I first heard Professor Longhair on a terrific album of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — also the first place I heard Allen Toussaint and Earl King — and it was love at first listen. So I began acquiring his albums, and the more I heard, the more I wanted to hear. He tended to rework the same songs, but every version was different, and it’s up with Joseph Spence as the most virtuosically happy music I know.
Longhair was a big part of my interest in Congolese guitar styles. I wanted to be able to play those New Orleans/ Caribbean rhythms, and people like Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo had come up with a fingerstyle approach that felt to me like a bridge between rumba/mambo and Mississippi John Hurt. My first attempt was the Mardi Gras Indian war song “Iko Iko,” which I play in a clearly Congolese style, but I kept being fascinated by Longhair’s piano and puzzled about how to get some approximation of it on guitar.
Then, thanks to Washtub Robbie Phillips, I ended up with a band and a weekly gig at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge. We were called the Street Corner Cowboys — inspired by John Storm Roberts‘s mention of East African country singers as “the street corner cowboys of Zanzibar” — and consisted of Robbie on one-string bass, Peter Keane and me on guitars, and Mark Earley on harmonica (plus, a lot of the time, Matt Leavenworth on fiddle by last set). Peter was singing pretty country songs, Mark was deep into Chicago blues, and I took the opportunity to do all sorts of stuff that suited the band framework, from Nat King Cole’s “Call the Police” to “Great Balls of Fire.”
That gave me a chance to break the habits of solo fingerstyle, the concept of thumb playing bass while fingers play melody. I played a lot of single-string lead, and also came up with this arrangement, which is an attempt to play something like a standard Longhair left-hand pattern. Since Mark and Peter were there to play fills and solos, it was fine if I just played the left-hand part, and ok, there isn’t much to the lyric but it was fun to work around the rhythms.
The Cowboys faded into the mists of time, but I kept fooling around with this and eventually came up with some kind of instrumental break, and it’s still a lot of fun to play. Which is not to say I’ve come up with a way to capture Longhair’s piano rhythms on guitar…
…because Longhair was a unique genius and no one has ever captured his piano rhythms… much less me, much less on guitar…
…which seems like a good moment to mention that a great DVD, Fess Up, was recently issued that combines Stevenson Palfi’s documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, featuring Longhair, Tuts Washington, and Allen Toussaint, with an hour-long interview with Longhair. And there are all those great records (a personal favorite is his version of “Jambalaya,” with Gatemouth Brown on fiddle), and some rocking videos on the internet, and the wonderful chapter about him in Dr. John’s memoir… if you’ve never been on a Fess binge, I can recommend no greater musical pleasure.