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.

Blind Blake’s Southern Rag

Blind Blake was one of the greatest guitarists of the early blues era, distinguished not only by the speed and precision of his playing, but by the fact that he was known for instrumental showpieces. Blues was generally considered a singing style, so even Lonnie Johnson — the consummate virtuoso who can lay claim to being father of both blues and jazz lead guitar — was advertised as a singer and his few instrumental recordings sold poorly and seem to have had little influence. (They are now widely admired, but I’ve never seen or heard anyone before the 1970s mention them.)

By contrast, Blake first hit with an instrumental called “West Coast Blues,” and it quickly became a kind of test and showpiece for guitarists across the South. Gary Davis learned it in the Carolinas, and could still play an accurate version in the 1960s. Even in the Mississippi Delta, which is known for a distinctively different guitar style, Blake was greatly admired, and I’ve got a story about that:

Blues scholars, like Western academicians in general, tend to get wrapped up in taxonomy and categorization, and by the 1970s many were  filing the wonderfully varied singer-guitarists who recorded in the 1920s into Delta, Texas, and Piedmont styles — the latter meaning the style popular around Georgia and the Carolinas, exemplified by Blake.

Delta blues was generally enthroned as the deepest and greatest style, and Robert Johnson in particular was hailed as the King of Delta Blues — and there was this terrific musician named Robert Lockwood who grew up in the Delta and got his start as a protégé of Johnson’s, then went on to explore jazz chording and became a foundational figure in the electric style  often called Chicago blues. Although he was a unique and important innovator, in later years Lockwood was constantly presented as a follower of Robert Johnson and asked to play the songs Johnson taught him… and since he had grown beyond that style by his teens, he eventually acquired a reputation among blues scholars and interviewers for being grumpy and uncooperative.

Fortunately, one day I was chatting with Steve James — a fine and knowledgeable musician — and he mentioned that Lockwood’s great musical love was Blind Blake. That surprised me, because Lockwood’s playing didn’t sound at all like Blake’s and although I was dubious of categories, Blake’s light ragtime seemed like the antithesis of the Delta style.

So when I finally got to meet Mr. Lockwood, I started out like everyone else, talking with him about Mississippi and Chicago blues, and he was typically taciturn — polite, but nothing more — so I thought what the hell, and mentioned Blind Blake…

Lockwood’s face broke into a broad smile, and he sounded genuinely eager as he asked, “You can play Blind Blake’s stuff?” I said yes, a bit, and he told me to get my guitar. So I did, and played him a bit of this, and he took the guitar out of my hands and played a much better facsimile of “West Coast Blues” than I will ever manage.

Frankly, I like Blake’s playing but my touch is nothing like his — not to mention my speed, grace, and virtuosity. So I’ve tended not to attempt his instrumentals, but when I got back from Africa I was looking for moments when blues players hinted at Congo-Angola rhythms (what folks in the US call Latin or Caribbean), and Blake’s “Southern Rag” has a section he calls “the Geechie dance” — a reference to the deeply African culture that survived on the Georgia Sea Islands — with some nice off-center bass figures.

So I worked up a version of this, which led to another treasured memory: Paul Geremia sold me the guitar I’m playing in this video, but continued to feel kind of protective about it, and one day he was fooling around on it and announced it needed a fret job — which, in this context, meant I should come to his place in Newport and he would refret it. So I did, and Paul got to work, and then Ramblin’ Jack Elliott pulled his mobile home into the yard…

…and for the next five hours Paul refretted my guitar and Jack talked — which is what Jack does, brilliantly, and is why they call him Ramblin’ Jack — and then Paul handed me the newly fretted guitar and I played some ragtime licks, and Jack asked, “Can you play Blind Blake’s ‘Southern Rag’?” So I started playing this, and damned if Jack didn’t start doing Blake’s spoken routine from the record, word for word:

Now we’re goin’ on an old southern rag. Way out there on that cotton field. Where them people plant all that rice, with sugarcane. And peas and so forth grow…