That year I lived in New York was a very rich time for me musically — not in other ways, since I basically spent it in my room listening to records and playing guitar, when I wasn’t contemplating the next record buy at Dayton’s or schlepping over to Van Ronk’s place for a lesson, meal, and lecture… but there’s clearly a “before” and “after” in my musical life, with that year in the middle.
Which said, in retrospect I have somewhat mixed feelings about the way I was learning, and the way a lot of musicians of my generation and afterwards have approached the music of the early 20th century. For example, take Big Bill Broonzy’s “Long Tall Mama.” It was on a Yazoo collection of early Broonzy songs, and also in Woody Mann’s book, Six Black Blues Guitarists, and when I first got the book it was beyond my abilities, but by the end of that year I had a rough approximation of the accompaniment and two solos that Mann had transcribed, and a few years later I worked out the introduction, and it’s the one Broonzy guitar part that I still have more or less in playable shape — rusty, but serviceable.
The mixed feelings come in because, first of all, it’s not the song I would have picked out of Broonzy’s repertoire if I hadn’t had tablature handy for it, so I was following Yazoo’s and Mann’s tastes rather than my own. And second of all, as best I can tell Broonzy was just playing and singing a song he had recently composed and improvising guitar breaks in his usual C-position style, and if he’d recorded the same song a second time he would have played different breaks. It wasn’t a composition, per se, it was just the way he happened to play it that one time. And if Blind Willie McTell or Blind Blake, or Eric Von Schmidt or Dave Van Ronk had wanted to play the song, they would have worked out their own guitar parts — maybe close to Broonzy’s, maybe not — and sung it in their own styles.
By and large, all the generations of musicians before me who played this kind of music also heard the musicians who originated it, playing it live, and understood it as a living form that changed from minute to minute and day to day and person to person. They had some recordings, but typically not many, and records were in any case secondary to musicians, so they mostly used them as sources for songs, not like formal scores.
By the time I came along, all but a handful of the older players were gone and companies like Yazoo had done beautiful reissues of their early recordings. So to a great extent the exercise of learning acoustic blues had become learning what the old guys recorded back in the 1920s and ’30s on particular records, as closely as possible. When I was lucky enough to meet other people who played prewar blues, we’d show one another the secrets we’ve managed to figure out — how Mississippi John Hurt fingered a particular chord; how Blind Blake played that syncopated bass figure.
There’s a whole world of us, and by now we’ve been doing this for decades, and we teach at guitar camps, make instructional videos, and even record our careful transcriptions of guitar solos that people like Big Bill Broonzy happened to play once, improvising in front of a microphone, eighty or ninety years ago.
It’s a great exercise, and I’ve learned a lot by doing it, but I’ve also spent a lot of years trying to unlearn that process — trying to stop singing in a southern accent, to stop singing words I don’t understand, to stop trying to duplicate licks that will never really feel like they are my licks, even if I can execute them cleanly.
This isn’t about originality vs. imitation. I play plenty of songs that do feel like mine, though they were written by someone else, and play plenty of licks that do feel like my licks, though I know more or less where I learned them — and so did Big Bill Broonzy. But I was recently listening to Paul Geremia’s version of “Long Tall Mama,” off his second album, which is an attempt to recreate Broonzy’s recording, pretty much solo by solo, and he did it better than I ever could, but it’s still a lot less interesting than what he was playing a few years later, when he had assimilated the music and was generating solos in the moment, the way Broonzy did — even if they were solos in Broonzy’s style. And even back then, the singing sounds like Paul, not Broonzy, which to me makes it a lot more interesting than the guitar playing.
The thing is, I have the Broonzy record, and when I listen to someone try to recreate the solos, all I’m thinking about is how well or badly they are managing to sound like Broonzy. If they do it well I admire their expertise, but it’s still just an exercise and I’d still rather hear him do it.
All of which said, it’s a great exercise, and I love the experience of hearing some of Broonzy’s licks come out of my fingers, and if someone else wants to learn this, it may be helpful to see what my fingers are doing, since we don’t have any video of Broonzy playing these breaks… and I’m glad to have learned it, and will undoubtedly learn more licks off more records before my last go round… and, since I haven’t played this in a while, it feels good to get it more or less up to speed.
So here it is, with no apologies and no regrets… but if you like it and don’t already know it, listen to Broonzy’s version, too.
Incidentally, there’s a dig at Memphis Minnie in the last verse that some folks may miss — she’d established her recording career with a song called “Bumble Bee,” about a boyfriend with a particularly effective “stinger,” and Broonzy is suggesting that he’s got something more substantial to work with.