Dave Van Ronk was a close friend, mentor, and kind of a second father to me–aside from guitar, he taught me about literature, history, politics, food, jazz, the ins and outs of New York, and the vagaries of the music business. When I was studying with him in 1976-77, he had recently released SundayStreet, his first solo album since the 1960s, and one of his best. The title song was his own composition–he was always trying to come up with new approaches to old blues styles, and this is a perfect example: the humor and language are a mix of his modern sensibility and the kind of street lingo he enjoyed in songs and books from earlier eras, in keeping with the tastes of a man who named his rock band the Hudson Dusters after one of the Irish street gangs in Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York. For example, to be in tap city is an extension of “tapping out,” or going broke at poker.
The guitar part is in dropped-D tuning, Dave’s favorite, which he probably used more than any other player aside from Joseph Spence–a kinship that gives me even more pleasure than it gave him.
When I wrote Escaping the Delta, the original idea was just to go through Robert Johnson’s complete recordings, listen to each of them carefully, and figure out what I could say about them–his sources, his playing, his singing, and how they might have fitted into his life and the process of recording. Part of that project was to figure out how he was playing, which was kind of a departure for me, because I’d never worked out any of his guitar parts, and had never really worked at playing slide. For a while I got fascinated with the style, and tried to go on and learn some Kokomo Arnold, Tampa Red, and Casey Bill Weldon arrangements as well, but somehow it just didn’t feel like me… so I settled for playing a couple of Johnson’s pieces, with some licks from Son House, who seems to have been the main source for his slide style, and this is the one that stuck with me.
House has always been one of my favorite blues artists–I had his Columbia album by my early teens, and it remains one of my favorite records–he was such an astonishing singer, and the vibrato he got with his slide continues to stir me in a way I could never explain and no one else ever equaled (Muddy Waters probably comes closest). So I guess this is kind of my dual tribute to both him and Johnson.
One of my pet subjects as a music historian is how little we know about what and how people played in the past, and how easy it is to get stories wrong–especially when we think we know what we’re talking about. As I explain in the video, I had gone along with the notion that this song was Robert Johnson’s take on something Blind Blake played, and I still think he was echoing Blake’s guitar style, but the song had been recorded in 1922–fifteen years before Johnson did it–by the Memphis trumpeter and bandleader Johnny Dunn, who is probably best known today as a member of Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. Johnson seems to have been living in Memphis around 1922, and Dunn’s record is titled “Four O’Clock Blues,” so it all makes sense. (You can hear it on the Red Hot Jazz site.)
Which said, Dunn’s recording is an instrumental, and the published sheet music has lyrics that bear no resemblance to what Johnson sang… and the song was also published in Memphis around that time with credit to another composer, Alex Valentine… and Skip James recorded a version of the song as “Four O’Clock Blues,” before Johnson did it, with yet another set of lyrics… and Alan Lomax recorded yet another version of the song in 1941 from Son House, Willie Brown, and Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, who could have been Johnson’s source…
Anyway, like almost everyone else I got it from Johnson, and play it more or less in the style of Blind Blake. Incidentally, Johnson’s stepson and protege, Robert Lockwood Jr., often said that Blake was his favorite guitarist.
This is one of the first songs I ever learned, thanks to my father, who was born in 1906 and seemed to know just about every pop song of his youth. He frequently sang at the dinner table, and this was one of his favorites, along with “Lena was the Queen of Palesteena” and “When Francis Dances with Me.” He also had some more obscure items, which I remember only in part and no one else seems to remember at all–one, for instance, was about a husband whose wife has a child that resembles the man who is lodging with them, and is admonished with the chorus:
Your wife and your boarder, they’re all right,
With the red-haired child you must be satisfied.
If you don’t want to go to court
Your wife and your boarder you must support,
Your wife and your boarder, they’re all right.
My dad sang that in Jewish dialect, and I vaguely recall understanding it as an ethnic comedy routine about a Jewish husband cuckolded by an Irish boarder. He had a lot of ethnic dialect material, some sung, some recited. For example, a punning Russian dialect song, apparently written by a friend of his for a summer camp production, which included the immortal lines:
Like a balalaika, moaning in a minor key,
Some of our friends are sipping samovar tea…
When I was doing the book tour for Escaping the Delta, my book on Robert Johnson and the history of blues, I started playing this song regularly at the various events, and fell completely in love with it. It is Furry Lewis’s take on a song that has been recorded in dozens of versions, by dozens of people–Charlie Poole did a variant titled “Milwaukee Blues,” Waylon Jennings did it as “Waymore’s Blues,” a bunch of people have done it as “Jay Gould’s Daughter.” Aside from being a great piece of music, it’s a good example of the kinds of songs that were all over the South at the turn of the 19th-20th century and crystallized into blues, and of the way banjo styles affected blues guitar. I started thinking about those banjo slides when I learned Lead Belly’s arrangement of “Poor Howard,” which is very similar to the way Furry played this.
I learned a version of this song from a Cisco Houston record–he was one of my first heroes, and I learned pretty much all the songs on that record–but once I heard Mississippi John Hurt do it, I switched over to his version. (The same thing happened with Woody Guthrie’s version of “Stagolee.”) For a while, I started every concert with a John Hurt song, and this one served that role for a few years. His music is a perfect bridge between blues and the older African American styles that evolved into country music, and his guitar style was the bedrock for a couple of generations of fingerpickers, me very much included. As for the harmonica, I never mastered the intricacies of tongue blocking, or got my bends and tone where I’d like them to be, but I had a lot of fun with the instrument and even made my living with it off and on, including some memorably anarchic gigs as a sideman for Eric Von Schmidt.
Like most versions of “Pallet on the Floor,” this one seems to be pretty substantially expurgated–Jelly Roll Morton recorded a version for the Library of Congress that gives a better sense of what the whole thing might be about… but, on the other hand, this one is the most bloodthirsty, in a wry, gentle, Hurt kind of way.
When I was in high school, I spent hundreds of hours at the public library, which was between the two high schools (Rindge Tech and Cambridge High & Latin), listening to records. Thanks to the music librarian, Ken Williams, that library had a terrific collection of jazz, blues, international and other LPs, and that was where I first heard Jean-Bosco Mwenda’s playing, on an LP called Guitars of Africa. Like everyone else who heard that record, I was blown away by his instrumental version of Masanga, and fortunately both Pete Seeger and Happy Traum had published tablature for it, so I managed to cobble together a half-assed version.
In the 1980s, an English guitarist named John Low published a journal of his guitar studies in Lubumbashi, Zaire, and I learned that Bosco was still alive… so I spent six months busking on cafe terraces in Antwerp, Belgium, then caught an Aeroflot plane to Zimbabwe and hitchhiked through Zambia to Lubumbashi. I had written to Bosco a couple of months earlier, but got no reply, so I found a cab driver who knew his house, went there, and he invited me to come over twice a week for the next month or so, have lunch with him, and get a guitar lesson. (My letter finally arrived a week or so after our meeting.)
There’s more about Bosco and his music, including a short interview I did with him, on the African Acoustic Guitar page of my website.
As I explain in the clip, I’ve known this since I was a kid, though back then I would have played it with a flatpick. My first musical heroes were Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, with Pete Seeger running a close third. In my twenties it occurred to me that I was never going to be a great flatpicker, but if I could play this stuff with my fingers, that would overlap into everything else I played. Years later, my friend Peter Keane pointed out that this is very close to the way a lot of the first generation of white country guitarists played.
Woody Guthrie is still one of my favorite players and singers–I like his songwriting too, but he gets plenty of credit for that elsewhere, and his musicianship tends to be underrated. On his record of this song, the title is given as “Baltimore to Washington,” and I’ve also seen it as “The Cannonball.”
Like a lot of Woody’s material, this came from the Carter Family. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott told me that when he was traveling and playing with Woody, that was mostly what they sang — not Guthrie’s own compositions, but his favorite Carter songs, and a fair proportion of Woody’s songs were set to tunes he learned from the Carters, including “This Land Is Your Land,” which used the tune of “When the World’s on Fire.” Interestingly, Brownie McGhee told me Woody got this tune up from him (though he called it “Rock of Ages”) — which might seem like a contradiction, but isn’t, because…
…Brownie was mentored as a young musician by a guitarist and singer named Leslie Riddle, who is best known for traveling around the South gathering songs with A.P. Carter and teaching Maybelle Carter how to fingerpick. As she explained:
I learned my style, that picking style… from a colored man that used to come to our house and play guitar, and he played with his finger and his thumb, like Chet [Atkins]. His name is Eslie Riddles.
Sara Carter likewise remembered his name without the L:
Eslie Riddles was his name, E-S-L-I-E, I believe. At that time, he was living at Kingsport, Tennessee. He had a wooden leg. He’d come over there, and he’d stay for weeks at a time, and help us all he could. He was a good guitarist, and he was a good singer. We learned a lot of songs from him.
And as it happens, one of the songs they learned from Riddle was “Cannonball Blues,” including the guitar part that Woody got from Maybelle and I got from Woody. As Sara said, “That’s kind of the way he picked it… [Maybelle] kind of caught some of her style from him, for that one, especially.”
The Carters didn’t mention learning “When the World’s on Fire” from Riddle, and since they apparently met because he was a fan who sought them out after hearing their record, he could have learned it from them. Either way, it seems very possible that he taught the song to Brownie, and Woody got it from Brownie rather than directly from the Carters’ record — even after phonographs and radio became common, people still tended to learn more songs from each other than from recordings.
Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head