Sweet Home Chicago

In honor of my trip to Chicago this past weekend, I thought I would feature a song that takes about Chicago.  I am talking about the song Sweet Home Chicago.

This is a very old song for sure and just about everyone under the sun has done a version of this song.  My very favorite version is still the version done by the Blues Brothers.

Here are some of the other cover versions that I really like:

Amazing early version performed by Robert Johnson.

Version by Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Version performed by the Blues Brothers Band.

Version performed by Buddy Guy.

Version by Robert Lockwood Jr.

Version by Magic Sam.

Version performed by Johnny Shines.

Version performed by Freddie King.

Version in the studio by Eric Clapton.

Even President Obama does a version of the song.

Great cover by two good ol boys down by the railroad tracks.

Sweet Home Chicago” is a popular blues standard in the twelve bar form.  It was first recorded and is credited to have been written by Robert Johnson. Over the years the song has become one of the most popular anthems for the city of Chicago despite ambiguity in Johnson’s original lyrics.

The melody was previously used in a number of recorded blues songs, including “Honey Dripper Blues”, “Red Cross Blues” and the immediate model for the song: “Kokomo Blues”. Some have lyrics of the typical AAB structure e.g.

Oh my days are so long, babe, you know my nights are lonesome too
Oh my days are so long, babe, my nights are lonesome too
I can’t find my honey dripper, Lord I don’t know what to do

Others have the AB + refrain structure e.g.

If anybody don’t believe I’ve got a Red Cross man
Go out in my back yard to get my Red Cross can

Oh, baby don’t don’t you want to go
Go with me and my man down to the Red Cross Store

Elijah Wald suggested that the Indianapolis-based Scrapper Blackwell was the first to introduce a reference to the relatively close Kokomo, Indiana with this AAB verse

Mmmm, baby don’t you want to go
Pack up your little suitcase, Papa’s going to Kokomo

More copied was the version recorded a year earlier in 1927 by Madlyn Davis with the refrain:

And it’s hey, hey baby, baby don’t you want to go
Back to that eleven light city, back to sweet Kokomo

In 1932, Jabo Williams recorded “Ko Ko Mo Blues,” with the same refrain and included the counting line

One and two is three, four and five and six

In 1933, James Arnold laid claim to the song, styling himself Kokomo Arnold and his version as “Old Original Kokomo Blues”.

Now one and one is two mama, two and two is four
You mess around here pretty mama, you know we got to go

Cryin O, baby don’t you want to go
Back to the eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo[9]

In 1959, Arnold told Jacques Demetre that he had composed “Kokomo Blues”.  ‘The Eleven Light City’ was, he claimed, the name of a Chicago drugstore where a girlfriend worked, and ‘Koko’ their brand name of coffee.

Kokomo was a city of little significance to a Southern audience.  Papa Charlie McCoy changed the reference to the better known Baltimore.  Robert Johnson changed the character of the song to one of aspirational migration, replacing back to Kokomo with to Chicago, and replacing that eleven light city with another migrational goal that land of California.

But I’m cryin’ hey baby, Honey don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California, To my sweet home Chicago

Johnson sang this as a refrain, and also as a first verse.  Otherwise, his text retained the structure of Arnold’s hit record, with similar counting verses:

Ooh, baby don’t you want to go
Ooh, baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California, To my sweet home Chicago

Now one and one is two mama, two and two is four
I’m heavy loaded baby, I’m booked I’ve got to go

Now two and two is four, four and two is six
You gonna keep on monkeying around with your friend, boy, you gonna get your minutes all in a trick


Now six and two is eight, eight and two is ten
When your wife she trick you one time, she sure gonna do it again

I’m going to California, from there to Des Moines, Iowa
Somebody will tell me, that you need my help some day

His guitar accompaniment did not follow Kokomo Arnold’s bravura bottleneck guitar, but rather the boogie piano accompaniments by Roosevelt Sykes to the ‘Honey Dripper’ songs and by Walter Roland to the ‘Red Cross’ songs.

Johnson did not live to enjoy national popularity.  If he had become a star with a following in Chicago, he might have altered the chorus with its confusing geographical coupling.  As it is, he succeeded in evoking an exotic modern place, far from the South, which is an amalgam of famous migration goals for African Americans leaving the South.  To later singers this contradictory location held more appeal than obscure Kokomo.  Tommy McClennan‘s “Baby Don’t You Want To Go” (1939) and Walter Davis‘s “Don’t You Want To Go” (1941) were both based on Johnson’s chorus.  Later singers used Johnson’s chorus and dropped the mathematical verses.

Johnson recorded the song during his first recording session in November 1936, and it was released on Vocalion Records (catalog number 03601).  He gives a stirring performance, with a driving guitar rhythm and a high, near-falsetto vocal.  It was a limited release race record, and was not a big-seller.  The song’s popularity grew only after Johnson’s death in 1938.

The lyrics only obliquely refer to Chicago itself, in the song’s refrain, where the song narrator pleads for a woman to go with him back to “that land of California/ my sweet home Chicago”.  Indeed, California is mentioned in the song more than Chicago, both during this refrain and in one of the stanzas (“I’m goin’ to California/ from there to Des Moines, Iowa”).  These perplexing lyrics have been a source of controversy for many years.  In the 1960s and 1970s, some commentators speculated this was a geographical mistake on Johnson’s part.  This is clearly untrue, as Johnson was a highly sophisticated songwriter and used geographical references in a number of his songs.  One interpretation is that Johnson intended the song to be a metaphorical description of an imagined paradise combining elements of the American north and west, far from the racism and poverty inherent to the Mississippi Delta of 1936.  Like Chicago, California was a common such destination in many Great Depression Era songs, books, and movies.  A more sophisticated and humorous interpretation (and one more consistent with all of the lyrics) has the narrator pressuring a woman to leave town with him for Chicago, but his blatant geographic ignorance reveals his attempt at deceit.  Another explanation suggests that Johnson was conveying a trip across the country, as mentioned in the line, “I’m going to California/from there to Des Moines, Iowa”, and that the end destination was Chicago, Illinois, a state sharing borders with Iowa. There is yet another unverified suggestion in Alan Greenberg’s Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, that Johnson had a remote relative who lived in Port Chicago, California, which if true would add ambiguity as to which Chicago the lyrics are referring.

As the song grew to be a homage to Chicago, the original lyrics that refer to California were altered in most cover versions.  The line “Back to the land of California” is changed to “Back to the same old place”, and the line “I’m going to California” becomes “I’m going back to Chicago”.  This altered version dates back to pianist Roosevelt Sykes.

California Avenue is a thoroughfare which runs from the far south to the far north side of Chicago.  The original road predates Johnson’s recording and may have been the subject of the “land of California” references.

The authorship of the song is a matter of some dispute.  The musical atmosphere of the blues and folk community of the 1930’s lent itself to considerable borrowing of music and lyrics back and forth. Reportedly, songs recorded by bluesmen Scrapper Blackwell and Kokomo Arnold bear striking similarity to “Sweet Home Chicago”, having been recorded years before. Leroy Carr‘s “Baby Don’t You Love Me No More” (Scrapper Blackwell played guitar and accompanied Leroy Carr who played the piano) shares the rhythmic approach and the feel of the initial two verses.

As of 2002, the copyright to the song was owned by businessman Stephen LaVere, who in 1973 convinced Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson to sign a contract splitting the royalties with LaVere.

The list of artists who have covered the song is immense, including Junior Parker (who had a #13 R&B chart hit in 1958 with the song), Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Earl Hooker, Honeyboy Edwards, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Johnny Shines, Keb’ Mo’ with Corey Hart, Foghat, Status Quo, Johnny Otis, Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan (who performed it live on August 25-26, 1990 as his closing song with Clapton, Guy, Vaughan’s brother, Jimmie, and Robert Cray at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin.  Stevie Ray would later perish in his fated helicopter crash en route from the show later that night) , The Blues Band, and The Blues Brothers, while The Replacements and Los Lobos each covered it live but never released it.  LaVere once remarked “It’s like ‘When the Saints Go Marching In‘ to the blues crowd.”

In February 21st 2012, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama host, “In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues” in celebration of blues music in the East Room of the White House. Later on in the night Barack Obama, encouraged by Buddy Guy, sang Sweet Home Chicago.

Sweet Home Chicago

by Robert Johnson

Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now one and one is two
two and two is four
I’m heavy loaded baby
I’m booked I gotta go

Cryin baby
honey don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now two and two is four
four and two is six
You gonna keep monkeyin round here friend-boy
you gonna get your business all in a trick

But I’m cryin baby
honey don’t you wanna go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now six and two is eight
eight and two is ten
Friend-boy she trick you one time
she sure gonna do it again

But I’m cryin hey hey
baby don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

I’m goin to california
from there to Des Moines Iowa
Somebody will tell me that you
need my help someday

cryin hey hey
baby don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago


About wmarsau

Most of the people who visit this blog already know me so it is kind of pointless to try to describe my life in this short little blurb. What is the purpose of this blog is the question. Over the course of this last year I have been exposed to some amazing people and have made personal development an important focus of my life. Being successful, not by the world's standards, but by God's has become my main focus. Mainly, I want to work to develop myself as a person who is kinder, reaches out to help those in need, and truly makes a difference in this world. To this end I am constantly reading and am exposed to so many differnet things along the way. These have been amazing and it is helping me grow so much. Then I started to think, "Why am I being so selfish?" You need to share with others these amazing things you are learning and being exposed to. That is where this blog comes into play. As I am reading and experiencing things that are truly amazing and life changing, I will be posting them on this blog. Obviously, I will not be able to post everything in it's entirity, but I will be summarizing them and letting you know the source of the article or book they come from so you can check them out later if you wish. I want this blog to be a place where you can go to often and be inspired and leave here with a smile on your face. I will be covering all kinds of different topics dealing with success and personal development. Topics like taking action, relationships, living to your potential, reinventing yourself, finances, leadership, presenting, goal setting, time management, etc. I will also be occasionally including topics on cooking, music, and gardening because they are special interests of mine. As a little disclaimer, I have given my life to the Lord and he is #1 in my life. I am his servant and everything I do in life is for his glory. With that being said, religion influences all areas of my life. There will be references to God in this blog because I can't seperate God from this or any other area of my life. I want you to know that if you do not believe in God, that is fine. That is your choice. This blog is open to anyone who wants to better their life. I will not be trying to influence or pressure anyone into having a relationship with the Lord from this site. Please don't feel uncomfortable. You can just read the portions of the blog that you wish to. I am inviting you to go on a journey with me. We will learn together to be the kind of people we were designed to be. Anyone can make a difference in this world, but it starts%
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