Blues recordings: gwallter’s top 10

January 23, 2016 2 Comments


Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown, James Alley blues, 1927

Richard Rabbit Brown

James Alley is in New Orleans.  Like Louis Armstrong Brown was a native of the Storyville district of that city.  He only recorded six songs, but this one, recorded in his home town, is a peach.  Brown was already in his late forties when he sang it, and his croaky, seen-it-all-before voice adds to the air of resigned desperation at his partner’s mistreatment.  His guitar accompaniment – there are no solos – is poetic but spare.  Brown’s words are sprinkled with wit:

‘Cause I was born in the country she thinks I’m easy to rule
‘Cause I was born in the country she thinks I’m easy to rule
She tried to hitch me to a wagon, she wanta drive me like a mule

until towards the end, when things become altogether darker:

Now you want me to love you and you treat me mean
How do you want me to love you if you keep a-treating me mean
You’re my daily thought and my nightly dream

Sometime I think that you too sweet to die
Sometime I think that you too sweet to die
And another time I think you oughtta be buried alive.

Why ‘Rabbit’?  No one knows.  Like the rest of Richard Brown, apart from his six songs, lost to history.


Blind Willie McTell, Mama, tain’t long for’ day, 1927

Blind Willie McTellMeanwhile, in Atlanta GA, Blind Willie is in the studio recording some of his best songs, some cheery, some scabrous, some, like this one, deeply melancholic.

McTell is incomparable.  ‘Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell’, sang Bob Dylan, and he was right.  No one could play a twelve string guitar more skilfully and poetically, and his gruffish but high pitched voice could box the compass of registers, from Rabelaisian to Schubertian.  This is one of his most ruminative songs, and there’s a strongly lyrical (but never sickly) strain in the nasal voice and the slide guitar playing.  McTell was an expert at varying the tropes of the oral blues tradition to produce lines of new-minted poetry:

Blues grabbed me in midnight, didn’t turn me loose till day
Blues grabbed me in midnight, didn’t turn me loose till day
I didn’t have no mama to drive these blues away

The big star fallin’, mama ‘t ain’t long fo’ day
The big star fallin’, mama ‘t ain’t long fo’ day
Maybe the sunshine’ll drive these blues away

and the effortless flow of his guitar conceals an art of rare care and sophistication (listen to the deft, unobvious musical echo of the ‘big star falling’ after the first line).

In 2009 Michael Gray published a 400 page book, Hand me my travelin’ shoes, a heroic piece of detective work that pieces together McTell’s fragmentary life – but he comes nowhere near pinning down how McTell came to produce such perfect recordings.  Alan Lomax, who recorded Blind Willie for the Library of Congress in 1940, seems equally oblivious to the genius of the man sitting before him.

Atlanta has not forgotten McTell: Blind Willie’s Blues Bar still thrives in North Highland Avenue, as does Luther ‘Houserocker’ Johnson, whom we saw play there in the 1980s.


Lottie Kimbrough, Rolling log blues, 1929

Lottie Kimbrough

Lottie is a much more shadowy figure than McTell.  Brought up in Kansas City, she married a William Beaman.  ‘Rolling log blues’ – this is her second recorded version – is a performance of ‘haunting beauty’ (Tony Russell), with Lottie’s ‘strong contralto voice’ (Paul Oliver) in combination with the eerie, rocking, plangent motion of Miles Pruitt’s guitar.  Lottie may have written the song herself.  Once heard, its riverine rhythm’s hard to get out of your mind.

The second verse,

Now I’ve got the blues for my sweet man in jail
Now and the judge won’t let me go his bail

I’ve been rolling and drifting from shore to shore
Gonna fix it so I won’t have to drift no more

is followed by a wordless final verse (‘Mmmmmm’ repeated), as if one form of ‘fixing’ Lottie is revolving in her mind could be terminal.


Robert Johnson, Preaching blues, 1936

Robert Johnson

So, Kirsty, this is the one for the desert island.  A recording that unites acute feeling, perfect form and faultless technique in a way seldom achieved in a three minute song since Schubert.  It’s nothing to do with preaching, of course.  By 27 November 1936, when he recorded Preaching blues in a hotel in San Antonio, Texas, Johnson was far beyond the reach of religion, even if you’re not inclined to the devil-at-the-crossroads myth.

The guitar makes a slow, conventional start, but then veers into a relentless, breakneck, falling triplets pattern that mirrors the fevered, driven rhythm of the words:

Mmmmmm Mmmm
I was up this mornin’, uh, blues walkin’ like a man
I was up this morn’, uh, blues walkin’ like a man
Worried blues, give me your right hand

But, as John Barnie says in his excellent book about the blues, Y felan a finnau, though Johnson can feign friendship and intimacy with Mr Blues, the only result is contagion:

The blu-u-ues is a low down shaking chill (yes, I’m preaching ‘em now)
Mmmm Mmmm
Is a low down shaking chill
[If] you ain’t never had ‘em
I hope you never will

It’s worse than a passing fever; the blues is ‘a low down aching heart disease / like consumption, killin’ me by degrees’.  In the last verse the pace momentarily stutters and flags before Johnson tells us he’ll drive the blues away – though only as far as the nearest bar: ‘going to the ‘stillery, stay / out / there / all / day’.  The last isolated guitar notes tail off after these words into oblivion.


Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson, Roll ‘em, Pete, 1938

Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson

‘Carpe diem’, the stock theme of Roman lyric poets, is mostly absent in the blues, but this is an exception.  Pete was Pete Johnson, Kansas City boogie-woogie pianist.  Big Joe Turner, also from Kansas City, worked as a singing bartender until taken up by John Hammond.  He was full-bodied and big-voiced.  He’s conventionally called a ‘blues shouter’ rather than a singer.  That’s not exactly fair, but there’s plenty of shouting going on here.

You feel you could be sitting in a KC bar.  Johnson sets a furious pace from the start: the train thunders down the track, with a pounding left hand and plenty of invention in the right.  Turner hammers out the words, at maximum volume – words that combine urgency and poetry:

I got a gal lives upon a hill
I got a gal lives upon a hill
Well this woman’s tryin’ to quit me, Lord, but I love her still

She’s got eyes like diamonds, teeth shine like like like gold
She’s got eyes like diamonds, teeth shine like like like gold
Every time she loves me she sends my mellow soul

You so beautiful but you gotta die some day
Well you so beautiful but you gotta die some day
All I want’s a little loving, babe, just before you pass away

Roll it boy, let ‘em jump for joy
Yeah man, happy as a baby boy
With another [?] brand new choo-choo toy.

Words finally fail him, and the last verse is simple ‘Bye Bye’ repeated and repeated.  Johnson finishes, not with the normal descending phrase, but with a joyous lifting whoop.  Enjoy it while you can.


Bukka White, Fixin’ to die blues, 1940

Bukka White

This one swings along like a dance number, quite at odds with its funereal lyrics.  While Robert Brown, Washboard Sam, sets down a rattling rhythm on his washboard, Bukka (he preferred ‘Booker’, but Bukka has stuck) flings his big fingers at the strings and thwacks them hard.

I’m lookin’ funny in my eyes and I believe I’m fixin’ to die
I’m lookin’ funny in my eyes and I believe I’m fixin’ to die
I know I was born to die but I hate to leave my children cryin’

And so the song whirrs on merrily, almost without a pause, the words become ever more stark:

Mother take my children back, before they let me down, before they let me down
Mother take my children back, ‘fore they let me down
I don’t need for them to screamin’ and cryin’ on the graveyard ground.

White had a hard life, and spent time in the notorious prison of Parchman Farm, an experience he sang about with feeling.  But there’s a rumbustiousness about his singing and playing that you can’t help falling for.  And I love the story about his ‘rediscovery’ in 1963, when John Fahey and ED Denson, on the strength of Bukka’s old recording ‘Aberdeen, Mississippi blues’, sent a speculative letter to Bukka White, Old Blues Singer, c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Miss.’ – and found him.  Of course Bob Dylan, the great music antiquarian that he is, got there first: he’d recorded a version of the song the year before for his first LP.


Memphis Minnie, Me and my chauffeur, 1941

Memphis Minnie

I realise most of my choices are on the morbid side, so here’s a happy, even triumphant song, and the girl’s in charge.  Memphis Minnie was formidable in every way.  She got through partners, personal and musical alike, with alarming speed.  Her accompanist here is Ernest ‘Little Son Joe’ Lawlars, but it’s Minnie’s resonant steel guitar and her big voice that dominate the studio in Chicago on 31 May 1941.

The song bowls along with the confident swing of its subject.  The chauffeur, though he’ll have the use of a ‘brand new V8 Ford’, is kept firmly in his place; rival ‘passen’ers’ are discouraged:

But I don’t want him, but I don’t want him
To be riding these girls, to be riding these girls a-round
You know I’m gonna steal me a pistol
Shoot my chauffeur down.

A short solo is prefaced by Minnie’s words, ‘Yeh, take it away’ (‘it’ being both the guitar and the car), before the song expands in its last verse into a small vision of generous, shared contentment, sung with tenderness:

Want to let my chauffeur, want to let my chauffeur
Drive me around the, drive me around the world
Then he can be my li’l boy, ye-es ’n I’ll be his girl.


Little Walter, Blue light, 1954

Little Walter

Marion Walter Jacobs wasn’t an entirely pleasant man.  He was irascible, alcoholic and prone to violence; he died aged only 37 after a street fight.  But in the clubs and studios of Chicago he had another persona, Little Walter.  And Little Walter had no peer with a blues harmonica.  Arriving in Chicago in 1945 from Louisiana and then a life of roaming the South, he soon realised how direct amplification of his instrument could dominate a band, even electric guitars, and create sounds, including echo and distortion, that no one had imagined such a simple and humble instrument was capable of.

He played with Muddy Waters from 1948 to 1952 and then started his own band.  ‘Blue light’ comes from early in this period.  Little Walter’s singing voice was no more than adequate and his lyrics are usually forgettable, but this is an instrumental slow-tempo ‘song without words’.  It’s the harp that counts – or rather harps: it’s said that Walter used four separate harps on this track.  Their sound seems to resonate to every corner of the studio, with the spare guitar, bass and drums somewhere far in the background, or even in another room.  The harp growls, soars and shouts. Long wails alternate with short, sharp bites and occasional trilled clusters.  Some of the most sustained and acute notes are held to the point of painful sound distortion.  By the end not a word has been uttered, but a whole story has been laid bare, and the fragments of a deeply troubled heart lie spilled on the studio floor.


Howlin’ Wolf, Smoke stack lightning, 1956

Howlin Wolf

When and how Chester Burnett became Howlin’ Wolf isn’t clear – the man himself gave several explanations – but it was an inspired mutation.  The nickname perfectly conveys the air of menace and barely controlled aggression that was his hallmark, no more so than on Smoke Stack Lightning, recorded in Chicago in January 1956.

Wolf, raised in Mississippi, was older and more musically experienced than Little Walter when he too came to Chicago, much later, in 1952.  Like Walter he played a fine harmonica and played guitar but his specialist instrument was his incomparable voice.  Smoke Stack Lightning, which apparently Wolf had been singing, unamplified, in the South in the 1930s, is not just his best known track, it’s his best.

On the face of it, it’s not very promising material.  The tune is simple and variationless.  The short verses are arbitrarily stitched together, as was common enough in the formulaic, oral tradition of blues. Wolf recalled that as children, ‘we used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning’ – though David Evans suggests that the phrase was already common currency in the oral tradition before Wolf got hold of it.

Smokestack lightnin’
Shinin’ just like gold
Oh, don’t you hear me cryin’

Behind the tightest of bands – Hubert Sumlin is on guitar and Earl Phillips on bass – Wolf sways through the song like the train on a curving track, letting forth long hoots of pain and joy.  He spits out the accented syllables with venom, and the high ‘whoooo’s he calls up from deep in his throat echo eerily about.  Of all the many imitators only Captain Beefheart could conjure up anything so demonic.


Magic Sam, All your love, 1957

Magic Sam

From the first slashing guitar chords you can tell this is a new and powerful sound.  The riff is laid down with complete certainty and rings its way throughout the song.  Then comes the voice, also quite high-pitched, but powerful and insistent: ‘all your love, baby, can it be mine?; ‘all your love, baby, don’t turn around’  Then the drums announce the guitar solo, at first solid and heavily accented, then a baroque flurry of notes, reverting soon to the riff.  It’s a perfectly integrated sound, mildly spoilt by a fade rather than a proper ending.

Magic Sam Maghett also came to Chicago from Mississippi, and learned the blues by listening to records of Muddy Waters and Little Walter.  All your love was the first record he cut, for Cobra Records.  He never quite lived up to his early promise, and deviated into a soul style before dying of a heart attack aged just 32.  But All your love is a masterpiece, made at a time just before the blues began to fade as a living tradition.

Comments (2)

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  1. Chris West says:

    An excellent Top Ten, several of which I’ve downloaded. Particularly liked discovering Lottie Kmbrough.

    For what it’s worth, my supplementary Top 11 tp 20 would be:

    Charley Patton and Bertha Lee “Oh Death”
    Skip James “Cypress Grove Blues”
    John Lee Hooker “Boogie Chilun”
    Elmore James “The Sky Is Crying”
    J.B. Lenoir “Mississippi Road”
    Freddie King “Help Me Through the Day”
    Geeshie Wiley “Skinny Leg Blues”
    Cow Cow Davenport “Jim Crow Blues”
    Muddy Waters “I Just Want ToMake Love To You”
    Son House “Death Letter”

    Plenty of death and sex in there, essential ingredients for the genre.


  2. David Jones says:

    A very good selection, though I’m not familiar with all of them. Musically in the US the 40s and 50s provide an interesting foundation of the development of rock n roll in the later 50s. One of my favourites is Big Mama Thornton’s rendition of Hound Dog available on You Tube.

    The 3 disc compilation “The First Rock and Roll Record” (Famous Flames) covers this territory very well.

    While we are all recognising the importance of “Black Lives Matter”, it’s worth remembering the great extent to which popular music has its foundations in Black America.

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