One of the first records I bought during that year in New York was a Blind Boy Fuller album on the Blues Classics label. I had vaguely known Fuller’s name, but that record bowled me over — there was a verve and power to his singing and guitar work that was much more exciting to me than the smoother, lighter style of Blind Blake. I suppose part of what attracted me was that I already loved Gary Davis’s playing, and Fuller was somewhat similar, but singing about rattlesnakes, rambling, and girls rather than praising God. It didn’t hurt that a lot of the tracks had Sonny Terry’s harmonica, a favorite back to my Woody Guthrie days, and I even enjoyed the washboard, which pushed a few of the cuts up a notch into obvious dance music.
I couldn’t play like Fuller, but somehow his “Bus Rider Blues” inspired me to come up with my own arrangement, not exactly in his style but inspired by his playing. It was one of the first “arrangements” I ever put together, undoubtedly inspired by the care with which Dave Van Ronk tried to give his songs unique flavors by using distinctive arrangements for each. My tendency was just to play a blues in E as a generic blues in E and a ragtime song in C as a generic ragtime song in C — which, frankly, is what a lot of the original blues artists tended to do as well, at least judging by their recordings. But Dave thought like an arranger working for a singer: his method was to work out a “chart” — his term of preference, though he did it in his head, not on paper — practice it until he could play it comfortably and consistently, then think about how to sing over and around it.
When I listened to the older guys with that in mind, a lot of them used the same approach: some would just play guitar around their vocals, but a lot of them worked out basic arrangements that they played pretty much identically from verse to verse, and often used as a break between verses as well. I don’t know why “Bus Rider Blues” became my maiden effort in that direction, nor why it turned out the way it did — I was seventeen, and moving very fast, and that just happened to be what I did one week, and then I moved on to whatever Dave was teaching me next, or to something from another record.
Many years later I got to be friends with Chris Strachwitz, who had the Arhoolie record label and ran Blues Classics as his reissue subsidiary. His model was Moe Asch, who had the Folkways label, but reissued old 78 recordings on a separate label, RBF — the reason being that neither of them wanted to buy the rights to the records they were reissuing and if they got sued they didn’t want their main labels involved. Chris had actually started Blues Classics in 1964 as a sort of Robin Hood operation to channel money to Memphis Minnie: he had visited her in Memphis, and she was in bad shape from a stroke and in dire poverty, and Columbia wasn’t going to pay her any royalties, ever, so he released an album of her old recordings and paid the royalties directly to her, ignoring any claims Columbia might put forward. (He also had a note on the back of the album suggesting fans send further contributions and giving her mailing address.)
The end of that story is that eventually, after the Blind Boy Fuller LP had appeared, Columbia sent Chris a severe “cease and desist” letter. He figured he’d probably have to either pay up or withdraw the albums, but he went to his lawyer for advice, and the lawyer said, “Let’s send them a letter demanding proof that they own the recordings.” Chris had taken for granted that they owned the recordings, since they owned the label that had issued the original records… but he sent the letter and that was the last he heard from Columbia, and we all got to hear Blind Boy Fuller and Memphis Minnie.