Windy and Warm (Doc Watson/ John D. Loudermilk)

When I was busking around Europe in the late 1970s, “Windy and Warm” was pretty much obligatory–particularly in France, which I assume means Marcel Dadi recorded it. I didn’t know it when I left the States, and for the first year or so I satisfied requests for it by playing Bert Jansch’s version of “Angie,” which was a somewhat similar instrumental in A minor and tended to fit the bill. Then I spent a couple of weeks in Antwerp in the summer of 1979, staying with a guy named Marc who played terrific guitar using just his thumb and middle finger — I have no idea why he didn’t use his index finger, but he didn’t — and he had Doc Watson’s recording and I learned a half-assed version of it.

“Windy and Warm” was composed by John D. Loudermilk, and I read somewhere that he composed it because Chet Atkins wanted something that sounded kind of old-fashioned, in a Merle Travis bag. Be that as it may, everyone I knew learned it from that same Doc Watson album, and to this day I’ve never heard either Loudermilk’s or Atkins’s versions — though I recently saw a nice video of Tommy Emmanuel playing it, which presumably is close to the Atkins version.

Doc played it with only his thumb and index finger, but I played it with thumb and two fingers, because I couldn’t figure out how to get the rolls otherwise — and frankly never worked it up into anything worth playing. Then I went to Africa and got into playing with just thumb and index, and a dozen years later Ernie Hawkins showed me how Rev. Gary Davis got those rolls… and I worked out how to play this, mostly as a finger exercise. I wasn’t happy with how it came out, because I never had a touch like Doc Watson, much less like Travis, Atkins, or Emmanuel… but after trying to play it like them for a few years, I finally decided to just play it like me, and enjoyed it, and here it is.

I still think of this as a Doc Watson piece, in part because I have no sense of John D. Loudermilk as a guitarist. He has always been a name I saw in song credits, probably first for the Lou Rawls version of “Tobacco Road,” and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play or sing. There’s also another problem–

The only other Loudermilk composition I ever learned is a teen novelty song “Norman,” which was a hit for Sue Thompson in 1961 (which I see is also when Atkins recorded W&W). I probably learned “Norman” as a joke when I was in my teens, and almost fifty years later I’m still stuck with it:

Billy asked me to a show, but I said no, cannot go,
There’s a dress that I’ve got to sew,
And wear for Norman…
Jim invited me on a date, he wanted to take me out to skate,
But I told Jimmy he would have to make
Arrangements with Norman…

I may have those names and a few words wrong, and briefly considered listening to Thompson’s recording to check them, but there might be some verses I’ve managed to forget, and, if so, I don’t want them back in my head.

Fortunately, “Windy and Warm” has no lyrics.

Monday Morning Blues (Mississippi John Hurt)

“Monday Morning Blues” was a late arrival in my John Hurt repertoire. I always loved and played his music, but only began to study it carefully after I got back from Africa in the 1990s. In previous posts I’ve told how I became fascinated with the odd chord positions in “Richlands Woman” and the rhythmic trickeration of “Satisfied and Tickled Too,” and finally learned the thick E7 chord he uses in “Candy Man.”

That last development only happened when I began to get teaching gigs at guitar camps and decided I wanted to do a John Hurt class. That meant not only figuring out what he was doing, but putting together a group of his pieces in a way that would be helpful to students who only had a week to assimilate what I was showing them, and I learned “Monday Morning Blues” and  “Trouble, I’ve Had It All My Days” to show how Hurt used the same fifth position partial D chord in both, with somewhat different effects. As it happens, I then started using the riff from this song in the breaks of Hurt’s “Coffee Blues,” and later realized that Dave Van Ronk and Gary Davis used it in “‘Bout a Spoonful,” which is a version of that song…

…all of which may be of some fleeting interest to people who want to play Hurt’s style…

…but I’m going over this story because that process transformed the way I thought about learning other people’s guitar arrangements. I started playing Hurt’s songs in my teens, and like a lot of people, I thought of his style as relatively simple and straightforward. I learned to play nice, regular versions of his stuff, and they sounded enough like his versions that it was at least twenty years before I realized that he played those songs quite differently and his way was more interesting.

That was when I began thinking of vernacular guitarists as having their own individual languages, and trying to learn their styles the way I would study a language. People like Hurt, Davis, Lemon Jefferson and Joseph Spence worked out their arrangements by playing songs over and over, using techniques that felt comfortable and natural to them. I had approached those arrangements as unique compositions, trying to figure them out note by note and often twisting my hands into difficult positions to get the sounds I thought I was hearing — but if you actually work out how any of those musicians played a piece, you find that all the moves fell naturally under their hands.

That doesn’t always mean all the moves are easy — Davis and Spence in particular were virtuosos, and knowing how their hands moved doesn’t mean you can make your hands move the same way. But, as with learning a language, you can play their arrangements much more comfortably if  your hands get a general fluency in their ways of moving than if you try to learn their pieces as separate compositions.

At least that’s my take, and I made John Hurt my first test case, learning a couple of dozen of his pieces and assuming that when something felt uncomfortable I was doing it wrong. In the process, I learned a lot of songs I had passed over in the past, including this one. I learned this as an exercise, and the more I played it, the more I loved it. I like the way the lyric limns a story in short phrases, I like the quirky additional measure in the E section — and, most of all, I love the way it feels.  Once I got my hands to do what his hands did, it felt like walking down a well-worn path — not working to sound like him, just ambling along in his footsteps

Coffee Blues (Mississippi John Hurt)

Mississippi John Hurt always explained that this song was about coffee; specifically Maxwell House, because it was “good to the last drop, just like it says on the can.” He’d say just one spoonful of Maxwell House coffee was as good as two or three cups of any other brand. Then he’d tell how he used to know a woman who made him that good Maxwell House coffee every morning, but one day she went away — some said to Memphis, some said to Leland — and he wrote this song about her. That’s what he was thinking about when he sang that he wanted her “loving spoonful.”

Later on, a rock band named themselves after this song, presumably because they were coffee fanciers.

In an earlier post I sang and wrote about another song called “’Bout a Spoonful,” which was probably related to this one. I learned that song from Dave Van Ronk, Gary Davis, and Mance Lipscomb, and in my post I kind of hinted that it was about something other than coffee. I apologize for that; John Hurt would not have lied to us.

When I started to play fingerpicking guitar, John Hurt pretty much defined that style — after Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” we all learned his version of “Creole Belle“; the first song I learned from tablature was probably his version of “Stagolee“; the first song Dave Van Ronk taught to new students was his “Spike Driver Blues…”

I don’t remember when or how I learned “Coffee Blues,” and for at least forty years I played it pretty much the way Hurt did. Then, a few months ago, it occurred to me that I could play breaks using his fifth-position riffs from “Monday Morning Blues.” Seemed obvious once I thought of it, and fell neatly under my fingers.

I’ve previously posted at least another half dozen songs I learned from Hurt’s records, and that well is far from dry. His guitar arrangements are disarmingly simple and endlessly complex, and his songs have a quiet charm and humor that give me endless pleasure, whether I’m listening or playing. Someone recently asked which of his songs was my favorite, and the only possible answer was that I’m glad I don’t have to choose.

Joseph Spence Medley

Anyone who has followed this project knows how much I love Joseph Spence’s guitar style. I’ve already posted my versions of his  “Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer,” “Happy Meeting in Glory,” “Brownskin Girl,” “Sloop John B.,” and “Glory of Love,” and written about how I fell in love with his music, first on record, then seeing him in person, and finally immersing myself in his style and filming an instructional video to help other players get a sense of what he was doing.

I recently was re-inspired by a wonderful new set of Spence recordings made by Peter Siegel in the 1960s and released this year on Smithsonian Folkways, so I put together a medley of some of his classic arrangements of Bahamian hymns.

I have written before that I think of Spence’s style as a language — he almost always played in the same key and tuning (drop D) and used the same partial chord shapes — and I think of this medley as a kind of primer in that language. Rather than taking one arrangement and exploring how he would improvise brilliant variations on it, which was what I tried to do in my previous posts, this is a journey through five of his basic arrangements, with each song using some licks that show up differently in the next.

The first three are two-part pieces, with a  verse and a chorus: “Victory is Coming,” “Face to Face That I Should Know Him,” and “Happy All the Time.” Spence sang with his relatives, the Pindar family, and one of the key aspects of his playing is that he harmonized like a vocal quartet, with two lead lines in parallel sixths punctuated by a bass part. In these songs, the bass mostly goes along with the lead on the verses, then becomes a separate voice in the choruses, providing a call to which the treble voices respond. The fourth song, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down,” has only one section and I play his basic version and a typical variation.

Finally, “The Lord Is My Shepherd” is what I think of as one of Spence’s classical guitar arrangements. These are in the same language as his other pieces, using the same variety of positions and techniques, but rather than creating a basic arrangement and improvising variations, he intricately arranged them, with bass and treble lines sometimes moving  in opposite directions, and varied them very little from chorus to chorus.

I have to again give credit to Guy Droussart, who was kind enough to explain many of Spence’s favorite moves to me. One of the fascinating things about learning the style of any vernacular guitarist — meaning players who work out arrangements by playing pieces over and over — is that their arrangements flow logically out of the way they use their hands, and are comfortable to play if you can figure out how they are using their hands. Guy gave me the clues I needed to get this close to what Spence was doing — not all the intricacies, subtleties, and virtuosity of his playing, but the basic style.

As I wrote up top, I think of this medley as a kind of primer, which means I would encourage any guitarist who loves Spence’s style to give it a shot. None of us will ever speak his language accentlessly, but the basic vocabulary is not complicated and just teaching my hands to play his kind of punctuating and moving basslines rather than keeping a regularly alternating  bass changed my own playing forever.

All the tunes are in drop D tuning and use the same left-hand shapes. The distinctive thing about Spence’s left hand is that he never has more than three fingers on the fretboard, and often just two — for example, for a basic D chord he holds either the first and third strings on the second fret or the second and fourth strings on the third and fourth frets, where most players would hold all of those at once to make a full chord. As for his bass, when it is not moving, the standard bass for those D shapes would be an open D string with the first, and the fifth string, second fret for the second — which is kind of odd, because it adds a 6th in the bass, but is one of the harmonies that distinguishes his sound.

Bloody Mary Morning (Willie Nelson)

I’ve always liked Willie Nelson’s singing and guitar playing, and wish his records had more guitar solos. Until I saw him live I had no idea how quirky and inventive his playing could be. I’ve only had that pleasure once, at a great old club called Lupo’s in Providence, Rhode Island. It was a relatively small venue to see someone like Nelson, and he had Billy Joe Shaver opening, and it was a terrific show.

I was particularly struck by how much Willie was enjoying himself — he had that great band, with his sister on piano and Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and he just kept playing and playing, then finally ended, came back for an encore, and played at least another half hour. The band looked exhausted, but he clearly didn’t want to leave, and neither did I.

I didn’t listen to his records all that often, but over the years I learned a bunch of his songs, more or less by osmosis. I rarely played them onstage, because my favorites tended to be too familiar — nobody needs to hear me sing “Crazy” after they’ve heard Patsy Cline, or “Night Life,” after all the great versions of that one, or “Funny How Time Slips Away,” or… well, a bunch of them. But somehow relatively few people have done “Bloody Mary Morning,” and it’s a fun one to pick and sing, and I love the weird formality of the language: “with forgetting her the nature of my flight,” and “with temptation and deceit the order of the day.” Chuck Berry sometimes used those kinds of locutions, and this song has always rested in my memory next to Berry’s “Promised Land” — it’s hard to come up with a third writer in the country or rock pantheon who was as skillful about mixing standard vernacular and high literary phrases in the same song.

I heard this on an LP called  Honky Tonkin’, which I picked up in a cut-out bin for a buck or so — a good deal, since it also had Willie’s gorgeous version of “Crazy Arms,” and Gary Stewart doing “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” and Guy Clark doing “Rita Ballou,” and Waylon, and Bobby Bare — but honestly, until I just checked, all I remembered was that it had this one, bizarrely listed on the jacket as “Bloody Merry Morning.”

Watermelon Dream (Guy Clark)

This is probably my all-time favorite summer song — partly because of the lyrics and the way they fit with the melody, and partly because the guitar arrangement fell together so comfortably. It may have taken an hour or so, just playing and seeing what felt right, and that was over thirty years ago, and I don’t think I’ve changed a note.

I’d been aware of Guy Clark sort of tangentially for a long time, but tended to scratch my itch for Texas songwriters with Townes Van Zandt and Joe Ely (and, via Ely, Butch Hancock). Then Guy started coming through the Boston area regularly, and the first time I saw him I was blown away. As it turned out, almost all the songs that blew me away were from his first album, Old No1. Over the years I’ve learned half the songs on that record, and wouldn’t mind learning the other half, but as with Kris Kristofferson, I pretty much got stuck on the first album. Except…

…this is the song of Clark’s I play most often and it’s from a much later album, Old Friends, which I don’t even remember owning. My guess is I got it as a comp back when I was reviewing for the Boston Globe, listened a couple of times, and that was that, except for this one, which I instantly fell in love with. As it happens, the only other Clark song I’ve put up in this series is “Anyhow, I Love You,” which is from his second album, though I picked up from a Kerrville Folk Festival anthology. None of which is particularly interesting, but they’re both pretty songs.

As for the guitar part, I started playing this when I was getting seriously into Congolese acoustic styles and exploring rhythms that were not straight-ahead, 2/4 alternating bass. I suspect Jimmy Buffett was the person who got me thinking about using a Caribbean lilt on country songs–especially warm, summer country songs–along with Ry Cooder’s version of “He’ll Have to Go,” which I originally played in E, pretty similarly to this one. By the time I added that one to the Songobiography, I was playing it in F and got a lot fancier and more Caribbean, but this has more interesting chords and the break just sort of rode in on them.

Blood Red Moon (Dave Van Ronk)

This was the title song of Dave’s Going Back to Brooklyn LP and inspired the cover image, a blood red moon rising over the Brooklyn Bridge, worked in stained glass by Dave’s wife, Andrea. As I explained in an earlier post, his original title for that album was “Losers,”  but that seemed kind of negative for his first and only collection of original songwriting, so we went for this.

Dave explained his creative process in the liner notes:

This was supposed to be a serious, even scary song, à la Robert Johnson. I got a verse or two off in this manner and started to giggle… rewrite time. I guess serious and scary just isn’t my long suit.

To be fair, Dave wrote several serious and scary songs, notably “Last Call” and his gorily obscene anti-war song, “Luang Prabang” — but this one turned into a blues gone awry, or simply wry.

When I started doing it, I briefly considered changing the last line to fit my own geography, but Brooklyn is way funnier than Cambridge. Besides, I grew up with Brooklyn — my father was from there, and I was raised on the local folklore: “Toity doity boids at toity-toid and toid, sitting on the coib and eating doity woims.” Not to mention “Jake the Plumber.” The first time I brought Dave home to my parents’ house, they spent a couple of hours exchanging Brooklyn memories. I wish I’d had a tape recorder running.

They met a bunch more times over the years, took a lot of pleasure in each other’s company, and in a previous post I wrote about Dave’s appearance at my father’s memorial, telling stories and singing “St. James Infirmary.” I wish they were around now to comment on the oddity of Brooklyn becoming trendy. Neither of them would have imagined that could happen, and I’m guessing Dave would have been angry about it — not just because no one under fifty will think the last line of this song is funny, but that wouldn’t help.

Incidentally, the LP was supposed to have two photos on the back, one of Dave imitating a gargoyle on the turret of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and the other of him as a kid in Brooklyn. But the designer who did the jacket had ideas of her own and decided to just use the Notre Dame shot… which she didn’t mention until after sending it to the printer… and although I managed to use it twenty years later in our book, The Mayor of MacDougal St., I still have not forgiven her… so here it is, almost where it belongs.

None of that has much to do with this song, which I mostly learned for his guitar arrangement. Like another of my heroes, Joseph Spence, Dave loved “dropped D” tuning, and this was an experiment using that tuning to play in the key of G.

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.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head