from the desk of H. Bowie...

desktop with typewriter

"Come On In My Kitchen"

A song written by Robert Johnson in 1936

This song is a great example of Johnson’s craft. Let’s look at the seemingly simple lyrics.

Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm…
Mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm.
You better come on in my kitchen:
Babe, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors.

Ah, the woman I love, took from my best friend.
Some joker got lucky, stole her back again.
You better come on in my kitchen:
Baby, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors.

Oh-ah, she’s gone… I know she won’t come back.
I’ve taken the last nickel out of her nation sack.
You better come on in my kitchen:
Babe, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors.

Oh, can’t you hear that wind howl?
Oh, can’t you hear that wind howl?
You better come on in my kitchen:
Babe, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors.

When a woman gets in trouble, everybody throws her down.
Lookin’ for her good friend, none can be found.
You better come on in my kitchen:
Baby, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors.

Winter time’s comin’, it’s gon’ to be slow.
You can’t make the winter, babe, that’s dry long so.
You better come on in my kitchen:
Cause it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors.

And then, listen to Johnson’s recording, using your preferred music source.

Note that the pace of the song is slow and measured, the tone of Johnson’s delivery is deeply felt, and the accompanying guitar is delicate, even if stinging at times. So whereas the lines that he sings could be interpreted to be suggestive, or leering, or sexually assertive, his delivery conveys none of this.

Johnson begins the song by humming the first two lines of the first verse. This does a couple of things: it allows him to suggest a depth of feeling that is not yet associated with any particular characters or events, and it allows the repeated refrain to be delivered as the first words of the song, placing the thematic emphasis on the refrain, rather than the events described later.

The events of the song are not quite connected enough to form a linear story. Instead, they seem to describe a condition. The women in the song go from one situation to another, one liaison to another, with little or no power or resources of their own, no lasting relationships, no security. At its most narrow, this could be the condition of black women in the American South in the early 1900’s, but there are no details in the song, other than what we know about the singer himself, to restrict our focus this narrowly. Certainly the song could easily be considered to be about the fate of women in any age and any society.

The refrain itself is wonderful in its simplicity and its resonance. What is the singer offering? Certainly, in the context of the song, one does not expect that the offer is being made out of pure generosity or sympathy for the woman’s condition, yet the fact that no strings are overtly attached leaves the offer mysterious, open-ended. And the line “It’s going to be raining outdoors” is rich with symbolism and drama, suggesting that the woman will need protection from the elements, will need a relationship with the singer.

Two lines in the middle of the song are softly spoken rather than sung, when Johnson asks “Oh, can’t you hear the wind howl?” then uses his guitar to evoke the sound of the approaching storm. The effect, again, is to dramatize the plight of the woman who has no place to stay, no protection.

It is important to note that, while the words of the song are tremendously simple, this simplicity is not constrictive, but rather suggestive. It is not that Johnson has little to say, but that he has suggested so much with so few words. With a few bold lines, he has drawn a simple sketch, yet one that clearly outlines a world of shifting and uncertain relationships, a world of setbacks and disappointments, a world that cares little for the plight of a single woman, and yet a world that also includes this offer of protection, this open door into the singer’s kitchen.

The notes of the song rise and fall, pausing and then moving on, fittingly representing the circumstances of the woman’s life. Johnson’s voice is rich and moving, with his guitar lines fitting like a glove to a hand, supporting and extending his vocals, suggesting a delicate frailty.

Note too that, while Johnson’s vocals are emotional, the emotions are much more than simple, transient reactions to a single person in a particular time, place and situation—they are deeply felt, filled with ancient wisdom, sadness and power: as Dylan says of Johnson, “Neither forlorn or hopeless or shackled (1).”

It is interesting to see how much variation Johnson uses in this simple song structure. He hums the first two lines. Later on in the song he speaks two lines instead of singing them. And when singing, “Lookin’ for her good friend, none can be found,” note how he varies his accompaniment, using his guitar to match the vocal melody, seemingly emphasizing the sadness of the song.

Just for fun, let’s see if we can find some echoes of this simple Johnson song in later works of rock music. John Lennon uses the weather and a similarly simple set of words to describe a universal condition in “Rain.” Dylan uses an approaching storm and a similarly open-ended dramatic situation in “All Along the Watchtower.” Dylan uses a similarly simple refrain based on the weather in “Blowing in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” And the tone of Johnson towards the woman in this song seems similar to the tone of Dylan towards a woman in hardship in “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Like many of Johnson’s tracks, “Come On In My Kitchen” is a masterwork in which words, vocals and guitar parts are all perfectly crafted to deliver a single, unified artistic effect. Those who followed him would spend hours, days, weeks and months surrounded by sophisticated recording equipment, trying to achieve similar effects, emulating this almost unknown bluesman whose only opportunities for immortality were a few hours in makeshift recording studios hastily set up in hotel rooms. Yet those few hours were enough for Johnson to alter the course of music decades later.

As one of his students admitted:

If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down – that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised enough to write.

— Bob Dylan (1)

  1. Bob Dylan. Chronicles: Volume One. Simon & Schuster, 2004.  ↩

May 25, 2009