Hellhound on My Trail

"Hellhound on My Trail" (originally "Hell Hound on My Trail") is a blues song recorded by Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson in 1937. It was inspired by earlier blues songs[1] and blues historian Ted Gioia describes it as one of Johnson's "best known and most admired performances—many would say it is his greatest".[2]

"Hell Hound on My Trail"
Hellhound on My Trail single cover.jpg
Original 78 record label
Single by Robert Johnson
ReleasedSeptember 1937 (1937-09)
RecordedDallas, Texas, June 20, 1937
Songwriter(s)Robert Johnson


Prior to Johnson's song, the phrase "hellhound on my trail" had been used in various blues songs.[1] Sylvester Weaver's "Devil Blues", recorded in 1927 contains: "Hellhounds start to chase me man, I was a running fool, My ankles caught on fire, couldn't keep my puppies cool"[3] and "Funny Paper" Smith in his 1931 "Howling Wolf Blues No. 3" sang: "I take time when I'm prowlin', an' wipe my tracks out with my tail ... Get home and get blue an' start howlin', an' the hellhound on my trail".[4] The Biddleville Quintette's 1926 religious recording "Show Pity Lord" opens with a religious testimony declaring that "The hell hound has turned back off my trail".[5]

Blues writers, such as Elijah Wald, see Johnson following Johnny Temple (1935 "The Evil Devil Blues"[6]) and Joe McCoy (1934 "Evil Devil Woman Blues"[7]) in adapting Skip James's 1931 song "Devil Got My Woman".[1][8][9][10][11] The emotional intensity, guitar tuning and strained singing style of "Hell Hound on My Trail" are also found in James' performance.[9] In the 1980s, however, another James record "Yola My Blues Away" (1931)[12] became widely available on reissue recordings. "Devil Got My Woman" shares the tuning and vocal styles that Johnson displayed, but the "Hellhound" melody is closer to "Yola" than to "Devil". From the latter, Johnson took the device of repeating the end of lines with an attached musical phrase. Additionally, he used the lyrics of one of the verses from "Come On In My Kitchen". Blues historian Edward Komara concluded "It is probable that Johnny Temple used the "Devil" attachment phrases and lyrics while teaching "Yola" to Johnson". [13]

Composition and lyricsEdit

"Hell Hound on My Trail" is a solo performance by Johnson with vocal and slide guitar. He used an open E minor guitar tuning with the lower strings providing a droning accompaniment; Charles Shaar Murray describes "the bottleneck ... mak[ing] the treble strings of his guitar moan like wind through dead trees".[14]

Gioia notes that the lyrics "[deal] with the familiar blues theme of the rambling musician, but now the trip takes on darker tones, the traveler is pursued".[2] Music historian Samuel Charters believes the first and last verses may be the finest found in the blues.[15] The vision of the hounds of hell coming to catch sinners was prevalent in southern churches at that time and this may have been the image in Johnson's mind:[15]

I got to keep movin', I've got to keep movin', blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail
Umm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail
And the day keeps on worrin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail

Johnson recorded the song during his last recording session in Dallas, Texas, on Sunday, June 20, 1937.[2] It was the first song he recorded that day and the first single released from that session.[2]

Recognition and influenceEdit

The critic Rudi Blesh, in his 1946 book Shining Trumpets: a History of Jazz, reviewed Johnson's recording, stating: "With all its strangeness, 'Hell Hound' is not only an authentic blues, but a remarkable variation in which the standard harmony is altered in a personal and creative way to permit the expression of uncanny and weird feelings. Johnson's strident voice sounds possessed like that of a man cast in a spell and his articulation, like speech in possession, is difficult to understand...".[16] In his 1992 book Searching for Robert Johnson, Peter Guralnick described the recording as "Johnson's crowning achievement and one that is almost universally recognised as the apogee of the blues...".[17]

In 1983, Robert Johnson's "Hell Hound on My Trail" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame as a "Classic of Blues Recording".[11] Writing for the Foundation, Jim O'Neal described it as "among the deepest and darkest of Robert Johnson's legendary blues masterworks."[11] The song is listed as one of NPR's "100 most important American musical works of the 20th century".[18]


  1. ^ a b c Pearson, Barry Lee; McCulloch, Bill (2003). Robert Johnson: Lost and Found. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-252-02835-9.
  2. ^ a b c d Gioia, Ted (2008). Delta Blues (Norton Paperback 2009 ed.). New York City: W. W. Norton. pp. 181–182. ISBN 978-0-393-33750-1.
  3. ^ Okeh Records OK 8534
  4. ^ Vocalion Records Vo 1614
  5. ^ Paramount Records Pm 12424
  6. ^ Vocalion Records Vo 02987
  7. ^ Decca Records De7822
  8. ^ Paramount Records Pm 13088
  9. ^ a b Wald, Elijah (2004). Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (1st. ed.). New York City: HarperCollins. p. 171. ISBN 978-0060524272.
  10. ^ Calt, Stephen (1994). I'd Rather be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues. New York City: Da Capa. p. 194. ISBN 0-306-80579-0.
  11. ^ a b c O'Neal, Jim (November 10, 2016). "1993 Hall of Fame Inductees: Hell Hound On My Trail – Robert Johnson (ARC/Vocalion, 1937)". The Blues Foundation.
  12. ^ Paramount Records PM 133072
  13. ^ Komara, Edward (2007). The Road to Robert Johnson. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-634-00907-5.
  14. ^ Murray, Charles Shaar (1989). Crosstown Traffic. New York City: St. Martin's Press. p. 115. ISBN 0-312-06324-5.
  15. ^ a b Charters, Samuel (1973). Robert Johnson. New York City: Oak Publications. pp. 15–17, 69. ISBN 0-8256-0059-6.
  16. ^ Rudi Blesh, Shining Trumpets: a History of Jazz, 1946, p.121
  17. ^ Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson, 1992, ISBN 0-525-24801-3, p.44
  18. ^ Breslow, Peter (June 5, 2000). "Hellhound on My Trail". NPR Music. Retrieved July 1, 2014.