A Brief History of "Stop Breakin' Down Blues"

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As a song, “Stop Breaking Down” has proved it’s staying power in popular culture across more than seven decades and dozens of re-recordings in multiple genres. Robert Johnson first penned and sang “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” during his Dallas, Texas session, one of only two in his life, in June of 1937. Like much of Johnson’s music, the recording was initially met with little popularity.  However, like nearly all of Johnson’s music, it aged like fine wine. The track continued to live on in true delta blues form, being borrowed, altered, and re-sang among Mississippi blues men for years, eventually finding it’s way to Chicago.
[pullquote]The guitar playing – it was almost like listening to Bach… You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.
Keith Richards[/pullquote]Sonny Boy Williamson (I), taking a few liberties with the lyrics, re-recorded the track with the aide of a harmonica and piano, creating a song that perfectly preserves the early link between the Delta and Chicago blues styles. Junior Wells, with backing from Otis Spann and Buddy Guy, recorded a staunchly Chicago rendition of “Stop Breaking Down” in 1970, which can still be found on Delmark Record’s “Southside Blues Jam” album. Only two years later and across an ocean, the Rolling Stones, in the middle of an explosion of popularity on an internationally unprecedented scale, created a grungy, stinging slide rendition of “Stop Breaking Down”. The track was recorded at Olympic Studios in London and released as track 16 on Exile On Main Street, one of the most celebrated albums of all time. “When I first heard [Stop Breaking Down Blues], I said to Brian, Who’s that?” writes Keith Richards in the liner notes to the 1990 release of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. “The guitar playing – it was almost like listening to Bach. You know, you think you’re getting a handle on playing the blues, and then you hear Robert Johnson – some of the rhythms he’s doing and playing and singing at the same time, you think, This guy must have 3 brains! You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.”

In 2000, “Stop Breakin’ Down”, along with Johnson’s “Love In Vain”, became the focus of a civil court case. It was argued that, due to terms in amendments to the Copyright Act of 1909, Johnson’s music was actually not in the public domain, as previously thought, which would mean the Rolling Stones’ very valuable recording and royalties would owe Johnson’s estate a large amount of money. On an appeal, it was determined that Johnson’s songs weren’t actually “published” until 1990’s The Complete Recordings, since the original phonograph records did not technically constitute “publication”. Thus, the Johnson estate, which is currently worth millions of dollars, eventually won the court case.

In 1999, Jack White, a staunch and outspoken proponent of the blues, released a hard punk-rock version of “Stop Breakin’ Down” on the White Stripes’ first self-titled album. Interestingly, the album itself was dedicated to Son House.  The song was a hit, re-solidifying the staying power and broad spanning legacy that Johnson’s music enjoys. In 2004, Eric Clapton recorded a rock version of “Stop Breakin’ Down” that was released on Me and Mr. Johnson, an album consisting of solely Robert Johnson tracks. “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson,” he said to Rolling Stone Magazine.

During the course of over 70 years, “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” has spanned the gamut of musical genres, and been re-recorded dozens of times by some of the most popular musical figures in history. Johnson’s original tune, like much of Johnson’s music, has become a traditional blues staple.

Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
Robert Johnson, 1938

Every time I’m walkin’, down the streets, some pretty mama start breakin’ down with me
Stop breakin’ down, yes stop breakin’ down
The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby, hoo hoo, it’ll make you lose your mind.

I can’t walk the streets now, to consolate my mind,
some no-good woman she starts breakin’ down
Stop breakin’ down, please stop breakin’ down
The stuff I got it gon’ bust your brains out, baby, hoo hoo, it’ll make you lose your mind

Now, you Saturday night women’s, you love to ape and clown,
you won’t do nothin’ but tear a good man reputation down
Stop breakin’ down, please stop breakin’ down
The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby, hoo hoo, it’ll make you lose your mind

Now, I give my baby, now, the ninety-nine degree,
she jumped up and throwed a pistol down on me
Stop breakin’ down, please stop breakin’ down
Stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby, hoo hoo, it’ll make you lose your mind

I can’t start walkin’ down the streets, but some pretty mama don’t start breakin’ down with me
Stop breakin’ down, yeah stop breakin’ down
The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby, hoo hoo, it’ll make you lose your mind