Once again, I’ve known this so long that I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I do know where I learned the lyrics: out of Pete Seeger’s Bells of Rhymney songbook. Pete only occasionally played blues — he had a blues banjo solo that he tended to recycle as needed — but he loved the form and was friends with quite a few major blues artists, including Big Bill Broonzy, who was his source for this one. Since I got it from Pete, I associated it with Broonzy, and it was probably another dozen years before I heard Leroy Carr’s original, and at least a dozen more before I realized how important Carr was, or how big a hit he had with “When the Sun Goes Down” (which was the original title).
Quite simply, Carr was the most influential male blues singer of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and arguably on into the ’50s and ’60s. His influence extended to the most isolated rural areas and the most sophisticated urban settings: from Broonzy, Lead Belly, and Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (both of whom recalled Carr’s “How Long–How Long” as their first song), it is hard to come up with male blues singers who did not perform his pieces, but his influence went far beyond blues. “When the Sun Goes Down” was recorded by the Ink Spots, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and later by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, and numerous gospel singers also trained on Carr’s records. Not to mention Pete Seeger.
Carr’s genius was to blend the blues tradition with the new style of “crooning” pop vocals. Previous singers had needed to have loud voices to be heard in theaters or on street corners without amplification, but Carr was primarily a recording artist and his most popular songs were intimate ballads: “When the Sun Goes Down” followed “How Long–How Long,” “Midnight Hour Blues,” and “Blues Before Sunrise,” all moody, impressionistic pieces to be played in a quiet apartment or cabin, or on a barroom jukebox late at night. He also recorded plenty of rowdy, upbeat songs, some of which also became standards, including “Sloppy Drunk” and a series of songs about a beleaguered husband, such as “Papa Wants a Cookie” and “Papa’s on the Housetop.” But it was the ballads that were remembered, and this was one of his best–as well as becoming a pattern for numerous later songs, including Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” which even mimicked the wordless, moaning break from Carr’s record.
I could go on and on about this — Carr is one of my passions — but just to show that I’m not alone: After I did my biography of Josh White, Society Blues, I was hired by Smithsonian/Folkways to write the notes for their Josh White CD, and mentioned Carr in those notes as the most influential male blues singer of the first half of the twentieth century. Kip Lornell, Lead Belly’s biographer and a very knowledgeable researcher, was assigned the task of fact-checking that booklet, and he called me up with a few questions and suggestions. I accepted most of them gratefully, but then he asked about my comment on Carr, suggesting it was a little over the top and I should tone it down to “one of the most influential.”
I said, “Sure, Kip, if you can come up with some others who were equally influential.”
There was a long pause… and then Kip said, “OK, I guess we’ll let that one stand.”