Mississippi Blues (William Brown)

“Mississippi Blues” was recorded in 1942 by a terrific guitarist and singer named William Brown, along with “East St. Louis Blues,”  “Four O’Clock Flower Blues,” and, probably, “Ragged and Dirty, ” which I’ve written about in a previous post.

That’s all we know about him, and even that is not entirely reliable. The recordings were made by Alan Lomax, John Work, and Lewis Jones, and the first three songs named above were recorded at Sadie Beck’s plantation in Arkansas; “Ragged and Dirty” seems to have been recorded separately, in West Memphis, on a night Lomax wrote about in his book The Land Where the Blues Began, and he suggests that this was the same William Brown who sang the other three songs… but also suggests this was the Willie Brown who recorded “Future Blues” and played with Son House, though it clearly was not.

The name of this piece is likewise unhelpful; Lomax simply labeled it “Mississippi Blues,” which it was, more or less, even if he recorded it in Arkansas… but so were all the other blues he recorded in that region. And despite the title, it was anything but generic, as least in terms of the guitar part. It was very carefully composed, played virtually identically behind every verse, and with a high break that directly imitates boogie-woogie piano, with a walking bassline on the low strings and high triplets in the treble. The whole thing sounds like a guitar transcription of a blues piano accompaniment, and numerous people have tried to trace it to a specific piano blues recording — the most convincing nominee, to my ears, being Charlie Spand’s “Hard Times Blues,” though other people have suggested records by Walter Davis. By the late 1930s, a lot of young players were imitating records — Robert Johnson copied a guitar arrangement almost note for note from a record by Lonnie Johnson, and the guitar work on Brown’s “Ragged and Dirty” directly imitated Yank Rachell’s mandolin part from a Sleepy John Estes record, “Broken Hearted, Ragged And Dirty, Too.”

Anyway… it’s a beautiful arrangement, and was one of the more intricate pieces we all learned back when we all had the same few LPs and the same Stefan Grossman books. I played it for years before I thought about singing it, and don’t remember whether the melody I sing resembles Brown’s, though I think I stick fairly close to his lyrics for the first two verses. I didn’t remember his others, so the other two are favorites I picked up elsewhere.

I always liked the “blues jumped a rabbit” verse, though as a city boy I didn’t understand it until I’d been singing it for at least a decade or two. I pictured the blues, personified, jumping on a rabbit and riding it for miles, rather than the blues being something that scared a rabbit into running, like a hunting dog would do. As Willie Dixon, the Mississippi-born Chicago bassman, producer, singer, and songwriter extraordinaire, wrote in his memoir, I Am the Blues:

“The dog jumping the rabbit in the morning meant a great thing. Everybody knew if you jump a rabbit in one place, he’s going to make a circle and come right back across the same place. A lot of time, we didn’t have a shotgun but we had clubs waiting on him when he came back. I remember many days that if my old man hadn’t shot a squirrel or killed a rabbit that morning, we wouldn’t have had anything to eat.

“It didn’t mean nothing to people that lived in cities because they had plenty of meat and didn’t eat rabbit. The average individual can’t understand that because he wasn’t living in the past to know what was happening in the corn fields, cotton fields and on the plantation.”

Personally, I tend to side with the rabbit — my spirit animal — and am glad that in this verse, although it ends up crying, it may live to run again.