Roll and Tumble/Traveling Riverside Blues

I worked out a bunch of Robert Johnson songs and related pieces when I was writing Escaping the Delta, including Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Roll and Tumble,” which Johnson used as a model for “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and “Traveling Riverside Blues.” However, the only Johnson songs I ended up performing were “From Four Until Late,” which didn’t require open tuning or a slide; “Walking Blues,” which I played to demonstrate his basic style on the book tour; and briefly, on the tour for my hitchhiking book, “Cross Road Blues” (which I’ll be posting in the next week or two).

I kept thinking I should work this one up, but as I noted on my post for John Hurt’s “Frankie,” I tend not to use open tunings, much less play slide in them… and here I have to thank Peter Keane and my  recently-departed and much-regretted friend Steve James.

Peter comes into the story, first, because it was his idea that I should turn an exercise in exploring Robert Johnson’s sources song by song into a book, and second because I visited him in Austin while working on that project and he had a three-quarter-size Kalamazoo guitar just like the one Johnson was holding in the photo-booth pictures, which had high action and was perfect for slide — and also perfect for getting past the tighter airline luggage restrictions following the 9/11 attack — and was kind enough to sell it to me.

Steve comes into the story because he was one of my dearest friends and favorite slide guitarists, and he died a year and a half ago, following a trip we made together down the West Coast, and one of my jobs in the last couple of months was writing a biographical sketch and compiling some of his favorite stories for an upcoming book of his songs I’ve been putting together in collaboration with his longtime partner Del Rey.

I wrote that piece while spending a couple of months with my wife’s family on a farm in the French countryside, and to get in the mood I brought the Kalamazoo and one of Steve’s bottlenecks, kept the guitar in open G, and have been messing around with various songs and licks that have been lurking in my memory for decades, with this as one result.

I started out thinking of Newbern’s song, because I love the way he played it, but I only remembered his title verse. That took me to Johnson, who used that verse in “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” so I reworked Johnson’s title verse to follow Newbern’s, and the reworked lyric seemed to flow naturally into some verses from “Traveling Riverside,” likewise with a bit of reworking.

As I’ve written in previous posts, I’m trying to find ways to sing this kind of material in my own voice, hence the editing and rewriting — but in this case I wanted to stick with the original geography, because its history is interesting and was a touchstone for my first travels around the Mississippi Delta.

I can perfectly recollect the thrill of driving along the river and seeing signs for the towns in this song — it was like when I was walking through France after reading Shakespeare’s Henry V and saw a sign for the battlefield of Agincourt; at some level, I knew those were real places, but I’d always heard the names as magical, and it was startling to find them on road signs. (It was also startling to find that Friars Point is locally famous not because it was visited and immortalized by Robert Johnson, but as the birthplace of Harold Jenkins, a.k.a. Conway Twitty.)

Friars Point and Rosedale are among the few Mississippi Delta towns that are actually on the riverside, rather than separated by a stretch of country and a levee, and were thus crossing points to Arkansas, which is relevant to the song’s theme of “barrelhousing” because Mississippi was a dry state until the 1960s, Arkansas was very much not, and those towns were entry points for alcohol.

As with the other posts in this project, I relied on my memory rather than going back and listening to Newbern’s or Johnson’s recordings, and the guitar part I play is my recollection of what they played, along with a bunch of other stuff inspired by my memories of Steve’s playing, and also by a comment he made in one of his instructional performances: “One of the most important techniques that you can learn when you’re playing slide guitar is not to do it.”

He meant that it’s more effective to use the slide for flavor, rather than constantly, which was always a hallmark of his arrangements, and, to me, my last solo in particular is channeling him. I’m nothing like the player he was and don’t expect anyone else to hear that, but I like to think it at least would have amused him.