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.)