Lyrics Review: 32-20 Blues

This blues classic was written by Robert Johnson and recorded by himself during first of his legendary recording sessions from November 23 to 26, 1936 in San Antonio, Texas. By that time he was 25 years old.

Robert Johnson used Skip James’ 22-20 Blues (recorded 1931) as a basis for his classic 32-20 Blues. Both these songs are similar in wording but there are substantial differences as well. Lyrics touch traditional blues concern: unruly girl leaves her man and she could be cut “half in two” for this. For such circumstance Johnson and James are being prepared in different ways.

The title of Johnson’s song refers to .32-20 Winchester, also known as the .32 WCF, which was the first small-game cartridge produced by Winchester Repeating Arms Company. .32-20 indicates a .32 bullet diameter (hundredths of an inch) and the 20 indicates a standard black powder charge in grains.

Skip James refers to .22-20 caliber, which actually does not exist. This was done on the request of Paramount Records who wanted successful "gun blues" to cover Roosevelt Sykes’ .44 Blues. Further down James compares non-existed .22-20 with .44-40 cartridge of Winchester introduced in 1873, which became very popular, and proves advantage of the first.

Another reference to arms is .38 special, which is centerfire cartridge designed by Smith & Wesson, commonly used in revolvers. Up to Johnson “it's most too light” and Skip James agrees with it (or vice versa). We don’t know how familiar both Johnson and James with arms were, but it seems Johnson could harm partner, when James’ baby could survive easily.

Johnson refers to Hot Springs in first verse. Although there are several actual places called Hot Springs (Hot Springs, Arkansas; Hot Springs, Montana; and Hot Springs, North Carolina to name a few) suggestion exists that considering Johnson’s otherworldly leanings, this could be a reference to Hell. 

Skip James refers to Wisconsin, most probably simply because song was first recorded in Paramount’s studio in Crafton, Wisconsin. In third from last verse Johnson also refers to Wisconsin. Explanation could be he forgot to change Wisconsin to Hot Springs.

Song was and is very popular and was covered by numerous artists, both green hands and blues giants like Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, John Hammond, D. Johnson, Doctor Ross, Roy Rogers, Colin John, Alexis Korner, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Sonny Moorman, Ken Hamm, Cooper Terry and many, many more.

Although we don’t know whether they have been influenced by Robert Johnson’s song or not, but American rock band formed by friends Don Barnes and Donnie Van Zant is called .38 Special.

32-20 Blues

'F I send for my baby, and she don't come
'F I send for my baby, man, and she don't come
All the doctors in Hot Springs sure can't help her none.

And if she gets unruly, thinks she don't wan' do
And if she gets unruly and thinks she don't wan' do
Take my 32-20, now, and cut her half in two.

She got a .38 special but I believe it's most too light
She got a .38 special but I believe it's most too light
I got a 32-20, got to make the caps alright.

If I send for my baby, man, and she don't come
If I send for my baby, man, and she don't come
All the doctors in Hot Springs sure can't help her none.

I'm gonna shoot my pistol, gonna shoot my gatling gun
I'm gonna shoot my pistol, gotta shoot my gatling gun
You made me love you, now your man have come.

Ahoh, baby, where you stayed last night
Ahah, baby, where you stayed last night
You got your hair all tangled and you ain't talking right.

Her .38 special, boys, it do very well
Her .38 special, boys, it do very well
I got a 32-20 now, and it's a burning.

If I send for my baby, man, and she don't come
If I send for my baby, man, and she don't come
All the doctors in Wisconsin sure can't help her none.

Hey, hey, baby, where you stayed last night
Hey, hey, baby, where you stayed last night
You didn't come home until the sun was shining bright

Ahoh boy, I just can't take my rest
Ahoh boy, I just can't take my rest
With this 32-20 laying up and down my breast.