal issues, he is an absolutely spectacular guitar player and bluesman.

Particularly when working in his favorite blues idiom, Eric Clapton has wonderful musical instincts. He combines speed and precision, and seems to hit the perfect note every time. Although he performs with several different guitars, for several decades his favorite guitar was his Fender Stratocaster ‘Blackie.’

So here is Eric Clapton in the studio recording Sweet Home Chicago.

I really enjoy this video, as you can see Clapton in the studio, initially giving directions to the recording engineers. The song provides solo opportunities for organ, piano and rhythm guitar, in addition to a short solo bit by Eric himself. As always, he produces guitar work of great economy and virtuosity.

I’m happy to say that starting in 1982, Eric Clapton checked himself into Minnesota’s Hazelden Clinic for treatment for his chemical dependency issues.
After a couple of stays there, he conquered his addictions and appears to have been clean and sober ever since.

Clapton has since founded a drug treatment facility called the Crossroads Centre in Antigua. Clapton has organized a Crossroads Guitar Festival event in order to provide funds for the Centre. The event has been held five times, with performers who were hand-picked by Eric. It has been a phenomenal success both musically and as a fund-raiser.

I mentioned earlier that Sweet Home Chicago is a great ‘blues jam’ song, where blues musicians get together and take turns providing improvised solos off the general theme. So here is such a jam session. Fittingly enough, this is the finale from Eric Clapton’s 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival that was held in Bridgeview, IL.

As you can see, Sweet Home Chicago is a perfect vehicle for this sort of star-studded ensemble song. You can see a gaggle of guitar heroes in this one video – Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, John Mayer (the youngster), Johnny Winter (seated), Robert Cray (with baseball cap), Hubert Sumlin (with hat and glasses) and Jimmie Vaughan (the final soloist).

Buddy Guy leads off the song, Buddy and Eric share the vocals, and every guitarist takes a brief solo during the piece. The song is a great showcase for these blues guitarists, and a real treat for the audience.

President Obama joins in singing Sweet Home Chicago at a White House blues concert

President Obama joins in singing Sweet Home Chicago at a White House blues concert

We will leave you with one final photo. In February 2012, Barack Obama hosted a “Red, White and Blues” concert to celebrate Black History Month. A group of legendary musicians put on a performance of blues music in the East Room of the White House.

Their last song on the program was, appropriately, Sweet Home Chicago. The musicians persuaded President Obama to join in singing the chorus of this song. In addition to the President, you can see from L: Troy Andrews; Jeff Beck; Derek Trucks; B.B. King; and Gary Clark, Jr. Enjoy!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Sweet Home Chicago
Wikipedia, Robert Johnson
Wikipedia, Buddy Guy
Wikipedia, Eric Clapton

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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One Response to Sweet Home Chicago: Robert Johnson; Buddy Guy; Eric Clapton

  1. Pingback: Love in Vain Blues: Robert Johnson; the Rolling Stones; Eric Clapton | Tim's Cover Story

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