Ragged and Dirty (William Brown/Sleepy John Estes)

No one knows anything about William Brown, the versatile singer and guitarist who recorded two songs (or maybe three) for Alan Lomax in 1942. All we have is the music, and it is startlingly distinctive, including two masterpieces of acoustic blues — both inspired by recordings, with guitar parts that adeptly capture the feel of other instruments. One is the haunting “Mississippi Blues” (a generic title presumably slapped on the record by Lomax), which has a guitar part that is a model of how to adapt piano blues licks to guitar.

“Ragged and Dirty” likewise adapts its basic licks from another instrument. It is a reworking of Sleepy John Estes’s “Broken Hearted, Ragged and Dirty Too,” and Brown capoed his guitar around the seventh fret to get the high, chiming sound of the mandolin played by Estes’s longtime accompanist Yank Rachell. I picked it up after getting back from Africa, which was fortunate because that trip convinced me some guitar arrangements demand to be played with just the thumb and index finger, and this is decidedly one of them.

Estes was one of the great blues songwriters and although Brown stuck fairly close to his lyric, some of the continuity and subtleties were lost — so I’ve mostly gone back to what Estes sang in 1929. Where a lot of blues singers just sang whatever verses came to them in the moment, he tended to created cohesive compositions, and this is a good example: setting up the story, telling what happened, then saying how he felt about it. I’m particularly fond of the detailed description of the moment the singer discovers his lady is cheating on him: “I went to my window, couldn’t see through the blinds/ I heard the bed springs humming, I heard my baby crying.”

Lomax wrote an evocative account of the recording session with William Brown in The Land Where the Blues Began, portraying him as a thoughtful man who had decided to leave Mississippi and was headed for a better life up north. The general feel of the story — which includes a nasty interruption from a couple of racist cops — rings true, but readers should be aware that Lomax did not take notes and the dialogue was reconstructed from memory decades afterwards. That is relevant because some people have given too much weight to a footnote suggesting this was the same William Brown who played for many years with Son House, including a session Lomax recorded… and virtually all other evidence suggests it was not.

The other William (or Willie) Brown was an associate of Charlie Patton and a terrific guitarist and singer in what is now often called the Delta blues style — meaning the style of Patton, House, Brown, and other guitarists who played with or learned from them, notably Tommy Johnson and younger artists including Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. He likewise recorded only a couple of tracks, both of which are classics — I have a post about his “Future Blues” — but they are classics of that particular style. The players around Patton learned from one another directly, picking up licks and tunings in an oral and visual process that predated recording (Tommy Johnson’s “Bye and Bye Blues” is a good example), and I’d bet anything that the Brown who so adeptly reworked recordings of piano and mandolin was at least ten years younger, from the generation of Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood. The arrival of recording dramatically changed the process of musical transmission, and this is the sound of the transitional generation.