So Different Blues

 

I always liked Mance Lipscomb’s music, but as a kid I was first struck by his versions of old pop standards. He had a gentle, swinging style that worked perfectly with that material, and I  quickly learned his versions of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “Alabama Jubilee.”

I paid less attention to his blues, which seemed to me less distinctive – though a couple worked their way into my repertoire: I picked up roughly his version of “Bout a Spoonful” from Dave Van Ronk, without knowing Lipscomb was the source, and a Belgian friend turned me on to “Ain’t You Sorry,” which gave me a new appreciation of his guitar work. But I never really understood how good he was until a year or two after I got back from Africa, when Dominic Kakolobango, whom I’d stayed with in Lubumbashi, came to visit the US.

When I met Dominic he was playing the classic Shaba acoustic style of Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo, some American country and western, and a lot of French chanson – he introduced me to the music of Georges Brassens, who has been a passion of mine ever since. In turn, I introduced him to acoustic blues, and when he came to visit we listened to a lot of records and he spent hours and days taping his favorites.

Dominic’s tastes ranged widely, but out of all my records, the artists who most caught his attention were Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb. That made sense, of course – I’d always associated the Congolese acoustic style with the gentle swing of Hurt’s playing. But until Dominic became fascinated with Lipscomb’s recordings, I’d never put him in the same class with Hurt, who I sometimes name as my favorite musician ever. Dominic, by contrast, loved them equally and maybe even marginally favored Lipscomb, and since I trusted his taste, I listened along with him, and after he left I kept listening.

The more I listened, the more I was struck not only by the music but by Lipscomb’s incredibly deft lyrical sense. Much of his repertoire was made up of blues standards, and I had tended to think of them as lyrically generic, but when I paid attention it was obvious they were anything but. The older blues singers – even the greatest ones – came up playing for dances and on the street, where audiences were not typically sitting quietly or demanding a cohesive lyrical narrative, so although the poetry of individual blues verses is often brilliant and striking, full songs were generally compilations of fairly random verses, connected by emotional feel or just as one verse reminded a singer of another.

Lipscomb was an exception, because he mostly sang unified songs — they might vary from one day to the next, but they held together as cohesive lyrical compositions. The most distinctive included some murder ballads in blues form, such as “Ella Speed” and “Freddie,” which as far as I know were his own compositions. But even his more generic blues tended to flow from verse to verse in logical progressions, and the verses were strikingly well chosen and often phrased in novel and interesting ways.

All of which is to say I began to appreciate Lipscomb as one of the great blues songwriters – and that naturally took me to this song, which is one of his masterpieces. It is aptly named, at least from a chordal point of view — lyrical form is a fairly straightforward twelve-bar blues, but the chords are unlike anything I know in that form or any other.

As for the lyric, I gradually realized that this is another murder ballad, but so subtle that it’s easy to miss the denouement – indeed, it’s handled so subtly that some people will probably disagree with that description. In any case, it’s a great song and Lipscomb recorded it several times, somewhat varying the verses but keeping the theme intact. I’m not sure my version precisely matches any one of his, but it’s one of my all-time favorites.

Meanwhile, Dominic picked up Lipscomb’s version of an old ragtime-blues standard, “Take Me Back,” wrote some additional verses in Swahili, and that’s another of my all-time favorites, especially in this version, backed by a band back in the Republic of Congo:

Samson and Delilah (Rev. Gary Davis)

I’ve always named the Reverend Gary Davis as one of my main influences on guitar and loved playing his instrumental showpieces (like “Cincinnati Flow Rag“), but although I learned a bunch of his superb gospel arrangements I rarely performed them because I couldn’t get behind the lyrics.  This was the great exception because it tells a Bible story rather than exhorting anyone to believe, and it’s a great lyric with a great accompaniment.

When I first learned this I sang Davis’s lyric, but then I heard the Staple Singers’ version, which extended the story to the moment when Samson pulls the building down. So I learned that, and it’s the one I play here…

… and that got me interested in whether there were even more verses. So I began doing some research, which led into a larger project on the African American tradition of rapping or singing Bible stories. That’s an ongoing effort, part of a still larger project to explore the deep roots of rap, which so far has produced my book on the dozens. Meanwhile I turned up quite a lot of additional information on “Samson and Delilah,” which seems to have been uniquely popular and spread across the South in multiple versions in the first decades of the twentieth century.

The first solid evidence of this song is three verses in “Wasn’t that a Witness for My Lord,” a sort of musical compendium of Bible stories, which included three verses about Samson, two of which are close to what Davis sang. Howard Odum published a version of this song in 1909 as part of an article on recent African American spirituals in The American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education, and it remained popular with jubilee quartets through the mid-20th century.

Over the next two decades several authors published excerpts from longer versions of the Samson and Delilah ballad, and in 1927 the first three recordings of it appeared within a few months of each other, by Blind Willie Johnson in Dallas,  Rev. T. T. Rose in Chicago, and Rev. T. E. Weems in Atlanta. All three were clearly based on the same source, though each performer had edited the lyric somewhat differently to fit a three-minute 78 rpm disc. I guessed the source must have been a published broadside (a printed song sheet with lyrics but no music), and eventually found a copy of that broadside in John Lomax’s papers at the University of Texas.

Interestingly, the version recorded in 1927 is quite different from what Davis and the Staples sang, and their lyric is closer to the verses collected by Odum twenty years earlier… which leads me to think it was already around, certainly in oral tradition and likely in print — but there has been virtually no research on African American religious broadsides, so I’m still kind of stumbling in the dark. (If anyone has suggestions of archives or libraries that have collected this sort of material, please pass them along.)

Meanwhile, here’s a compendium of verses from the versions I’ve found extant by the 1920s, suggesting how long and impressive some early performances may have been:

Delilah was a woman that was fine and fair.
Pleasant looking with coal black hair.
Delilah she gained old Samson’s mind,
When he first seen the woman of the Philistine.

Why he went to Timothy [Timnath] I cannot tell
But the daughter of Timothy she pleased him well.
He asked his father to go and see
Can you get that beautiful woman for me?

Sampson’s mother she said to him,
Can’t you find a wife among our kin;
She said, O Sampson, it grieves your mother’s mind
For you to go and marry to a Philistine.
(Chorus)
If I had my way,
O Lordy, Lordy,
If I had my way;
If I had my way,
I would tear this building down.

You’ve read about Samson, from his birth
He was the strongest man ever lived on earth
You read way back in that ancient times
Lord, he faced a thousand of the Philistines

Let me tell you what Samson done.
He broke at a lion, and the lion run.
Oh, Samson was the man that the lion attack
Lord, Samson jumped on that lion’s back

’Twas written that the lion killed a man with his paw,
But Sampson got his hand in the lion’s jaw.
Lord, he broke that lion, killed him dead
And the bees made honey in the lion’s head.

Sampson gave a feast and there came a debate,
He put forth a riddle to interpretate,
So many garments he said he would give
If they tell his riddle in seven days.

Sampson’s feast was almost through,
The known of the riddle was not yet in view.
They called his wife and instruct her what to do,
“Please ask your husband and he’ll tell it to you.”

She says, “What is the riddle, please tell it to me,
You said ‘Out of the eater came forth meat;’
What is your riddle, please tell it to me,
You said ‘Out of the strong came forth the sweet.’”
“I killed a lion, long after he was dead
The bees made honey in the lion’s head.”

Sampson burned down a field of corn,
They looked for Sampson but he was gone.
So many thousands they formed a plot,
It was not many days before he was caught.

They bound his hands, while walking along
He looked on the ground and saw an old jawbone
He just moved his arms, the rope popped like thread,
When he got through slaying three thousand was dead.

Sampson went to town and he stayed too late,
They wanted to kill him and they laid in wait.
Tell me, wasn’t Sampson awfully strong?
He pulled up the gate posts and he carried them along.

Oh, Samson’s hair went wandering about
Lord, the strength of Samson was never found out
Until his wife she sat upon his knees
Said, “Tell me, Samson, where your strength lies, please”

Lord, she looked so pretty, she talked so fair,
Samson said, “Woman, it’s in my hair.
You shave my head just as clean as your hand
Lord, my strength will become like a natural man.”

Sampson was a man very large in size,
They overpowered Samson and plucked out his eyes.
O Church, just listen to the tale,
They caught poor Sampson and put him in jail.

Church, let me tell you what the Philistines done,
They brought Sampson to the building to have some fun.
But now, O Church, ain’t you glad
To hear what Sampson said to the lad,

These was the words that Sampson said,
Show me a pillar for to lean my head.
We are told that the building was high from the ground,
Sampson braced against the pillar and it tumbled down.

Me and Billy the Kid (Joe Ely)

I’ve already written about my introduction to Joe Ely and my affection for his work, and I’m happy to revisit the subject, because I owe him a lot. Beyond the great songs I learned off his records, and the records themselves, it was a whole attitude toward music. Along with Doug Sahm and Peter Guralnick, Joe was one of the people who taught me that genre categories are just a barrier to listening. If I listen rather than filing, what I like about Willie McTell may be the same thing I like about Buffy Sainte-Marie, what I like about Merle Haggard may also be what I like about Chuck Berry, what I like about Belle Stewart may be what I like about Pablo Casals playing the Bach cello suites.

Which said, since I mostly worked as an acoustic single I tended to limit myself to to the more countrified or singer-songwriter songs in Joe’s repertoire — until I got together with Robbie, Peter, and Mark as the Street Corner Cowboys and had an opportunity to play rock ‘n’ roll with an electric guitar in my hands and a solid bass kicking me. That was a chance to try a bunch of songs I’d always loved but never played solo, among them this smart reimagining of the western outlaw ballad.

I interviewed Joe several times, and in one of our conversations he explained that he got the idea for this one when he was driving home to Lubbock from California and happened to pass through the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid was killed:

They had a museum and we stopped in to look and it had nothing to do with Billy the Kid. It was old wagon wheels and spurs and stupid old western stuff and they had made this museum and there are two known photos and that is all they know about him, and all the legends and the stuff that Pat Garrett had written about. He couldn’t known him that well — I mean, he shot him, but he just heard stories too.

I got to thinking that he is one of those legends nobody knows much about, so I figured I could say anything I wanted to, and I just put myself as one of the guys that ran with him. Some of these movies make him out to be an outlaw hero type, and I wanted to put that completely down and say what a lowdown guy he was, and add some humor to it.

So from between Fort Sumner and Clovis, New Mexico, which is about 70 or 80 miles, I wrote the entire song. I wrote it down verse-wise, didn’t have a guitar, came back to Austin and put a few chords to it that seemed to work. It was one of those things that came without a whole lot of struggle — it pretty much just rolled out.

Goin’ Down Hill (John Anderson)

In the early 1980s there was a decent country radio station in the Boston area and I kept my radio tuned to it, with the result that I picked up on Rosanne Cash, Lacy J. Dalton, and John Anderson — also lots of other people, but those are the three that inspired me to buy their LPs and learn some current hits. Anderson became a brief but fierce passion, thanks to his hardcore country voice and some unusual songs.

The first Anderson album I bought was All the People Are Talking, which had a hot rocker called “Black Sheep” and my nominee for the most horrible C&W lyric ever written, “Mama, Look What Followed Me Home” — which I know is quite a claim, but it’s truly dreadful, and I know it by heart and sing it in appropriate circumstances:

Mama, look what followed me home.
Ain’t she so pretty, and mama, she’s all alone.
I’d love her forever if she was my own.
Aw, Mama… Can I keep her? Look what followed me home…

(I know you hope he was singing about a dog, but he wasn’t.)

So anyway, I then bought Anderson’s previous album, Wild & Blue, which had spawned three top ten singles: the title track, “Swingin’,” and “Goin’ Down Hill.” The first two were fairly generic and hugely popular, but this song is a quirky oddity built on a pop-ragtime chord progression with an onomatopoeic chromatic descent underpinning the protagonist’s downhill slide. It’s a fun tune to pick, and I particularly like to pull it out when I’m playing with people who are comfortable on swing-era standards, because the music and lyric are so perfectly matched and I think more people should be doing it.

This is co-credited to Anderson and his touring bass player — which usually means the sideman did most of the writing, and I particularly want to believe that because the bassist was named Aries X. Lincoln, known to his friends as X. I just spent a pleasant half-hour researching him, and find he was born with the more prosaic name of Billy Lee Tubb, in San Antonio, and worked for a while as a guitarist for his uncle Ernest — yup, that one — as well as in a rockabilly trio with his brother Glenn and cousin Justin, later notable for writing “Waltz across Texas.” Then he went solo and cut some rocking singles as Ronny Wade, including an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie,” called “Annie, Don’t Work.” None of them took off, so he signed on as a sideman to a long list of Nashville stars, changed his name to X Lincoln, cut a few more singles that went even less far, and spent the last twenty years of his life playing with Anderson. He apparently wrote some other songs along the way, but this is the only one I can find… which is a pity, because it’s damn good.

Stop That Dancing Up There!

I first heard Harry “The Hipster” Gibson on a Stash records anthology of drug songs, performing “Who Put the Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine” — and my initial reaction was that it had to be a put-on because no one could have been singing something like that in 1947.

I was wrong, of course, but that got me interested, so when an

oldies label issued a full LP of his early work I snapped it up. Thus I discovered “Handsome Harry the Hipster,” “4-F Ferdinand, the Frantic Freak,” “Who’s Goin’ Steady With Who?” and this masterpiece, which soon became a highlight of my repertoire.

I’m pretty sure I started doing this solo, as a shout-along, which is like a sing-along but requires no singing — I just encourage the audience to shout along with the title line. I found it was easier to get compliance with shout-alongs, or at least with this one, and it always worked well in the bars. Then, when I hooked up with Robbie Phillips, Peter Keane, and Mark Earley as the Street Corner Cowboys, I found it worked as a band number, and when I recorded a cassette in the mid-1990s Mark played a nice harmonica break, which he replicated onstage at the release party at Passim Coffeehouse (in photo).

As for Harry the Hipster… a brief self-penned memoir tells his story. A blond Jewish piano prodigy from the Bronx, he started hanging out in Harlem, picked up the current jazz styles, and was promoted as a white teenage protege of Fats Waller, whom he had never met. Then, as he recalled, one night he was playing his usual gig and…

A big guy came over, put five dollars in the kitty and asked for “Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” I could almost play that tune, note for note, like the Waller recording. The big man laughed and asked how I learned to play that way. I went into the high jive about how I was Fats’ star pupil. The guy just about broke up, stuck out his hand and said, “Sonny, say hello to your old professor, Thomas Waller.”

Waller booked young Harry Raab as an extra at the Yacht Club on 52nd Street, the main drag for small-band jazz, and over the next few years he changed his name to Gibson and became a local institution. The Hipster played with everybody from Charlie Parker to Mae West, co-leased a nightclub with Lord Buckley, and in 1944 Musicraft Records — a classical label that had pioneered the idea of selling folk-blues albums to the New York intelligentsia with Leadbelly and Josh White releases — signed him as their first jazz artist. That was still a novel idea, since jazz was considered jukebox pop music and sold almost exclusively on singles.

As Gibson recalled, the Musicraft guys saw him at the Three Deuces playing a substitute set for Billie Holiday and asked if he could record the next morning. Ben Webster was the other act on the bill, so he asked Webster’s rhythm section — Sid Catlett on drums and John Simmons on bass — if they could make the gig. They said sure, and that was that. The only problem was that Musicraft wanted eight original compositions to fill a four-disc album, and he only had seven… so they rehearsed the seven, and then:

While the drummer and bassman went out to the all-night eatery, I came up with “Stop That Dancing Up There.” I had it finished by the time John and Sid came back from breakfast; it turned out to be the hit of the album.

Gibson had a long and varied career, albeit with some gaps due to substances and so forth, and was still working in the 1980s with a blues/rock combo, still writing, still doing his hipster schtick. Unfortunately I didn’t know that at the time… I would have loved to have caught his show, met him, heard more stories.

There are a few videos on Youtube from his first heyday, which convey some sense of his oddball appeal. They don’t include one I saw someplace that included a “stop chorus” of silly facial expressions, but this is a pretty fair taste:

Nadine (Chuck Berry)

 

This is my favorite Chuck Berry lyric, which is saying a lot. He was a phenomenal writer, with a gift for fitting words together so they scanned, rhymed, and still felt like normal human speech spiked with flashes of wry humor:

As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat
I thought I saw my future bride walking down the street.
I yelled to the driver, “Hey, conductor, you mus’
Slow down, I think I see her — Please let me off the bus!”

Berry is usually classed as a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, which of course is true, as far as it goes. His most influential moment was the mid 1950s, when he recorded “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Memphis,” and a string of other hits, as well as lesser-known masterpieces like “Too Much Monkey Business” and “No Money Down.” But that was only part of the story: he kept developing as a writer over the next decade, and some of his greatest lyrics were penned in the early 1960s (maybe during his year and a half in prison on a racist Mann Act conviction): “Nadine,” “Promised Land,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “You Never Can Tell.”

After that, he pretty much cruised as an oldies artist — his only number one hit came in 1972 with “My Ding-a-ling,” but that was a naughty novelty he’d been performing at live shows for years. There was another prison stint for income tax evasion and some unpleasant stories… but whatever the complexities of his personal life, his songs changed the world. It is impossible to imagine Bob Dylan writing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” without Berry’s example, and no one ever turned street language into poetry as naturally, at least until the classic era of rap.

I only saw Berry twice, at the Cape Cod Melody Tent circa 1970 and a quarter century later at the one-off Newport R&B Festival. That was an incredible line-up, two days of music with Dr. John’s band backing everybody on day one and Allen Toussaint’s band backing everybody on day two. Chuck played with Toussaint, and it was the weirdest and most memorable set of the weekend.

I won’t say it was good, exactly — but it was real music, not canned, not the hits, not going through the motions… which was noteworthy, because Chuck was by then notorious for just playing the hits and going through the motions. As far as I could tell, that was his plan at Newport as well, but he came out and there was Allen Toussaint on piano — a giant in his own right — playing the piano parts off Chuck’s old records, note for note, like he’d assimilated every note in his youth and been waiting forty years for the chance to play them with the master… which I’m guessing is exactly right.

Chuck responded by getting into the instrumental breaks, trading licks with Toussaint, and they weren’t the rote licks off his records — his guitar was out of tune, and they were strange licks, and some folks thought the whole set was a disaster, and I’m not arguing, but… Berry and Toussaint were both giants and they were so obviously enjoying themselves that it felt like a privilege to be there.

This version of “Nadine” is sort of an accidental tribute to that afternoon, since I do it as a rumba in the style of Snooks Eaglin, who was Toussaint’s guitarist in the Flamingos, their first band, back in their teens. I’ve loved Eaglin’s playing since I was a kid, but frankly ended up with this arrangement because I couldn’t play Berry’s straight-ahead 8-to-the-bar for three minutes without getting cramps in my right hand…

Hey Now, Baby (Professor Longhair)

I first heard Professor Longhair on a terrific album of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — also the first place I heard Allen Toussaint and Earl King — and it was love at first listen. So I began acquiring his albums, and the more I heard, the more I wanted to hear. He tended to rework the same songs, but every version was different, and it’s up with Joseph Spence as the most virtuosically happy music I know.

Longhair was a big part of my interest in Congolese guitar styles. I wanted to be able to play those New Orleans/ Caribbean rhythms, and people like Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo had come up with a fingerstyle approach that felt to me like a bridge between rumba/mambo and Mississippi John Hurt. My first attempt was the Mardi Gras Indian war song “Iko Iko,” which I play in a clearly Congolese style, but I kept being fascinated by Longhair’s piano and puzzled about how to get some approximation of it on guitar.

Then, thanks to Washtub Robbie Phillips, I ended up with a band and a weekly gig at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge. We were called the Street Corner Cowboys — inspired by John Storm Roberts‘s mention of East African country singers as  “the street corner cowboys of Zanzibar” — and consisted of Robbie on one-string bass, Peter Keane and me on guitars, and Mark Earley on harmonica (plus, a lot of the time, Matt Leavenworth on fiddle by last set). Peter was singing pretty country songs, Mark was deep into Chicago blues, and I took the opportunity to do all sorts of stuff that suited the band framework, from Nat King Cole’s “Call the Police” to “Great Balls of Fire.”

That gave me a chance to break the habits of solo fingerstyle, the concept of thumb playing bass while fingers play melody. I played a lot of single-string lead, and also came up with this arrangement, which is an attempt to play something like a standard Longhair left-hand pattern. Since Mark and Peter were there to play fills and solos, it was fine if I just played the left-hand part, and ok, there isn’t much to the lyric but it was fun to work around the rhythms.

The Cowboys faded into the mists of time, but I kept fooling around with this and eventually came up with some kind of instrumental break, and it’s still a lot of fun to play. Which is not to say I’ve come up with a way to capture Longhair’s piano rhythms on guitar…

…because Longhair was a unique genius and no one has ever captured his piano rhythms… much less me, much less on guitar…

…which seems like a good moment to mention that a great DVD, Fess Up, was recently issued that combines Stevenson Palfi’s documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, featuring Longhair, Tuts Washington, and Allen Toussaint, with an hour-long interview with Longhair. And there are all those great records (a personal favorite is his version of “Jambalaya,” with Gatemouth Brown on fiddle), and some rocking videos on the internet, and the wonderful chapter about him in Dr. John’s memoir… if you’ve never been on a Fess binge, I can recommend no greater musical pleasure.

Ragged and Dirty (William Brown/Sleepy John Estes)

No one knows anything about William Brown, the versatile singer and guitarist who recorded two songs (or maybe three) for Alan Lomax in 1942. All we have is the music, and it is startlingly distinctive, including two masterpieces of acoustic blues — both inspired by recordings, with guitar parts that adeptly capture the feel of other instruments. One is the haunting “Mississippi Blues” (a generic title presumably slapped on the record by Lomax), which has a guitar part adapted from the pianist Charlie Spand’s “Hard Times Blues.” Piano and guitar have very different strengths, but Brown somehow manages to keep all the basic licks and feel of Spand’s playing — both the backing part for the vocals and the instrumental break — while creating a guitar arrangement that falls comfortably on the instrument and is one of the loveliest I’ve ever learned.

“Ragged and Dirty” is likewise adapted from a recording, Sleepy John Estes’s “Broken Hearted, Ragged and Dirty Too,” and for this one Brown capoed his guitar around the seventh fret to get the high, chiming sound of the mandolin played by Estes’s longtime accompanist Yank Rachell. I picked it up after getting back from Africa, which was fortunate because that trip convinced me some guitar arrangements demand to be played with just the thumb and index finger, and this is decidedly one of them.

Estes was one of the great blues songwriters and although Brown stuck fairly close to his lyric, some of the continuity and subtleties were lost — so I’ve mostly gone back to what Estes sang in 1929. Where a lot of blues singers just sang whatever verses came to them in the moment, he tended to created cohesive compositions, and this is a good example: setting up the story, telling what happened, then saying how he felt about it. I’m particularly fond of the detailed description of the moment the singer discovers his lady is cheating on him: “I went to my window, couldn’t see through the blinds/ I heard the bed springs humming, I heard my baby crying.”

Lomax wrote an evocative account of the recording session with William Brown in The Land Where the Blues Began, portraying him as a thoughtful man who had decided to leave Mississippi and was headed for a better life up north. The general feel of the story — which includes a nasty interruption from a couple of racist cops — rings true, but readers should be aware that Lomax did not take notes and the dialogue was reconstructed from memory decades afterwards. That is relevant because some people have given too much weight to a footnote suggesting this was the same William Brown who played for many years with Son House, including a session Lomax recorded… and virtually all other evidence suggests it was not.

The other William (or Willie) Brown was an associate of Charlie Patton and a terrific guitarist and singer in what is now often called the Delta blues style — meaning the style of Patton, House, Brown, and other guitarists who played with or learned from them, notably Tommy Johnson and younger artists including Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. He likewise recorded only a couple of tracks, both of which are classics — I’ll get to his “Future Blues” in a few weeks — but they are classics of that particular style. The players around Patton learned from one another directly, picking up licks and tunings in an oral and visual process that predated recording (Tommy Johnson’s “Bye and Bye Blues” is a good example), and I’d bet anything that the Brown who so adeptly reworked recordings of piano and mandolin was at least ten years younger, from the generation of Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood. The arrival of recording dramatically changed the process of musical transmission, and this is the sound of the transitional generation.

Bye and Bye Blues (Tommy Johnson)

The first trip I made after getting  back from Africa was to the Mississippi Delta, where by a series of unlikely coincidences I ended up as part of the band for the dedication of Robert Johnson‘s grave marker. I’ve told that story in my book, Escaping the Delta, but the short version is that Washtub Robbie Phillips was invited by Skip Henderson, a New Jersey guitar dealer who had arranged the event at Mt. Zion church near Morgan City, Mississippi; then Robbie won the Massachusetts lottery and said he could pay for gas if I drove; our friend Kenny Holladay decided to drive up from New Orleans to meet us; and the local musicians who had been invited didn’t show up. So Kenny sang “Terraplane Blues” at the dedication, with Robbie and me backing him, everyone enjoyed it, and we were invited back a few months later for the dedication of a Charlie Patton marker, sharing a stage with Pop Staples and John Fogerty…

…all of which meant I spent a fair amount of time driving around the Delta, and brought along a lot of classic Delta recordings to play while driving. Mostly I just listened and didn’t try to play that music myself, but Tommy Johnson’s songs kept tempting me. It was something about the way he played and the way his voice fitted with the guitar, a lightness I didn’t hear in people like Patton. So when I got home I worked out a bunch of his arrangements, including his most popular chart, “Big Road Blues,” and this one, his reworking of Charlie Patton’s “Pony Blues,” which became a staple of my repertoire. The record label called it “Bye Bye Blues,” but that was a mistake — it’s a warning, not a farewell.

Speaking of warnings… Tommy Johnson recorded very few songs, and is not well-known beyond the hardcore pre-war blues scene, which has led to an odd mistake: in an interview with the blues scholar David Evans, Johnson’s brother Ledell said that Tommy told him a story about getting his musical skills from the Devil:

You take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ’fore midnight that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself . . . A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.

Anyone familiar with blues has heard versions of that story, but almost always connected not to Tommy but to the unrelated, younger Robert Johnson — to the point that when the Coen Brothers put a version of this legend in the mouth of a character named Tommy Johnson in their movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, the New York Times critic glossed it as a reference to Robert…

…which is neither here nor there, except as one more reason to check out Tommy Johnson’s music. Devil or not, he was a fine player, beautiful singer, and one of my all-time favorite artists.

One Way Gal (William Moore)

Another song by William Moore, whom I first got excited about in the mid-seventies when I worked up a version of his “Ragtime Millionaire.” I kept that in my repertoire, but didn’t pay much attention to the rest of his work till I got back from Africa. Then I began looking around for blues songs with interesting bass rhythms, and found this about the same time I got into Blind Blake’s “Southern Rag.”

It may be coincidence, but Blake connected those rhythms to the “Geechie” culture of the Georgia Sea Islands and Moore grew up near Savannah — a largely unexplored area for blues guitar research, which I’m tempted to relate to the Bahamian traditions of Joseph Spence and the Bahamian Blind Blake. In any case, Moore recorded this song during his only session in 1928 and it has some of those nice rhythmic touches. I simplified his guitar part  and came up with different lyrics, because that was how it felt right to me, but the essential framework is his.

When I started doing this, all I knew about Moore was that he had been a barber in Eastern Virginia, and the main clue for that was a guitar-backed monologue called “Barbershop Rag.” Then, in the early 2000s, I heard from a fellow named Ryan Croxton, who passed along notes from an interview with Moore’s son, William Edsel Moore, by a librarian named Gregg Kimball, who has since published a brief online bio of Moore. It explains that he was born in 1893 in the country outside Savannah, where his father was farming, and moved to Tappahannock, Virginia, around 1920 after marrying a woman from that area.

His son recalled that Moore lived in New Jersey before going to Virginia, and apparently met his wife there. ““It seemed like he roamed, he moved around… I guess traveling and playing music and doing things like that.” Like many musicians of that generation, Moore abandoned secular music as he grew older, getting involved in his local church and mostly playing violin, and his son only recalled him singing blues on a couple of occasions.

“On the third of April in Tappahannock [Emancipation Day], that would be the only time I would see him… He would be on the corner with his guitar and people would be sometimes dropping money in a cup or hat, whatever they had, and sometimes he would play with some other guys, I never knew who they were.”

Moore’s son recalled his father as a “soft spoken,” self-educated man who attained a high level of erudition, writing poems and short stories, and a portrait painter.  He enjoyed fishing and hunting, was a crack shot, but apparently overloaded his shotgun one day and blew off the little finger on his left hand, somewhat limiting his chording.

And that’s all I know about William Moore… aside from the music, which still sounds great.