Most of the early blues albums I bought during that year with Van Ronk were by male guitarists, with a few by male pianists. Aside from the complete Bessie Smith sets, the only album by a female blues singer I recall buying in that period was of Lil Green, and I’m pretty sure I bought it only because her accompanists included Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim, and because I’d heard one song of hers, “Knockin’ Myself Out,” on a compilation of songs about drugs.*
Green has not been much remembered or enthroned in the blues pantheon, but for a moment in 1939 she and Billie Holiday were hailed as co-leaders of a blues revival – the African American press had pretty much stopped writing about blues after Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and the other pioneering blues queens ceased to get hits in the late 1920s, and when Holiday hit with “Fine and Mellow” just as Green hit with “Why Don’t You Do Right?” it was treated as a significant new wave.
They were superficially similar singers, with lighter, thinner voices than their most famous predecessors, but otherwise were very different. Holiday favored hip, forward-looking musicians – most famously Lester Young – and changed jazz singing forever, while Green was in the mainstream Chicago style of the mid 1930s, complete with Slim and Broonzy backing her on piano and acoustic guitar. That made her work a good deal less distinctive, but also a good deal more approachable for me – especially since Broonzy’s guitar solo on her biggest hit was particularly simple. It was not a great solo, and I have completely forgotten it, but it was probably the first single-string lead I ever learned.
As for the song, I’ve continued to sing it off and on ever since. It was composed by Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie’s ex-husband and the leader of the Harlem Hamfats (which I like to think of as “the Harlem Hamfats, a Chicago band led by a Mississippi guitarist named Kansas Joe”). He’d recorded another lyric to the same tune, called “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” and apparently rewrote it for Green. In any case, it was a well-written lyric to a distinctive minor-key 12-bar blues melody, and did well for her, then even better for Peggy Lee, who got a career-establishing hit with it as vocalist for Benny Goodman’s band.
I didn’t perform this much, but sang it for my own amusement or for friends late at night, until I did a tour of Japan with the folk-rock-avant garde singer-songwriter/ performance artist Mikami Kan. Between our first and second gigs he asked me why Americans never did any songs in minor keys, since Japanese people like that sound, so I said we did, and sang him this one, and ended up doing it on every show for the rest of the tour, and fell in love with it all over again.
*I also learned “Knockin’ Myself Out,” which Green did wonderfully, and although I don’t remember all the verses, I still perfectly remember the way she phrased the tag line:
I’m gonna knock myself out, I’m gonna kill myself
I’m gonna knock myself out, gradually, by degrees.