Pick Poor Robin Clean (Larry Johnson)

That year I spent in New York, I was devoting virtually all my record buying to prewar blues reissues, mostly on the Yazoo label, but the same collection that had filled Dayton’s with all the Yazoo reissues also included the LPs on Yazoo’s sister label, Blue Goose, which featured modern recordings in prewar blues and ragtime styles. Larry JohnsonFollowing my generally archaeological inclinations, I didn’t get around to those until I’d laid in a stock of prewar stuff, and the first Blue Goose albums I bought were of Son House and an elderly black guitarist named Bill Williams, but eventually I got around to the label’s one young black player, Larry Johnson, and what still stands as the greatest ragtime blues album recorded in the modern era — or ever, since before the modern era there were no albums — Fast and Funky.

I know that sounds hyperbolic, but Johnson was such a great player — he had been a student and sometimes harmonica player for the Reverend Gary Davis — and a fine singer, and created songs that were clearly based on older models but completely in his own voice… and he just blew me away.

I didn’t learn much off that album, because I was so dazzled that I didn’t make the attempt, but for a while I played rough versions of his “Frisco Town” and “The Beat From Rampart Street,” and his version of “Pick Poor Robin Clean” became an enduring staple of my repertoire — I later heard older recordings of the song by Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas and by pickpoorrobinclean12-3-1927Luke Jordan, who I’m pretty sure was their source as well as Johnson’s, and I’ve added some lyrics from Jordan, but it’s still Johnson’s voice I hear in my head when I think of it.

As for the song itself, there seems to be a good deal of confusion and disagreement about what it means. The original ad for Jordan’s version in the Chicago Defender suggests it’s about gambling, and he certainly refers to “gambling for Sadie,” but then there’s the recurring refrain about “I’ll be satisfied having your family” and the verse that is mistranscribed in that ad, which is an obvious example of the dozens:

If you have that gal of mine, dozens pbk coverI’m gonna have your ma
Your sister, too; your auntie, three
If your great-grandmammy do the shiveree, I’m gonna have her four…”

In my book The Dozens, now titled Talking ‘Bout Your Mama, I note this theme and suggest that the reference to picking poor robin may be similar to the French “Alouette,” which uses the metaphor of picking feathers from a bird as a stand-in for disrobing a woman… but that’s just a guess.

In any case, thanks again to Larry Johnson, whom I have seen off and on over the years, and who always blew me away with the brilliance, depth, and power of his music. I also had the pleasure of doing an interview with him in 1998, and he was bitingly eloquent on a number of subjects, including the racial problems of the modern blues scene. I had not run across him in quite a while, and recently learned that he died in August 2016 — I wish I’d seen him more often, wish he’d recorded more, and wish he was better known; he was truly one of the greats.