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bending knee

Kind Hearted Woman Blues

"Kind Hearted Woman Blues" is a blues song recorded on November 23, 1936 in San Antonio, Texas by legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. The song was originally released on 78 rpm format as Vocalion 03416 and ARC 7-03-56. Johnson performed the song in the key of A, and recorded two takes, the first of which contains his only recorded guitar solo. Both takes were used for different pressings of both the Vocalion issue and the ARC issue. The first take (SA-2580-1) can be found on many compilation albums, including the first one, King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961). Take 2 (SA-2580-2) can be heard on the later compilation Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (1990).

This was the first song that Johnson recorded, and it was carefully crafted in imitation of recent hit records. It was composed as if in answer to "Cruel Hearted Woman Blues" by Bumble Bee Slim (Amos Easton), which in turn was based on "Mean Mistreater Mama" by Leroy Carr accompanied by Scrapper Blackwell. Johnson uses the Carr melody and conveys something of Carr's style in his relaxed singing. His guitar accompaniment echoes Carr's piano phrases in the first verse, then copies Blackwell's guitar phrases in the second verse. He then adds a musical bridge in the style of another hit record, "Milk Cow Blues" by Kokomo Arnold. At the end of the bridge, he jumps into a higher register as Arnold does, but then maintains an extraordinary controlled falsetto, which may have been based on the singing of Joe Pullum. Thus Johnson showed in his very first recording that he had mastered the commercially successful urban blues style of the Thirties. However, his debut cannot be dismissed as derivative. He combined elements of the styles of others into a highly individual style of his own.

Like Bumble Bee Slim, Johnson wrote lyrics consisting mostly of conventional twelve-bar three-line verses, but varied with an eight-bar bridge. Slim's bridge merely repeated the words, but Johnson wrote a more complex sequence:

"Cruel Hearted Woman Blues" "Kind Hearted Woman Blues"
You's a cruel-hearted woman, swear,
— and you treat me like a slave …… x 2
You keep me fallin'
— down on my bending knee
I got a kind hearted woman,
— do anything in this world for me …… x 2
But these evil-hearted women,
— man, they will not let me be
Do you remember one mornin'
— when the lights was burnin' low
You give me my clothes
— and drove me from your door
Do you remember one mornin'
— when the lights was burnin' low
You give me my clothes
— and drove me from your door
There ain't but the one thing
— make Mr Johnson drink
I swear how you treat me Baby,
— I begin to think
Oh Babe
— my life don't feel the same
You break my heart
— when you call Mister So-and-so's name

Johnson also makes a marked change the tone. Leroy Carr's original "Mean Mistreating Mama" was resigned, even understanding:

You're a mean mistreating mama, and you don't mean me no good
And I don't blame you baby, I'd be the same way if I could

Bumble Bee Slim removed that hint of sympathy when he covered the song as "Mean Mistreatin' Woman":

You's a mean mistreatin' woman, but I love you just the same
I know you didn't want me, the day I changed your name

When he wrote new words to the tune, his mood was still resigned:

You's a cruel heated woman, swear, and you just can't realise
That's all right baby, I'll be the same when I rise

Johnson decides that his "kind-hearted woman" is, after all, hostile. But there is no resignation, only anguish:

I love my baby, my baby don't love me
And I really love that woman, can't stand to let her be

She's a kind-hearted woman, she studies evil all the time
You wants to kill me, just to have it on your mind

Like many of Johnson's songs, "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" is a staple in the repertoires of many blues musicians and has been recorded by dozens of traditional and contemporary blues figures, including Muddy Waters, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnny Winter, George Thorogood, and Keb' Mo'. It was included on Eric Clapton's 2004 album, Me and Mr. Johnson, along with many other Johnson classics.

On Led Zeppelin's cover of Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues", singer Robert Plant quotes this song with the line "Got a kind-hearted woman/she studies evil all the time".

References

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