When I began delving into old-time pop material, I was particularly attracted by musicians who had found ways to play that stuff using normal folk-blues guitar techniques. I was blown away by Guy Van Duser, who was playing guitar like a cross between Chet Atkins and a swing pianist, but one lesson convinced me that we were not going to be a good match — we liked some of the same songs, but I was basically a folk-blues player and that wasn’t his bag at all.
By contrast, Judy Roderick’s version of “Miss Brown to You,” on an anthology of performances at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, was a perfect match. I loved the way she sang and the way she played, and by then I had the chops to figure out her arrangement — or at least to figure out my take on her arrangement. (I haven’t heard her version in years, and won’t vouch for my accuracy.) It’s a nice, easy-swinging, guitar-friendly chart, and though it probably has some wrong chords by jazz standards, it’s fun to play and sing over.
Roderick was a passion of mine for a while, almost totally on the basis of her three songs on that Newport album. She made two LPs, but I don’t think either gave a sense of how good she could be — Woman Blue felt kind of low-key to me and Ain’t Nothing But the Blues surrounded her with a dixieland band that interfered rather than supporting her. But two of the Newport tracks, “Miss Brown to You” and “Blues on My Ceiling,” were exceptional performances on every level, and Van Ronk confirmed my opinion when we happened to be talking about fine musicians who never got their due on the 1960s folk scene, and the first name he mentioned was Roderick’s.
Though the lyric was obviously written to be sung by a man, the first recording of “Miss Brown to You” was by Billie Holiday, as were all the other significant recordings of it before Roderick’s — but Roderick didn’t sing it like Holiday, and switched the gender, singing about Henry rather than Emily Brown: “Mister Brown to you.” I’m not going to say her version cuts Holiday’s, but it was way more accessible to me as a player, and for a while it became a staple of my repertoire.
Later on, when I was touring regularly through Montana, I found that Roderick was living near Missoula, singing with a group called the Big Sky Mudflaps, and tried to get in touch, but it never happened… and then she died, and I never got to meet her. I’ve met a number of people who knew or played with her over the years, though, and everyone seems to agree that her recordings didn’t do her justice. And so far no one has reissued those Newport tracks, or even digitized them and uploaded them to YouTube… sometimes history just isn’t fair.