Posting about Henry Worrell’s “Spanish Fandango” reminded me of my own introduction to open G tuning… Worrell and his followers in the 19th century tended to start their guitar instruction methods with “Spanish Fandango” because it was easy to make it sound pretty — you tuned into open G and played a simple melody, and even if you hit the wrong string it all harmonized, and for a beginner that was very encouraging.
My guitar teacher, Lee K. Riethmiller (sometimes known as Lee Kidd), practiced a similar strategy when he moved me along from Woody and Cisco to blues. I don’t remember exactly when he taught me “Drop Down Mama,” but it was pretty early and the version he taught me was dazzlingly simple: just tune into open G and play a series of descending barres on the 5th, 3rd, and 1st frets, then stick on the 5th and 7th for the C and D chords. I remember him telling me to use my ring finger rather than my index finger for the barre, I’m not sure why, but probably to get a muffled, thumpy sound. He also turned me on to the Tom Rush record that was his source for this song and the basic arrangement, and I liked Rush’s voice and went on to get his first two Elektra albums, which were sources for some of my favorite songs…
In any case, “Drop Down Mama” was my pride and joy for a couple of years, and I remember a couple of babysitters being very impressed — actually, it was a friend of a babysitter: the official babysitter was Joana Sanchez, a student of my mother’s, who moved in when my parents went off on a trip for a week, and her best friend, Ruth Saludes, was incredibly nice, and beautiful, and I had a huge crush on her. She asked me to play this song a bunch of times, sometimes when other people were around and sometimes just for her, and in retrospect I have to assume it was funny as hell to see this little kid flailing away at the guitar and singing a song that could not have been less suited to his age or experience. But she was very encouraging, and I thought I was really going to town.
Then one day some old family friends, the Mosconas, were visiting from Chicago, and their daughter Anne, who is a couple of years older than me, came up to my bedroom and asked me to show her what I had learned on guitar. So I played her this, and she said, “That doesn’t look hard,” and took the guitar out of my hands and played it right back at me. She didn’t even play guitar, but had got it instantly, though I tried to preserve my pride by claiming she didn’t have the “feel” right.
So that was that. I kept playing “Drop Down Mama” occasionally, when I happened to be in open G, but my puppy love affair with the tuning and the song was done. Years later, I heard the Sleepy John Estes version and realized how much Rush had reworked it — and I recently ran across a nice video of Tom talking about the pleasure of seeing people like Estes and playing his own version, which is notably more interesting than what Lee taught me around age twelve.