Friday, May 28, 2010

Come On In My Kitchen

SONG: Come On In My Kitchen

BY: Robert Johnson

PERFORMED BY: Robert Johnson

APPEARS ON: Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings [Sony]

What makes a “great artist?” Culturally, we place a high value on originality, & this concept plays a large role in our definition of artistic “greatness.” But is “originality” such a useful concept after all? It could be argued that much of our passion for the original is rooted in such mundane concerns as copyright & other intellectual property laws. For instance, without a piece of music being “original,” how can you secure intellectual property rights?

But in practice, “originality” is a part of a more complicated creative whole, & nowehere is this more clear than in the realm of folk music traditions, & particularly in that very fecund US folk tradition, the blues.

Robert Johnson is generally considered the most important blues figure from the pre-World War II period. He was a guitarist of preternatural skill, a vocalist with amazing range & expressiveness, & a composer of considerable ability. But his compositional ability has to be understood within the terms of his tradition—a musical tradition in which melodies, riffs & chord progressions were a common inheritance that were to be personalized. Thus, Johnson’s great “Hellhound on My Trail” is in a real sense a re-write of Skip James’ equally great “Devil Got My Woman”; “Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” re-sets a Leroy Carr melody; “Preching the Blues” is a magnificent re-working of Son House’s “Preaching Blues.”

An interesting example of how Johnson could re-shape existing material & make it completely his own is the song “Come On In My Kitchen.” If you take the time to listen to the three songs below, you can hear how “Come On In My Kitchen” springs from the Mississippi Sheiks’ 1930 hit, “Sitting on Top of the World”—which also begat Atalanta 12-string whiz Barbecue Bob’s 1930 "I'm On My Way Down Home." Johnson’s re-setting of the song is interesting musically because he takes what is a fairly standard 3-chord blues progression & reduces it to what is essentially a one-chord modal song—in a sense, he has taken the more popular blues sound of the Sheiks & made it new by making it old—the modal style tended to be more common in the work of earlier artists such as Charlie Patton & Son House in the days before the 12-bar chord progression that is so common to modern blues took over. In fact, it’s that modal nature, with the many “blue notes” (flatted thirds in particular, making the song drift eerily between major & minor) that give “Come On In My Kitchen” so much of its haunting quality.

There are a couple of lyric moments that should be noted. In the second verse, Johnson refers to his woman friend’s “nation sack.” According to the Lucky Mojo website:

In fact, a nation sack is a mojo hand, conjure bag, toby, or root bag—one that is only carried by women—and it is worn hanging from a belt at the waist, not around the neck. Furthermore, during the 1930s its use, by that name at least, seems to have been restricted to the region immediately around Memphis, Tennessee. Its basic use is in spells of female domination over men.

Johnson also uses the phrase “dry long so.” According to Harry’s Blues Lyrics Online, “the phrase ‘dry long so’ is a dialectic description of being poor. In the context of the Robert Johnson song it relates to not having enough food and clothing and other essential things to last through the winter.” Skip James also uses this phrase in his great song “Hard Times Killing Floor.”

But enough from me—please enjoy “Come On In My Kitchen,” a truly great song, as well as its interesting antecedents!

Come On In My Kitchen

Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Ah, the woman I love, took from my best friend,
some joker got lucky, stole her back again
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Oh, she's gone, I know she won't come back
I've taken the last nickel out of her nation sack
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

(spoken: oh, can't you hear that wind howl?)
Oh, can't you hear that wind would howl?
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

When a woman gets in trouble, everybody throws her down
Lookin' for her good friend, none can be found
You better come on in my kitchen, it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Winter time's comin', it's gonna be slow
You can't make the winter, babe, that's dry long so
You better come on in my kitchen, 'cause it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Robert Johnson


  1. It's always interesting to see the lineage of songs. And it's especially cool to learn that one of my favorite Clapton songs - "Sittin' on Top of the World", from the Cream days - is actually ancestor to a Robert Johnson tune. There is no plagiarism in music, only evolution.

  2. One of these days I'll listen to Robert Johnson without my jaw hanging open. This isn't that day.

    The Mississippi Sheiks and Barbecue are pretty amazing in their own right. Love the violin!

    Roy's point reminds me of Fitzgerald's observation that all literature was a retelling of either Jack and the Beanstalk (the strength and/or cleverness of men) or Cinderella (the love of women).

    John, I really enjoy your technical explanations of the music and techniques.

  3. Roy: "There is no plagiarism in music, only evolution"--Amen to that! Glad you enjoyed this.

    K: Yes, violin in the blues is cool; not something you hear much past the 30s. I like the Fitzgerald quote; & thanks, glad you enjoyed this.

  4. great post! I just saw it today, and laughed, because my post today features Robert Johnson singing "Crossroads."

  5. Did you ever get this book:

  6. The book looks like a gem. Can't believe that one passed me by.

  7. Hi TaraDharma & Clare: Sorry to be so late in responding--it has been a very busy weekend!

    TaraD: Yes, I saw that post--Cross Road Blues is a great song, too & one that's always worth listening to!

    Clare: That sounds like a great book--thanks for pointing it out. As an amateur birdwatcher myself, really liked your blog!