Big Road Blues (Tommy Johnson)

Spending the winter of 1987-8 fronting a blues band in Sevilla got my chops up like never before, and also got me back into pre-war blues (or country blues, fingerstyle blues — the kind of blues that shaped my understanding of the guitar). I’d never stopped playing that music, but for a few years I’d been working on broadening my repertoire into other styles. For one thing, it seemed both stupid and presumptuous to present myself as a blues musician — presumptuous because I was a fair guitarist but there’s a lot more to blues than good guitar playing, and stupid because even if I had been a lot better, there wasn’t much work for acoustic blues players.

In Sevilla, though, I had a band that wanted to play traditional acoustic blues, and we were doing three or four sets a night. So, perforce, I had to come up with a large and relatively varied repertoire that fit the bill, which meant revisiting a lot of material I’d messed with over the years and shaping the rough sketches into performance pieces.

One piece I worked on that winter was Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues,” or at least my approximation of it. I always loved Johnson’s singing, and at times have named him as my favorite of the classic Delta blues guitarists in the circle around Charlie Patton. His music has a lightness I don’t hear in other Delta players, while retaining the rhythmic complexity and emotional depth.

“Big Road” was Johnson’s most influential arrangement, covered and reworked by numerous other artists. The Delta blueswoman Mattie Delaney did it, Big Maceo Merriweather did a nice piano version, the Mississippi Sheiks used the guitar part for their great “Stop and Listen,” and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup did an electric version as “Dirt Road Blues,” which he reworked as “That’s All Right,” made more famous by Elvis Presley. There was also a spectacular version on Yazoo’s Jackson Blues anthology, by an obscure Delta musician named Willie Lofton who called it “Dark Road Blues” and out-did Johnson at Johnson’s own style, playing with ferocious speed and power and punctuating his vocal lines with a gorgeous falsetto.

All of which said, I only learned the song after hearing Jim Brewer play it. Brewer was a blind street singer, born in Mississippi but known from many years playing at the Maxwell Street market in Chicago. My friend Andy Cohen toured with Brewer off and on over the years, and one year he brought him to my place in Cambridge for dinner. At that point I was dating a woman who played concert harp, and my fondest memory of that evening is Brewer seated at her harp, exploring its possibilities and eventually picking out some gospel tunes. Later we got out guitars, and he played a blazing version of “Big Road,” using a technique I’ve never seen before or since: where I (like everyone else) snap the low 6th string, he reached into the soundhole with his thumb and snapped the 5th and 6th, in that order, in a roll with the 4th picked by his index finger. I tried and tried, but can’t get that move up to any kind of speed — when he did it, it was like a drum-roll, and the power was incredible.

So I can’t play this like Brewer or Lofton, but they inspired me, and I came up with my own variant of Johnson’s version, with a bunch of different verses I assembled here and there — and I’ve kept his title, but sing the lyric as “New Road Blues.”