Celebrating one of the main railroad lines out of the South, this is another song I got from Larry Johnson, who presumably got it from Jim Jackson. I don’t recall when I started playing it with this arrangement, but by the late 1980s it was my regular set-closer.
I also played it pretty regularly during my 1987-88 winter residency in Sevilla, Spain — unquestionably my hardest-working period as a blues player. I was in Sevilla with some friends from Antwerp, Vera Singelyn, her toddler son Liam, and a Dutch girl named Tim, and lucked into regular work thanks to a local harmonica player named Juan Guerrero.
I met Juan at a bar gig by the Caldonia Blues Band, a local outfit that played electric Chicago style. I’d brought my guitar, hoping to connect to the local scene, and Juan got excited because he was a Sonny Terry fan but had been stuck playing amplified because no one in Andalucia played acoustic blues. We jammed during the break, he asked how long I could stay in town, I said I could be there all winter, and he asked how many nights a week I wanted to work. I said six, figuring there was no way that would happen, and he said, “OK, check back with me in two weeks.”
Two weeks later I checked back with him and he’d found a bass player, Juan Arias, and booked us as either a duo or trio six nights a week for the next three months. We played every Monday in one bar, every Tuesday in another, and so on. He’d also named us the Mississippi Sheiks, which felt weird to me since I’d never been in Mississippi and that name was already taken by one of the great groups of the 1920s… but Juan liked it, and he was the boss.
The gigs were all full-night residencies, typically three one-hour sets with half hour breaks between, and sometimes a fourth set if the bar was still jumping. For the smaller places we worked acoustic, for the larger ones or when we had the bass we used a couple of small amps. It was great practice, and forced me to get back into blues, which I’d been moving away from over the previous few years as my tastes expanded. It also led to some interesting connections with local flamenco players, — Sevilla was a center of flamenco-blues fusion, thanks to a pair of Gypsy brothers who’d formed a band in the 1970s called La Pata Negra, mixing flamenco with Jeff Beck-style electric leads. (For a taste, check out their “Blues de la frontera.”) So I worked out a trade with a flamenco guitarist, during which he learned the basics of American fingerstyle blues and I learned I didn’t have the chops to play flamenco.
I’ll continue the story of that winter in the next post, but the longterm result was that fifteen years later I was back in town and dropped by La Carboneria, there was an acoustic blues duo onstage, and the guitarist got all excited because he had been inspired to learn blues as a kid by hearing me with the Sheiks.
As for the Seaboard railroad lines, they were part of a network that reached down to Florida, over to New Orleans, and up to New York. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes about the Seaboard as one of the main engines of the Great Migration, which adds another dimension to the song.