Monday Notes

Robert Johnson, They’re Red Hot. Between blues and minstrel show

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[Monday Notes No. 135] Robert Johnson is a blues legend. He died at only 27 years of age, of him there remain a handful of recordings in which he sings accompanied by guitar, in the classic Delta blues style. One of these recordings, however, is very different from the others: it’s a song, entitled They’re Red Hot.

Unlike almost all the songs recorded by Robert Johnson, this track is not a blues but a song that probably has its roots in the music of the 19th century. In particular, the piece may derive from the Minstrel Show, the travelling shows that went from town to town and contributed to the development and spread of African-American music.

They’re Red Hot is a simple piece and has a strophic form. Harmonically, the piece centres around the classic turn around I VI II V, typical of much early jazz music.

They're Red Hot - Robert Johnson (parte prima)

In the central part we hear a modulation to the IV degree, then the initial turn around is repeated again. The piece is already completed in 16 measures, but ends with an additional coda lasting 2 measures, which brings the total to 18 bars.

They're Red Hot - Robert Johnson (parte seconda)
They’re Red Hot – Robert Johnson (parte seconda)

The melody is almost spoken and insists on the tonic C. But the most interesting aspect of They’re Red Hot is the rhythm, which definitely recalls a swing pattern. They’re Red Hot is thus not a classic blues, but a ministrel show tune. It is played, however, by one of the legends of Delta blues, Robert Johnson.

The lyrics talk about ‘tamales’, a typical Central American dish. The tamales in They’re Red Hot are hot, spicy, and are served by a girl sleeping in the kitchen, but with her feet in the living room. It is obvious that the song conceals erotic double entendres, certainly underlined by the winking of the performer during the song’s performances, in travelling shows.

A final detail about this song, the Beatles’ Her Majesty bears a striking resemblance to They’re Red Hot. Paul MaCartney sang this tune during a recording session, without initially thinking of releasing it. I wonder if he had listened to Robert Johnson. If so, it would be truly ironic, the mysterious girl with her feet in the kitchen in the Beatles’ tune became none other than the Queen of the United Kingdom!

Until next Monday!

Download the lead sheet of The’re Red Hot

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