I always liked Mance Lipscomb’s music, but as a kid I was first struck by his versions of old pop standards. He had a gentle, swinging style that worked perfectly with that material, and I quickly learned his versions of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “Alabama Jubilee.”
I paid less attention to his blues, which seemed to me less distinctive – though a couple worked their way into my repertoire: I picked up roughly his version of “Bout a Spoonful” from Dave Van Ronk, without knowing Lipscomb was the source, and a Belgian friend turned me on to “Ain’t You Sorry,” which gave me a new appreciation of his guitar work. But I never really understood how good he was until a year or two after I got back from Africa, when Dominic Kakolobango, whom I’d stayed with in Lubumbashi, came to visit the US.
When I met Dominic he was playing the classic Shaba acoustic style of Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo, some American country and western, and a lot of French chanson – he introduced me to the music of Georges Brassens, who has been a passion of mine ever since. In turn, I introduced him to acoustic blues, and when he came to visit we listened to a lot of records and he spent hours and days taping his favorites.
Dominic’s tastes ranged widely, but out of all my records, the artists who most caught his attention were Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb. That made sense, of course – I’d always associated the Congolese acoustic style with the gentle swing of Hurt’s playing. But until Dominic became fascinated with Lipscomb’s recordings, I’d never put him in the same class with Hurt, who I sometimes name as my favorite musician ever. Dominic, by contrast, loved them equally and maybe even marginally favored Lipscomb, and since I trusted his taste, I listened along with him, and after he left I kept listening.
The more I listened, the more I was struck not only by the music but by Lipscomb’s incredibly deft lyrical sense. Much of his repertoire was made up of blues standards, and I had tended to think of them as lyrically generic, but when I paid attention it was obvious they were anything but. The older blues singers – even the greatest ones – came up playing for dances and on the street, where audiences were not typically sitting quietly or demanding a cohesive lyrical narrative, so although the poetry of individual blues verses is often brilliant and striking, full songs were generally compilations of fairly random verses, connected by emotional feel or just as one verse reminded a singer of another.
Lipscomb was an exception, because he mostly sang unified songs — they might vary from one day to the next, but they held together as cohesive lyrical compositions. The most distinctive included some murder ballads in blues form, such as “Ella Speed” and “Freddie,” which as far as I know were his own compositions. But even his more generic blues tended to flow from verse to verse in logical progressions, and the verses were strikingly well chosen and often phrased in novel and interesting ways.
All of which is to say I began to appreciate Lipscomb as one of the great blues songwriters – and that naturally took me to this song, which is one of his masterpieces. It is aptly named, at least from a chordal point of view — lyrical form is a fairly straightforward twelve-bar blues, but the chords are unlike anything I know in that form or any other.
As for the lyric, I gradually realized that this is another murder ballad, but so subtle that it’s easy to miss the denouement – indeed, it’s handled so subtly that some people will probably disagree with that description. In any case, it’s a great song and Lipscomb recorded it several times, somewhat varying the verses but keeping the theme intact. I’m not sure my version precisely matches any one of his, but it’s one of my all-time favorites.
Meanwhile, Dominic picked up Lipscomb’s version of an old ragtime-blues standard, “Take Me Back,” wrote some additional verses in Swahili, and that’s another of my all-time favorites, especially in this version, backed by a band back in the Republic of Congo: