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, called Shaba Diaries and I learned that Bosco was still alive… so I spent six months busking on cafe terraces in Antwerp, then caught an Aeroflot plane to Zimbabwe in the late fall of 1989 and after a couple of months traveling through Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia, hitchhiked up through Zambia to Lubumbashi. I had written to Bosco when I arrived in Zimbabwe and received no reply, but he was an important man and easy to find: I just asked a cab driver to take me to his house, wentthere, 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.)
I explain a bit about the song in my video, but should add a translation of the second verse, which says, “A woman without a man is like a bicycle without a headlamp.” I found that puzzling, and asked Bosco what it meant. He smiled and explained, “She will go fine in the daytime, but may go wrong at night.”
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. And here is his handwritten lyric for Masanga (with my chord boxes and minor annotations):
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.