Walter Davis’s masterpiece is a good example of the disconnect between blues in its time and the way the music’s history has been reshaped and misunderstood: one of the biggest hits in the genre, by a major recording star, it has often been treated as an anonymous folk song and its composer all but forgotten.
Davis was one of the most successful of the wave of blues ballad singers who followed Leroy Carr to the pinnacle of the “race” recording market in the 1930s. Record sales had fallen off due to the Depression, but were reinvigorated by the rise of jukeboxes, and these moody, piano-backed balladeers perfectly suited a late-night saloon atmosphere.
Born in Grenada, Mississippi, just east of the Delta region, Davis was one of the most influential artists to come out of the region — Muddy Waters, in his first interview for Henry Work and Alan Lomax, named Davis as his favorite recording artist, and Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” likely reached later listeners largely due to Davis’s version (issued as “Don’t You Want to Go”), which was followed by Roosevelt Sykes and Junior Parker, becoming a Chicago band standard.
Davis was a brilliant and prolific songwriter, most notable for darkly poetic lyrics like “Ashes in My Whiskey” and “Can’t See Your Face,” but also capable of rowdy hokum numbers like “I Can Tell by the Way You Smell.” His biggest hit, “Come Back Baby” appeared in 1940, and when the Lomax-Work team surveyed Clarksdale jukeboxes in 1941, it was the only song that appeared on every single machine.
Ironically, the song’s ubiquity probably helped some blues historians to ignore its source — coming to the music decades later, unfamiliar with the popular hits and regarding blues as black rural folk music, they found it had been recorded by everyone from Sonny Terry and Snooks Eaglin to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, and concluded that it was just “out there,” an anonymous folk creation. (Other popular hits that underwent this metamorphosis include Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind” and Leroy Carr’s “When the Sun Goes Down.”)
To be fair, the song underwent a good deal of mutation and “folk process” in the hands of other artists, few of whom sang many of Davis’s lyrics — as was common in blues, they would typically sing his opening verse, then just string together favorite couplets that seemed to fit the theme. One of those artists was Dave Van Ronk, and like most later arrivals on the folk scene, I learned the song from his 1962 recording and still sing mostly his verses. I’ve also retained some elements of his guitar arrangement, which he credited to his friend Dave Woods, who was studying with Lenny Tristano and based it heavily on 9th chords — a fairly unusual choice, but appropriate, since Walter Davis’s playing was also distinctive for its harmonically advanced chording.
All of which means my version is a lot closer to Dave’s than to Davis’s — though without those nice 9th chords — but it led me to Davis and I’m forever grateful for that. He was a fine songwriter, a distinctive and inventive pianist, and should be much better known.