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: