The Boy Was Kissing the Girl (Gary Davis)

I first heard this on a unique instrumental album, The Guitar and Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis, which was also my source for “Cincinnati Flow Rag” and various other guitar showpieces. As explained in earlier posts, I shied away from most of Davis’s material because I was not interested in performing gospel songs, and for quite a while this was my favorite of his LPs — an opinion I later revised because he was such a spectacular singer, but by then I had practically memorized the first side of this album.

Davis recorded this piece on other albums as “Twelve Sticks” — he announces it that way on his Newport Folk Festival LP — but it was listed on The Guitar & Banjo as “The Boy Was Kissing the Girl (And Playing the Guitar at the Same Time)” and obviously after learning it with that title I couldn’t settle for “Twelve Sticks.”

I started playing a half-assed version of this when I was still far from adept at Davis’s style, and I never really went back and got it right, but when I followed my wife Sandrine to Pittsburgh for a winter, I was fortunate enough to become a regular guest of Ernie Hawkins, the man who really knows how to play Davis’s pieces. One of the first things I asked Ernie was how Davis played the lick I was faking as a three-finger roll, since the Reverend only picked with his thumb and index finger. Ernie was kind enough to show me, and this was my practice piece to get it sort of right.

Ernie also showed me the chordal descent Davis uses on this and “Samson and Delilah,” which is a perfect example of the Reverend’s astonishing economy of motion: the chords are G7-C-G-D7-G, using four different chord shapes, but if you watch his hands they barely seem to shift. The  G that goes down to the D7 is particularly cute, and that sequence shows up regularly in this piece:




For both chords the bass string is held down with your left thumb. As for the other shapes, the C and final G chords are played with the standard thumb-wrap F shape, and the opening G7 uses the classic Davis C7 shape, also favored by Dave Van Ronk and Jim Kweskin (and me), with the thumb wrapping two bass strings. (Now that I think of it, that D7 chord should also have the thumb wrapping two strings to get the root note in the bass.)

As for kissing the girl, Davis had a bass riff he would play using only his left hand, and sometimes requested a female volunteer from the audience to help him demonstrate how he could, in fact, kiss and play at the same time. I have not attempted to duplicate this feat.

Future Blues (Willie Brown/Son House)

This is one of the defining Delta blues guitar pieces, apparently originated by Charlie Patton, though I got it from Willie Brown and Son House. Brown’s version is the one that was titled “Future Blues,” and I first came across it in Stefan Grossman’s Delta Blues Guitar instruction book. That was the first book of tablature I owned, handed down from my half-brother Dave, and I never managed to learn anything from it. Some of his later books were very helpful, but I’m convinced that this kind of Delta blues doesn’t translate to the printed page — it’s all about the rhythm and feel, and knowing what notes someone is hitting doesn’t help much. Another thing that didn’t help was that at that point I hadn’t heard Willie Brown’s version, or House’s, or any of the various songs Patton sang with a similar arrangement, or Tommy Johnson’s “Maggie Campbell…”

That problem was rectified when I was living in New York and spending all my money at Dayton’s used record store on Broadway (a story told in an earlier post). One LP I found was called The Blues Tradition, and I bought it just for the two Willie Brown tracks — the only two he recorded as a lead singer and player — both of which were in the Grossman book. They were great, and I learned his “M&O Blues,” but I didn’t even attempt to learn this one. I was 16 years old, studying with Dave Van Ronk, and this style of guitar was too different from anything I knew how to play.

Honestly, the hard Delta style Patton pioneered was always something I admired more than enjoyed. It’s incredible music, but I was more comfortable with Mississippi John Hurt or Willie McTell. So that was that for the next twenty-five years… until I wrote a book called Escaping the Delta, focused on Robert Johnson. Since I was writing about Johnson, I needed to understand his musical world, which meant immersing myself in his music and the work of his local mentor, Son House — not just listening to their records, but playing their pieces to get a physical sense of what they were doing.

I still didn’t add much of that music to my performing repertoire — one of the lessons I took away was that most of Johnson’s guitar pieces were full of empty spaces to be filled with his supple, soulful voice, and I didn’t have that voice, much less House’s awesome shout. But I started playing Johnson’s version of “Walking Blues,” and then I fell in love with the way House did this one.

House called this “The Jinx,” and he played it slower than Brown, at least when he was recording. As I recall, I started by learning his version, then mixed it with Brown’s. In any case, it turned out to be a conceptual breakthrough for me: Like a lot of white revival players, I always felt more comfortable with my blues guitar playing than my blues singing, and as a result I tended to work out a guitar part, then try to sing over it as best I could. That was particularly tricky on pieces like this, because of the way the rhythmic accents switch between on- and off-beats — but listening to House, it struck me that his guitar was following his singing. So rather than trying to perfect the guitar accents , I tried to concentrate on my singing and let the guitar follow… and to sing it like I was involved with the lyric rather than trying to sound like House or Brown… and suddenly everything felt right.

Maybe a little too right — when I listen back, my version strikes me as overenthusiastic in spots — but what the hell, it’s a lot of fun.

The lyric I sing is a mix of Brown’s verses and some from other House songs, including his terrific rejection of theological certainty:

There ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burning hell
Where I’m going when I die, can’t nobody tell…

(Incidentally, the Willie Brown who recorded this is different from the one who recorded “Ragged and Dirty,” though they are sometimes confused with each other — including, oddly, by Alan Lomax, who recorded both of them.)

Candy Man (John Hurt)

This may well be the first song I ever heard from Mississippi John Hurt, because it was his first track on the Blues at Newport LP from 1963. That was one of the defining albums for me, the first place I heard Dave Van Ronk, John Hammond, John Lee Hooker… I think I’d already heard Rev. Gary Davis, and I’m sure I’d heard Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, but their tracks on that LP are still the ones I recall most clearly.

I can’t imagine how many times I must have listened to that disc, and many previous posts in this project came from this source: Van Ronk’s “That Will Never Happen No More” and “Gambler’s Blues“; McGhee and Terry’s version of “Key to the Highway“; Hammond’s “No Money Down,” Davis’s “Samson and Delilah“; and now, Hurt’s “Candy Man.”

The reason this one is showing up so late is that it took me so long to figure out how to play it. Hurt’s simpler arrangements were the bedrock of fingerstyle guitar, so I was playing “See, See Rider,” “Stagolee,” “Richlands Woman,” “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” and probably a half dozen other Hurt songs by my mid-teens, but I only learned “Candy Man” a decade or two later, and didn’t get it right until I began teaching at blues camps and had to figure out the weird E7 chord.

In hindsight it’s a good thing I didn’t learn this at age ten or twelve, because it was inappropriate enough to be a little kid singing murder ballads, and I really didn’t need to be singing about having “a stick of candy nine inches long…”

Hurt had the reputation of being a sweet, gentle, almost saintly character, and a lot of people have suggested it was strange that he would sing something like this. Of course, it wasn’t the only erotic song in his repertoire: a rock group got it’s name from his “Lovin’ Spoonful,” and in my post on his version of “Salty Dog” I suggest he probably had some verses for that song that he did not choose to record. That was normal for southern secular singers — Rev. Gary Davis also had a  “Candy Man” song — and probably for any rural culture, since encouraging public sex is how people with farm animals get more farm animals, even if the farmers themselves reproduce more privately.

More recently I was struck by another aspect of this song, which is the suggestion of homoeroticism. The lyric is initially addressed to the ladies, but when he warns that if you stand too close to the candy man he’ll “ease a stick of candy into your hand” hints at broader possibilities, as does the suggestion that if you try his candy, “good friend of mine,” you’ll find yourself wanting it in the future.

In any case it’s a terrific guitar arrangement, and among the many things I love about John Hurt is his choice to sing this when he found himself performing for the first time in front of a bunch of callow white kids at Newport.

Comin’ In on a Wing and a Prayer (Joseph Spence)

This is my favorite Joseph Spence piece to play — which is not the same as my favorite to hear. I love Spence’s singing, whether on his own or with his in-laws, the Pinder family, and if I had to take one Spence recording to the proverbial desert island it would more likely be a Bahamian anthem like “Out on the Rolling Sea.” But for playing… this is absolutely it.

For a while I thought this was an anomaly in Spence’s repertoire, because all the other selections on his Folkways album were gospel songs, but when I mentioned that to Dave Van Ronk, he said, “I assume he thought it was a gospel song.” Which, of course, is right — especially since it became a hit in 1943, during the American Federation of Musicians recording strike, so the most popular recording was an a cappella choral arrangement by the Song Spinners, plus versions by the Golden Gate Quartet and the Four Vagabonds.

Be that as it may, it was one of Spence’s favorites, which he extended with marvelous variations — not just improvisations on the standard A and B sections, but a two-chord interlude he added occasionally as a break. I always considered it his instrumental masterpiece, and only tackled it after working out a bunch of other pieces, some of which I’ve already posted (“Brownskin Girl,” “Happy Meeting in Glory,” “Glory of Love,” and “Sloop John B“) — and those posts also include my general recollections and thoughts about Spence, a front-runner for my all-time guitar hero.

The song itself was a World War II hit, with a dozen sheet music covers testifying to all the famous bands and singers who featured it, from Tommy Dorsey to Eddie Cantor, to Joe Venuti and the unrelated Benay Venuta. I’m pretty sure I first heard the words (which are pretty lousy) from Ry Cooder, who presumably was inspired by Spence, and other than that just enjoyed the guitar version… until I was preparing this post and heard the Four Vagabonds’ version, which I’m going to my grave claiming was where Spence got it, just because: