Morning Music: Sweet Home Chicago

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings

Like most things about him, Robert Johnson’s song “Sweet Home Chicago” is a package of controversy. The song has many sources, most especially Scrapper Blackwell’s “Kokomo Blues.”

But John changed the refrain to, “Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago.” And he repeats it several times. He clearly does not mean, “Back to the land of California or to my sweet home Chicago.” This problem is so big that people normally change the lyrics to get rid of all references to California.

The most obvious explanation for this is that Robert Johnson was confused about American geography. But this seems unlikely. His songs indicate that he was a smart and knowledgeable guy. What’s more, Johnson traveled widely — including to Chicago and New York. So even if he didn’t know where California was, he certainly would have known where it was not.

Some have suggested that the narrator is simply meant to be ignorant. That seems a little far-fetched given that Johnson’s songs didn’t seem to go to such extremes of character.

I like to think he just means “anywhere the hell out of the south!” But who knows? He recorded the song in Texas. And I know that whenever I’ve been in Texas, I’ve wanted to be anywhere else.


Image of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings via Amazon under Fair Use.

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