The first time I saw Paul Geremia perform, he was opening for Dave Van Ronk at Passim Coffeehouse. I was standing with Dave at the back of the room, and as Paul played a particularly gorgeous and intricate guitar break, Dave turned to me with a typically wry expression and murmured, “He doesn’t teach.”
In my world of acoustic blues players, Geremia has always been the musician’s musician. Non-musicians sometimes got it and sometimes didn’t, but pretty much all the players acknowledge his unique gifts: not only his superb guitar playing, rack harmonica work, and singing, but the way he always made the songs seem personal and quirky. He is an assiduous student of the old masters, spent the requisite years painstakingly hovering over scratchy 78s, figuring out how Blind Lemon Jefferson or Blind Willie McTell played a particular lick, but no matter how loyally he tried to capture their styles, his own individual touch and sensibility remain instantly recognizable.
That first time, I only recall two songs he played: his own “Kick It In the Country” (which he introduced, inaccurately, as a song about soccer) and “Jones, Oh Jones.” Both were on his then-current album, Hard Life Rocking Chair, and I was particularly struck by the latter, a catchy and bloodthirsty expansion of some familiar blues themes. When I expressed this preference to Dave, he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s from the Bahamian Blind Blake. He’s got a lot of great material: that’s where I got ‘Yas, Yas, Yas.'”
I had never heard of this Blind Blake, who was born Blake Alphonso Higgs and was no relation to Arthur Blake, the superlative ragtime blues guitarist — but once I had the name, I easily found his records. He led the house band at the Royal Victoria hotel in Nassau, and thousands of tourists came home from island vacations with his albums, many of which eventually made it to the secondhand record bins. I snapped them up, eventually amassing a complete collection, and even bootlegged a CD of my favorite selections for a while, until the legal owners sent me a “cease and desist” letter. (I felt no moral compunction, since they had derailed a reissue project I attempted with Rounder — they refused any exclusivity, retaining the right to give other labels all the same tracks, which obviously would not fly with the Rounder folks.)
Anyway… Dave was right about Blake’s material: he had terrific taste in songs, including all sorts of old minstrel survivals that had somehow made it to the Bahamas. “Jones, Oh Jones” is in that category: it was demonstrably around in some form by the 1920s, because Bessie Smith copped a bunch of lines from it for her “Hateful Blues” and others were collected by folklorists. My guess is that it dates from the first decade of the twentieth century, but so far no one has found sheet music or any other solid example before Blake recorded it circa 1950, and there’s no way to know how much it had changed over the years.
As with a lot of Blake’s songs, the move to the Bahamas meant that some lyrics had been changed or simply misunderstood: that’s a common event in oral traditions, another example being the song “Delia’s Gone,” which was composed about a murder in Savannah and had the tag line, “He’s one more rounder gone.” In the Bahamas, they didn’t know the term “rounder,” so that became a call for drinks: “Delia’s gone, one more round.”
As it happens, one of the more interesting misunderstandings in “Jones, Oh Jones” is equally prevalent here on the mainland — generations of blues scholars have transcribed Bessie Smith singing about taking her “wedding butcher” to chop up her lover, some glossing it as a butcher knife received as a wedding present (the original ad for the record shows it as a butcher’s cleaver). I figured that was a mishearing, and sang it for years as “whetted butcher knife,” which made more sense — but a few years ago this became a hotly debated topic on a blues scholar list-serve and Yuval Taylor eventually solved the mystery: Wade & Butcher was the most popular brand of straight razor, the weapon of choice for minstrel-show comedy.
Incidentally, circling back to my opening paragraph, Dave was wrong: Geremia didn’t give guitar lessons, but every time I’ve seen him, I’ve learned something. There are a lot of ways to teach, and in all the ways that count, Paul is one of the most generous teachers I know.