Midnight Hour Blues (Leroy Carr)

Another classic Van Ronk guitar arrangement, this was also the first song I learned by Leroy Carr. Carr was a massively influential figure who virtually redefined blues in the late 1920s and early ’30s, turning it from rowdy, shouting dancehall, theater, or streetcorner music into a sensitive, moody style suited to late night meditations in quiet rooms with a glass of whiskey close at hand. His innovations were immeasurably aided by new technologies: first electrical recording, which could capture the intimate sound of crooners like Carr and Bing Crosby — the defining male singers in blues and pop for the next few decades — and then the popularity of jukeboxes, which supplanted pianos as the main barroom music devices when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Carr’s records became jukebox staples, along with recordings by his myriad followers and imitators, earning innumerable nickels in the slow hours before closing time.

This was probably the first Carr song I heard, thanks to Paul Oliver’s two-LP anthology,story of the blues The Story of the Blues, issued to accompany his book of the same name. More than any other collection of that early reissue period, Oliver’s set suggested not only the depth and brilliance, but also the range of early blues, with Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong alongside deep Delta guitarists, the Georgia fiddler Eddie Anthony (his “Georgia Crawl” may have been my favorite cut on the album), and this track from Carr and his guitar-playing partner, Scrapper Blackwell.

A lot of urban revivalists considered Carr and Blackwell too smooth for their tastes — romantic adolescent lads in New York, Cambridge, and London were turning to blues for dark Delta shouters, not moody, gentle singers who played spare, evocative piano — but Van Ronk was very much an exception. Despite his reputation as a hoarse shouter, he loved Carr (and Crosby), and made careful study both of Blackwell’s guitar style and of Carr’s laconic piano chording. As he wrote in the liner notes to “Midnight Hour Blues”:

Sparseness is a good thing if you want to be pretty. Silence — a pause — is as important to music as a note. Silence is a part of music.
All those nice big fat thirds I got from Leroy Carr. The guitar is as close as I can get to a transcription of his lead piano part.