Friday, April 30, 2010

Terraplane Blues

SONG: Terraplane Blues

BY: Robert Johnson

PERFORMED BY: Robert Johnson, Rory Block, et al.

APPEARS ON: Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings [Sony]; Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues [Rounder]

If you’re going to talk about the blues, & especially about the blues from the Mississippi Delta region—home to a great many remarkable musicians—you have to talk about Robert Johnson. This man lived a short life—he died at the age of 27—& actually was somewhat obscure in his own time, certainly not as well known in the Delta region as Charlie Patton & Son House. Since his death, however, & especially since the 1961 release of the King of the Delta Blues lp, he has grown enormously in stature & is generally considered as a seminal figure not only in the blues, but also in the development of rock & roll.

He recorded 29 songs during his lifetime, but not all were released & none were major hits, even within the Delta. In fact, the song we’re looking at today was his most commercially successful side, selling around 5,000 copies.

“Terraplane Blues” isn’t really a song about a car, tho it’s worth knowing that the Terraplane, a model made by the Hudson Car Company in the 1930s, is the auto referred to in the lyrics. The song is ultimately about infidelity & loss of desire. This specific metaphor didn’t originate with Johnson—one notable example of the car as sexual metaphor in the old time blues is Blind Boy Fuller’s “Worn Out Engine,” which is very different musically but shares some of the same images of sexual dysfunction. Johnson’s setting, however, is remarkable for the guitar virtuosity he displays over the top of a standard 12-bar blues progression. One characteristic of Delta blues is the driving, damped bass strummed or plucked on the lowest 3 strings of the guitar. Johnson was a master of this & “Terraplane Blues” is a great example.

Johnson also very frequently employed a slide with his playing, & “Terraplane Blues” includes some memorable slide riffs. Perhaps what’s most notable about the song in this regard, however, is the fact that the slide is used only for a few riffs within the song. More typically in the Delta blues, the slide will be the “response” to the singer’s “call,” & thus be used often within a song. To confine its use to a handful of riffs is somewhat unusual—for one thing, wearing a slide effectively removes one left hand finger from fretting & in that sense is a bit of a handicap.

Why was “Terraplane Blues” moderately successful while others of Johnson’s songs were not? There are, for instance, some notable musical similarities between “Terraplane Blues” & “Cross Road Blues,” tho the latter makes more use of the slide. Was it the lyrics or was it something about the driving beat & the riffs? It’s hard to say what set this song apart during the 1930s from his other great recordings, but it’s most certainly a great blues tune. “Terraplane Blues” has been covered a number of times by such noteworthy musicians as Peter Green, Canned Heat, Eric Clapton, Foghat & Roy Rogers (the bluesman, not the singing cowboy!) I’ve chosen to add a video of one of my one favorite blues players, Rory Block, who does a great job both with the vocal & the guitar.

Hope you enjoy the song.

Terraplane Blues

And I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
When I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
Who been drivin' my Terraplane for you since I been gone.

I'd said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won't even blow
(spoken: Somebody's been runnin' my batteries down on this machine)
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won't even blow
Got a short in this connection, hoo well, babe, it's way down below

I'm goin' hoist your hood, mama, I'm bound to check your oil
I'm goin' hoist your hood, mama, mmm, I'm bound to check your oil
I got a woman that I'm lovin' way down in Arkansas

Now, you know the coils ain't even buzzin', little generator won't get the spark
Motor's in a bad condition, you gotta have these batteries charged
But I'm cryin', please, please don't do me wrong.
Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for you since I been gone.

Mr. highway man, please don't block the road
Please don't block the road
'Cause she's reachin' a cold one hundred and I'm booked and I got to go

Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Yoo ooo ooo ooo, you hear me weep and moan
Who been drivin' my Terraplane now for you since I been gone

I'm goin' get down in this connection, keep on tanglin' with your wires
I'm goin' get down in this connection, oh well, keep on tanglin' with these wires
And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire

Robert Johnson


  1. They just don't make songs like this anymore! Very clever. Thanks for sharing both versions!

  2. Hi Sabine: Thanks! Glad you liked it. Obviously the original Johnson version is fantastic, but I think Block's performance is pretty darned good, too.

  3. Very nice, thanks for posting this.

  4. Got a short in this connection way down below!

    When I discovered Robert Johnson back in the early 80s, I listened to those albums over and over. I couldn't believe how awesome he was. I believe that many of the tunes were recorded in San Antonio, either at the St. Anthony's Hotel or the Menger Hotel. San Antonio's signal and sole contribution to the blues.

    I like Keith Richard's story about hearing Johnson for the first time:

    "Who's that playing guitar?"

    "That's Robert Johnson!"

    "OK, but who's the other guy?"

    Of course, there was no other guy.

  5. Hi Reality Zone & K

    Reality Zone: Thanks!

    K: Yes, I know the Richards story, & I can appreciate his confusion--actually, Terraplane Blues is a prime example of a song that has such distinct & strong bass & treble parts it could easily be two guitars. I think you're right about the setting for his recordings being in San Antonio. I listened to both volumes of King of the Delta Blues many times myself!

  6. My late wife and I discovered Robert Johnson at about the same time we first heard Miles' In A Silent. We'd just sit quietly and listen to them, pretty much in awe.

  7. i really like listening to blues music! It's soothing to the ears. :-)

  8. Hi K & fish tank

    K: Pretty much in awe is an appropriate response to both those musicians!

    fish tank: Glad you liked it!

  9. You know me K Hank Williams Journal, always going on about Hank being the greatest singer the world has ever seen, but I've alway loved Robert Johnson;s few precious performances. He like Hank seems to carry in his voice and inflection the wisdom and sorrow of the ages. I can't express it.

    John W

  10. Hi John W: Hank & RJ were both such immediate & direct & moving vocalists! Thanks for stopping by!