New evidence indicates that Robert Johnson’s albums were sped up when they were mastered. That is to say, the real Robert Johnson does not sound like this. The theory is that either the recording was an accident, or someone deliberately sped up Johnson’s recording — an act that seems blasphemous.
To which I say, who cares?
We have a fascination with authorship and great artistry, but I honestly don’t care as much about how it was supposed to be; rather, I care how it is. A myth exists of the romantic artist who generates a singular perfect work, but this is not how great art is always generated. In fact, the collaborative effort, particularly from people considered non-artists (producers, editors, publishers, etc.), was necessary for the great work. The idea of the artist’s “original intention” is not essential to an appreciation of the art itself. Editor Gordon Lish made Raymond Carver’s style, and Jack Kerouac needed years of preparatory notebooks before sitting down to write the famous scroll (not to mention Malcolm Crowley’s careful editing and revision before the book was published).
Consider one of the most (in)famous cases of a meddling producer changing the artist’s “original intention” — the Beatles’ Let It Be, which Paul famously disowned after Phil Spector added his Wall of Sound. (McCartney was so mad that he included “The Long and Winding Road” as one of the reasons the Beatles broke up.) Here’s “The Long and Winding Road” in Spectorized, chorus-filled, strings-laden glory:
Compare to the “Naked” McCartney version released a few years back, which removed all of Spector’s manipulations:
The stripped-down version is more intimate, more of a personal paean to times and memories lost. But the Spector schlock adds something of its own, doesn’t it? The dripping sentimentality of the heavy strings affects the emotions with more potency. McCartney and the Beatles created a personal pensive song, but Spector turns it into a universal anthem. A rambling, concept album about noodling around in the studio suddenly had a showpiece.
This is not to say that the Spector version is “better.” It simply goes to show that the artist’s “original intent,” while important, may not be as important as we imagine. The number of modifications most commercially-received art undergoes before it reaches our eyes and ears is such that the individual author/artist is a chimera. Even in McCartney’s “Naked” version, he’s using the production techniques that Brian Epstein would have used. Besides, who’s to say that McCartney’s “original intent” in 1969 was the same as McCartney’s intent in 2003?
The recent revelations of Robert Johnson’s sped-up recordings show that even the most idealized and individualized romantic musical figure — the traveling bluesman who sold his soul to the devil — is just as co-dependent as everyone else. Homer was probably multiple people; Emily Dickinson needed the support and encouragement of Thomas Higginson; and Robert Johnson had a nosy producer. If anything, I find this reality much more assuring than the God-given myth of great artists, because it reminds us that prodigious talent is not the result of magic folks coming out of the clear blue sky (or another world), but products of an individual and community effort.