This Historic Day In Music: “Sweet Home Chicago”

“Oh, baby, don’t you want to go?”

If you were to make a list of “standard” Blues songs, “Sweet Home Chicago” would definitely be among the top ten. I can’t, however, think of any song on that list with roots as deep and a history as fascinating as this one.

On Monday, November 23, 1936, Mississippi Blues singer/acoustic guitarist Robert Johnson (1911-1938) recorded his song “Sweet Home Chicago.”

The recording session was for Vocalion/ARC records and took place in Rm.414 of the Gunter Hotel, in San Antonio, Texas. Don Law was the ARC producer overseeing the session and “Sweet Home Chicago” was the third of eight songs that Johnson cut that now-legendary day.

Give a listen!

“Sweet Home Chicago” – b/w “Walking Blues” – was released by Vocalion Records on a 10-inch, 78-rpm disc – #03601 – in August 1937.

Columbia Records released “Sweet Home Chicago” on a 12-inch, 33 & 1/3 rpm vinyl LP for the first time in 1970. The album, pictured above, was titled: King of the Delta Blues Singers (Vol. 2).

Somewhere along the line, I learned that Robert Johnson had actually based “Sweet Home Chicago” on an earlier song called “Old Original Kokomo Blues” by Kokomo Arnold.

Georgia-born James “Kokomo” Arnold (1896 or 1901-1968) was a singer and left-handed, lap-style slide guitarist. He recorded “Old Original Kokomo Blues” for Decca Records in 1934.

Check it out!

Arnold once explained that the recurring line, “…back to Eleven Light City…” from the end of each verse of his song refers to a drugstore in Chicago. They sold coffee there under the brand name “Koko.”

However…

Two years prior to Arnold’s record, Paramount Records released “Ko Ko Mo Blues,” Part 1 & Part 2 by a Barrelhouse Blues piano player and singer named “Jabo” Williams (1895-1953).

Williams was from Alabama and recorded just eight sides for Paramount, all at a studio in Grafton, Wisconsin in May 1932. Each verse of “Ko Ko Mo Blues” concludes with the phrase: “…to that eleven light city, sweet old Kokomo.”

This one’s pretty scratchy, but well worth hearing!

Still with me? Hope so, there’s more!

In 1928, the singer and extraordinary acoustic Blues guitarist, James “Scrapper” Blackwell (1903-1962), recorded his song, “Kokomo Blues” for Vocalion Records.

Blackwell, born in South Carolina and of Cherokee descent, recorded extensively and is most famous for his work with singer/pianist Leroy Carr.

His “Kokomo Blues” begins: “Hmm, baby, don’t you want to go? Hmm, baby, don’t you want to go? Pack your little suitcase, Papa’s goin’ to Kokomo.”

You have to hear this one! The guitar playing alone is worth your time.

Finally, in April 1928, Paramount Records released a record by Madlyn Davis (1899-?) and Her Hot Shots titled “Kokola Blues.” Davis was what is now referred to as a Classic Blues singer. She recorded a total of ten sides, all for Paramount in 1927-1928, in Chicago.

Each of the four 12-bar verses of “Kokola Blues” concludes with the lines: “And it’s hey, hey, baby*, don’t you want to go, back to that eleven light city, back to sweet Kokomo.” (* or “Papa”)

There you go! I hope you enjoyed this little journey.

One last note: All of the recordings above were released in the category that the record industry at that time referred to as “race records.” Race records were marketed exclusively to a Black audience and chiefly in the rural American South. They were nearly impossible to obtain in Northern urban areas like Harlem and Chicago’s South Side. Average sales of these records numbered in the low thousands, often only in the hundreds.

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