This accompaniment in “dropped D” tuning, carefully arranged to seem simple and unobtrusive, has always seemed to me the Apollonian ideal of a Dave Van Ronk guitar arrangement. He recorded it during his early peak of popularity, right after the Folksinger LP, on an album that featured him with a trad jazz band including some of his old friends from Brooklyn and Queens. Half the tracks had the full band, half just Dave with his guitar, and someone made the odd choice to mingle the cuts rather than having a solo side and a band side, with the result that I’ve very rarely listened to the record, because when I’m in the mood for the quiet, meditative solo stuff I don’t want to hear the rowdy band, and when I’m up for the band the solo cuts are too quiet… which is a pity, because that record has some of Dave’s greatest solo performances, including “Green Rocky Road,” “St. Louis Tickle,” and this song.
“Kansas City Blues” was one of the defining songs of the third blues boom — the first was a dance craze, set off by W.C. Handy’s hits in the early teens; the second a record craze for “blues queens,” set off by Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920; and the third took off with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s success and mostly featured male singers accompanying themselves on guitar or piano. One of the first major hits of that boom was recorded by a Memphis street singer named Jim Jackson and issued toward the end of 1927 as “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues.”
Born in 1884, Jackson was one of the oldest artists who recorded in that period and his repertoire is a window into what African American musicians were playing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from rural ditties like “Old Dog Blue” to minstrel comedy numbers like “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop,” Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and his hit about moving to Kansas City, which was so popular that he shortly followed it with “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues,” parts 3 and 4, then “I’m Gonna Move to Louisiana.” Other artists jumped on the bandwagon, the Memphis Jug Band and Lonnie Johnson recording their own “Kansas City Blues” and Charlie Patton asserting his individuality by singing “Going to Move to Alabama.”
I would guess that by 1928 there were very few blues singers who didn’t have some version of this song in their repertoires, and variants of it continued to circulate in the jazz world, which may well be where Dave first heard it — the liner notes to his album describe it as “one of the most popular race recordings of the twenties and … still a favorite of many today.” The funny thing being that when I came across it in the early 1970s I was a dedicated folk-blues listener, regarded it as a traditional “country blues,” and would have been baffled if anyone had suggested it was a pop hit.