Johnson City Blues (Clarence Greene, Ida Cox)

Along with all the great African American blues artists who recorded in the 1920s, there were also some interesting Euro-American players who came up with distinctive styles. The most famous was Jimmie Rodgers, but the best guitarists tended to come from around the mountain communities of Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the Carolinas. I’ve already paid tribute to Dick Justice, who deserves to be a lot better known, and this song is from an even more obscure artist, Clarence Greene. Greene was born in North Carolina in 1884 and recorded a  scant dozen songs, including some on fiddle with Byrd Moore’s Hot Shots. This is by far the best known, and with good reason: his other recordings are in more standard white country styles, but this is a unique and brilliant guitar blues.

Greene’s playing is admirably quirky, and shows the clear influence of one of the greatest early blues recording stars, apparently learned first-hand. As his friend Walter Davis recalled:

“Me and Clarence Greene was in Johnson City, Tennessee, and there was an old colored fellow, blind man, that was playing down there on the street, and I thought he was the most wonderful guitar player that I had ever heard. He could really play the blues… Blind Lemon Jefferson. And he was really good… I stayed there two or three days, trying to pick up some of his chords and some of his tunes.”1

Greene’s playing is very different from Jefferson’s, but made up of distinctly Jeffersonian components – the way someone might play if they spent two or three days watching Jefferson, then went home and came up with a guitar arrangement based on what they’d seen That’s very different from sitting down with a record, because Greene doesn’t sound like he’s imitating any particular Jefferson piece and some of the ideas he uses seem based more on how Jefferson’s hands moved than on how the results sounded. At least, that’s my take on this arrangement, based on admittedly limited evidence – but it makes sense.

As for the song, it’s a close adaptation of a 1923 recording by Ida Cox titled “Chattanooga Blues.”2 Cox has been overshadowed by Bessie Smith in the history books, but was at least as influential among rural musicians and listeners. She couldn’t match Smith’s power and virtuosity, but had a more straightforwardly conversational style and terrific taste in material, much of which she seems to have written herself. She was also a very astute businesswoman and continued to tour with her own company of musicians, singers, and dancers through the 1930s, invested her profits in real estate, and retired comfortably to Knoxville, where she died in 1967.

As for my version: one of the things I love about both Jefferson and Greene is the way they casually add or subtract a couple of beats now and then to fit their singing, rather than keeping within standard European measures. I started playing this song before I got seriously into Jefferson’s music, and it was an education in freedom — it comes out a bit different every time, and that’s fun and relaxing.

  1. This quotation and all the biographical details above are from a great website,
  2. Cox’s record was also covered by the Allen Brothers, and apparently Greene’s son said their record was his source, but if you listen to both versions it’s pretty clear he got this directly from Cox.