When I wrote Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, the original idea was just to go through Robert Johnson’s complete recordings, listen to each of them carefully, and figure out what I could say about them–his sources, his playing, his singing, and how they might have fitted into his life and the process of recording. Part of that project was to figure out how he was playing, which was kind of a departure for me, because I’d never worked out any of his guitar parts, and had never really tried to play slide. For a while I got fascinated with the style, and tried to go on and learn some Kokomo Arnold, Tampa Red, and Casey Bill Weldon arrangements as well, but somehow it just didn’t feel like me… so I settled for playing a couple of Johnson’s pieces, with some licks from Son House, who seems to have been the main source for his slide style, and this is the one that stuck with me.
House has always been one of my favorite blues artists–I had his Columbia album by my early teens, and it remains one of my favorite records–he was such an astonishing singer, and the vibrato he got with his slide continues to stir me in a way I could never explain and no one else ever equaled (Muddy Waters probably comes closest). He played this guitar part for a song called “My Black Mama,” and used a different accompaniment for his recorded version of “Walking Blues” — but it’s perfectly possible that he was comfortable singing either lyric with either guitar part, and just happened to record them the way he did on those particular days. In any case, I love his work, prefer Johnson’s verses, and think of this as kind of my dual tribute to both of them.