Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Almanac Singers)

This is probably the first blues song I learned, though at the time I just thought of it as another union song. It was on the one Almanac Singers’ album my grandparents had, which I eventually learned was called Talking Union — I didn’t know the title at the time because the cover had fallen off before it came into my hands.

I learned most of the songs in that set, and this was a particular favorite — it had an upbeat, swinging rhythm  and the guitar part was great. Many years later, when I was researching my biography of Josh White, it occurred to me that he must be the leader on this one, so I went back and listened with fresh ears. As it turned out, Pete Seeger had decided the Almanac Singers needed a more accomplished guitarist, so he took the subway up to Harlem and asked Josh, who instantly agreed to help them out. Lee Hays was singing lead — and very likely wrote it, since he was a specialist in adapting gospel songs for union organizing — but Josh’s guitar was unmistakable. I don’t play it like he did, mostly because I do it in a different key, but I’ve kept a couple of his licks in there.

Many years later, I ran across an original typescript of the lyrics for this song in Alan Lomax’s files at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. It had a couple of additional verses, one of which was presumably omitted from the recording because of its forceful language, and a penciled note credited it to “Pete Bowers,” the pseudonym Seeger was using to prevent his family from being tarred by his radical affiliations:

UAW-CIO/Sally Don’t You Grieve (The Union Boys)

When I was maybe six years old, my parents bought me a little portable record player. It was about a foot square, closed up like a suitcase, and had four speeds: 16, 33 1/3, 45, and 78. They wouldn’t let me play their records on it, but I had a few children’s folk LPs — one by Tom Glazer, and a couple of Everybody Sing!  anthologies — and somehow I also ended up with my grandparents’ 78 albums.

My mother’s family were refugees from Nazi Vienna and old-line Communists — till the day he died, my grandfather had the complete works of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in his home office, in German. (Also the complete works of Joseph Conrad, Jack London, and Mark Twain.) I don’t think they were politically active after coming to the United States, Union Boysbut along with dozens of classical albums, they had the classic Communist record collection of the early 1940s: Paul Robeson, the Red Army Chorus, the International Brigades from the Spanish Civil War, Josh White, the Almanac Singers, and the Union Boys. The Union Boys wasn’t actually a group — it was just a bunch of singers who got together to record an album’s worth of songs about union organizing and the war effort, among them Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Tom Glazer, Josh White, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, plus one side by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.

sally don't you grieveI played those records constantly and learned most of the songs, and these two were particular favorites. I suppose part of the appeal was the war — despite my parents’ pacifist leanings, I played with toy soldiers and dug trenches and all that kind of stuff, and it was exciting to sing about rolling into Berlin with your buddies from the union and going after Hitler. I didn’t understand all the words, of course — I don’t think I knew the meaning of either UAW or CIO — but thirty years later, when I helped organize a freelancer’s group at the Boston Globe under the auspices of the National Writers Union, I was particularly pleased that we were a subsection of the UAW. It kind of brought everything full circle, and felt like I’d stayed true to my early friends.

Sunday Street (Dave Van Ronk)

Dave Van Ronk was a close friend, mentor, and kind of a second father to me–aside from guitar, he taught me about literature, history, politics, food, jazz, the ins and outs of New York, and the vagaries of the music business. When I was studying with him in 1976-77, he had recently released Sunday Street, his first solo album since the 1960s, and one of his best. Sunday StreetThe title song was his own composition–he was always trying to come up with new approaches to old blues styles, and this is a perfect example: the humor and language are a mix of his modern sensibility and the kind of street lingo he enjoyed in songs and books from earlier eras, in keeping with the tastes of a man who named his rock band the Hudson Dusters after one of the Irish street gangs in Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York. For example, to be in tap city is an extension of “tapping out,” or going broke at poker.

The guitar part is in dropped-D tuning, Dave’s favorite, which he probably used more than any other player aside from Joseph Spence–a kinship that gives me even more pleasure than it gave him.

Walking Blues (Robert Johnson/Son House)

When I wrote Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, the original idea was just to go through Robert Johnson’s complete recordings, listen to each of them carefully, and figure out what I could say about them–his sources, his playing, his singing, and how they might have fitted into his life and the process of recording. Part of that project was to figure out how he was playing, which was kind of a departure for me, because I’d never worked out any of his guitar parts, and had never really tried to play slide. For a while I got fascinated with the style, and tried to go on and learn some Kokomo Arnold, Tampa Red, and Casey Bill Weldon arrangements as well, but somehow it just didn’t feel like me… Son House lpso I settled for playing a couple of Johnson’s pieces, with some licks from Son House, who seems to have been the main source for his slide style, and this is the one that stuck with me.

House has always been one of my favorite blues artists–I had his Columbia album by my early teens, and it remains one of my favorite records–he was such an astonishing singer, and the vibrato he got with his slide continues to stir me in a way I could never explain and no one else ever equaled (Muddy Waters probably comes closest). He played this guitar part for a song called “My Black Mama,” and used a different accompaniment for his recorded version of “Walking Blues” — but it’s perfectly possible that he was comfortable singing either lyric with either guitar part, and just happened to record them the way he did on those particular days. In any case, I love his work, prefer Johnson’s verses, and think of this as kind of my dual tribute to both of them.

From Four Until Late (Robert Johnson)

Johnny Dunn

One of my pet subjects as a music historian is how little we know about what and how people played in the past, and how easy it is to get stories wrong–especially when we think we know what we’re talking about. As I explain in the video, I had gone along with the notion that this song was Robert Johnson’s take on something Blind Blake played, and I still think he was echoing Blake’s guitar style, but the song had been recorded in 1922–fifteen years before Johnson did it–by the Memphis trumpeter and bandleader Johnny Dunn, who is probably best known today as a member of Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. Johnson seems to have been living in Memphis around 1922, and Dunn’s record is titled “Four O’Clock Blues,” so it all makes sense.

Which said, Dunn’s recording is an instrumental, and the published sheet music has lyrics that bear no resemblance to what Johnson sang… and the song was also published in Memphis around that time with credit to another composer, Alex Valentine… and Skip James recorded a version of the song as “Four O’Clock Blues,” before Johnson did it, with yet another set of lyrics… and Alan Lomax recorded yet another version of the song in 1941 from Son House, Willie Brown, and Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, who could have been Johnson’s source…

Anyway, like almost everyone else I got it from Johnson, and play it more or less in the style of Blind Blake, whose ragtime guitar technique was very different from the Mississippi Delta approach, but very popular there — Johnson’s stepson and protege, Robert Lockwood Jr., often said that Blake was his favorite guitarist.

Incidentally, the sheet music for Dunn’s “Four O’Clock Blues” is a unique example of the appropriation or whitewashing of blues and jazz as popular styles, since the cover shows a white band playing the song, but is directly modeled on a photograph of the Black band Dunn led, Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds:

Sheik of Araby (My father and ethnicity)

This is one of the first songs I ever learned, thanks to my father, who was born in 1906 and seemed to know just about every pop song of his youth. He frequently sang at the dinner table, and this was one of his favorites, along with “Lena was the Queen of Palesteena” and “When Francis Dances with Me.” He also had some more obscure items, which I remember only in part and no one else seems to remember at all–one, for instance, was about a husband whose wife has a child that resembles the man who is lodging with them, and is admonished with the chorus:

Your wife and your boarder, they’re all right,
With the red-haired child you must be satisfied.
If you don’t want to go to court
Your wife and your boarder you must support,
Your wife and your boarder, they’re all right.

My dad sang that in Jewish dialect, and I vaguely recall understanding it as an ethnic comedy routine about a Jewish husband cuckolded by an Irish boarder. He had a lot of ethnic dialect material, some sung, some recited. For example, a punning Russian dialect song, apparently written by a friend of his for a summer camp production, which included the immortal lines:

Like a balalaika, moaning in a minor key,
Some of our friends are sipping samovar tea…
(Note: “Like a”–“laika”; “some of our”–“samovar.”)

I have a good deal more about my father, including the text of his epic recitation, Jake the Plumber, on the page I made for him, George Wald – Biologist from Brooklyn.

As discussed in the video, this song and the whole “sheik” craze provided a sort of ethnic bridge, not only for Mediterraneans and pseudo-Mediterraneans like Rudolf Valentino and his Jewish admirers, but for young African Americans, as witness the Mississippi Sheiks and the Alabama Sheiks.

Casey Jones (Furry Lewis/banjo to guitar)

When I was doing the book tour for Escaping the Delta, my book on Robert Johnson and the history of blues, I started playing this song regularly at the various events, and fell completely in love with it. It is Furry Lewis’s take on a song that has been recorded in dozens of versions, by dozens of people–Charlie Poole did a variant titled “Milwaukee Blues,” Waylon Jennings did it as “Waymore’s Blues,” a bunch of people have done it as “Jay Gould’s Daughter.” Aside from being a great piece of music, it’s a good example of the kinds of songs that were all over the South at the turn of the 19th-20th century and crystallized into blues, and of the way banjo styles affected blues guitar. I started thinking about those banjo slides when I learned Lead Belly’s arrangement of “Poor Howard,” which is very similar to the way Furry played this.

Pallet on Your Floor (Ain’t No Telling)

I learned a version of this song from a Cisco Houston record–he was one of my first heroes, and I learned pretty much all the songs on that record–but once I heard Mississippi John Hurt do it, I switched over to his version. (The same thing happened with Woody Guthrie’s version of “Stagolee.”) For a while, I started every concert with a John Hurt song, and this one served that role for a few years. His music is a perfect bridge between blues and the older African American styles that evolved into country music, and his guitar style was the bedrock for a couple of generations of fingerpickers, me very much included. As for the harmonica, I never mastered the intricacies of tongue blocking, or got my bends and tone where I’d like them to be, but I had a lot of fun with the instrument and even made my living with it off and on, including some memorably anarchic gigs as a sideman for Eric Von Schmidt.

Like most versions of “Pallet on the Floor,” this one seems to be pretty substantially expurgated–Jelly Roll Morton recorded a version for the Library of Congress that gives a better sense of what the whole thing might be about… but, on the other hand, this one is the most bloodthirsty, in a wry, gentle, Hurt kind of way.

Masanga (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

When I was in high school, I spent hundreds of hours at the public library, which was between the two high schools (Rindge Tech and Cambridge High & Latin), listening to records. Thanks to the music librarian, Ken Williams, that library had a terrific collection of jazz, blues, international and other LPs, and that was where I first heard Jean-Bosco Mwenda’s playing, on an LP called Guitars of Africa. Like everyone else who heard that record, I was blown away by his instrumental version of Masanga, and fortunately both Pete Seeger and Happy Traum had published tablature for it, so I managed to cobble together a half-assed version.

That LP was part of a collection of recordings made in the 1950s and ’60s by Hugh Tracey, who worked out a deal with the Gallotone label to record musicians all over Africa, with the more commercial results appearing on Gallotone and the rest filed in what became the International Library of African Music at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Masanga was one of the most successful of the Gallotone releases, influencing guitar styles throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. As I recall, Tracey’s notes said that Bosco was in his late teens when he made the recording, circa 1951, and had only been playing for a couple of years–which seemed incredible, but he was a pretty incredible person. (Though, to be fair, he told me a different story when I interviewed him about his early life.) As I will explain in later posts, I traveled to Lubumbashi, Zaire (now Republic of the Congo), in 1990 and spent a couple of months studying with Bosco and his cousin, Edouard Masengo.

I explain a bit about the song in my video, but should add a translation of the second verse, which says, “A woman without a man is like a bicycle without a headlamp.” I found that puzzling, and asked Bosco what it meant. He smiled and explained, “She will go fine in the daytime, but may go wrong at night.”

There’s more about Bosco and his music, including a short interview I did with him, on the African Acoustic Guitar page of my website, and in the posts about other songs he taught me: “Kijana Muke,” “Bibi Theresa,” and “Kuolewa.” And here is his handwritten lyric for Masanga (with my chord boxes and minor annotations):

(The unusual tuning DADF#AC# and the three chord boxes have nothing to do with “Masanga.” I wish I still remembered which song they belong to–I’m pretty certain it would have been something of Bosco’s, since I wrote it on this page–but I have no recollection of adding this…)

Cannonball Blues (Woody, Carters, Leslie Riddle)

As I explain in the clip, I’ve known this since I was a kid, though back then I would have played it with a flatpick. My first musical heroes were Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, with Pete Seeger running a close third. In my twenties it occurred to me that I was never going to be a great flatpicker, but if I could play this stuff with my fingers, that would overlap into everything else I played. Years later, my friend Peter Keane pointed out that this is very close to the way a lot of the first generation of white country guitarists played.

FW31010Woody Guthrie is still one of my favorite players and singers–I like his songwriting too, but he gets plenty of credit for that elsewhere, and his musicianship tends to be underrated. On his record of this song, the title is given as “Baltimore to Washington,” and I’ve also seen it as “The Cannonball.”

Like a lot of Woody’s material, this came from the Carter Family. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott told me that when he was traveling and playing with Woody, that was mostly what they sang — not Guthrie’s own compositions, but his favorite Carter songs, and a fair proportion of Woody’s songs were set to tunes he learned from the Carters, including “This Land Is Your Land,” which used the tune of “When the World’s on Fire.” Interestingly, Brownie McGhee told me Woody got this tune up from him (though he called it “Rock of Ages”) — which might seem like a contradiction, but isn’t, because…

…Brownie was mentored as a young musician by a guitarist and singer named Leslie Riddle, who is best known for traveling around the South gathering songs with A.P. Carter and teaching Maybelle Carter how to fingerpick. As she explained:

I learned my style, that picking style… from a colored man that used to come to our house and play guitar, and he played with his finger and his thumb, like Chet [Atkins]. His name is Eslie Riddles.

Sara Carter likewise remembered his name without the L:

Eslie Riddles was his name, E-S-L-I-E, I believe. At that time, he was living at Kingsport, Tennessee. He had a wooden leg. He’d come over there, and he’d stay for weeks at a time, and help us all he could. He was a good guitarist, and he was a good singer. We learned a lot of songs from him.

And as it happens, one of the songs they learned from Riddle was “Cannonball Blues,” including the guitar part that Woody got from Maybelle and I got from Woody. As Sara said, “That’s kind of the way he picked it… [Maybelle] kind of caught some of her style from him, for that one, especially.”

The Carters didn’t mention learning “When the World’s on Fire” from Riddle, and since they apparently met because he was a fan who sought them out after hearing their record, he could have learned it from them. Either way, it seems very possible that he taught the song to Brownie, and Woody got it from Brownie rather than directly from the Carters’ record — even after phonographs and radio became common, people still tended to learn more songs from each other than from recordings.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head