Category Archives: Blues Books

Cornbread: The Story Behind The Song

Preacher Boy - The National Blues - Lyrics

We’ve just published an enhanced lyric booklet for “The National Blues!” It features lyrics, stories behind the songs, insider guitar tips, and more.

You can download a free copy in either PDF (multi-use) or EPUB (iBooks) format here, or, if you’d like to enjoy the book on your Kindle/Kindle app, you can get it in the Kindle store on Amazon for just .99¢!

Here is an excerpt from the text; a short essay about the origins of the second track on the album:


The seeds of this song have been with me for probably decades at this point; I think I first hazarded a demo of it when we were living in Brooklyn, though I believe the first time I tried to play a version of it was with Colin Brooks, during a songwriter’s conference in Durango, Colorado that my missus and I drove down to from Denver.

Lyrically, the song has changed little over the years, and it’s the stories of the families in the verses that have kept the song with me across the miles. What finally clicked was the music. I wish I could claim it was a magical, revelatory moment, or the result of years of diligence and experimentation, but in fact, the click was a simple one. I changed the tuning on my guitar from Open D to Open G. That was it.

The characters are largely based on real people from my childhood; the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but I left the real names in for the guilty

The Story Behind The Song: Obituary Writer Blues

Preacher Boy - The National Blues - Lyrics

I am very happy to announce that we’ve just published an enhanced lyric booklet for “The National Blues.” It features lyrics, stories behind the songs, insider guitar tips, and more.

You can download a free copy in either PDF (multi-use) or EPUB (iBooks) format here, or, if you’d like to enjoy the book on your Kindle/Kindle app, you can get it in the Kindle store on Amazon for just .99¢!

Here is an excerpt from the text; a short essay about the origins of the lead track on the album:

Obituary Writer Blues

Obituary Writer Blues began with two things: a visual idea, and a musical one.

Visually, it was the parallel imagery of a murdered black body lying on a white sheet, and black letters being laid onto white paper by a writer at a typewriter, charged with drafting an obituary for the murdered.

Musically, the song began with a slide riff, borrowed fairly wholesale from Son House, but by way of Will Scott. The thing was then reshaped into a 15-bar cycle—a kind of country blues counting. Two other sections came together later; the 2-chord minor-major interlude, and the chorus, which also quotes from the country blues, borrowing from Sleepy John Estes about knowing right from wrong.

The “rock, paper, scissors” image in the final verse came from our daughter, who at the age of 7 has determined that this game is the solution to the problems of violence in the world. I put it in the song because she’s right.

Preacher Boy – The National Blues: Lyrics


Lyrics eBook available now for FREE download!
“Preacher Boy – The National Blues: Lyrics”
available as:
-epub (for iBooks)
-mobi (for Kindle)

The 8th Reason To Attend The Golden Gate Blues Society’s International Blues Competition Solo/Duo Round


Big Bones


Due largely to when and where I was born, I haven’t had too many flesh-and-blood musical teachers. My Grandpa certainly, from whom I received my Nationals. But that’s very nearly it. Certainly I’ve had friends, peers, fellow musicians that I’ve learned uncountable amounts from, but I like to think/hope those are give-and-take relationships.

By and large, my teachers have been recordings and books. Vinyl releases from Vanguard, Takoma, Arhoolie. Books by Samuel Charters, David Evans, Stefan Grossman. And of course, the music. This has been my true teacher. The music of Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Charley Patton, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Pete Williams, and so, so, so many more.

There is one exception to the above, however. There is one teacher, one flesh-and-blood teacher, at whose knee I have genuinely studied. His name is Big Bones.

I’ve told the tale too many times to merit repeating here, but suffice it to say Big Bones looms large in my life. I played with him for the first time on a street corner in Berkeley, some 25 years ago. We’ve gone years in silence since, intermingled with long, strange, beautiful and hard hours, days, weeks, months on the road together. We’ve driven to Arkansas, flown to Amsterdam, sailed to Ireland.

Here is he and I together, from The Kitchen Set:


What I have learned from Big Bones is immeasurable. What you will experience in the presence of he and his music is inexpressible. Big Bones. He is REASON EIGHT to attend  The Golden Gate Blues Society’s International Blues Competition Solo/Duo Round.

Through the strange machinations of fate, I am not scheduled to play WITH Big Bones that night. Rather, I am scheduled to compete AGAINST him. This is of course ridiculous. I could sooner eat dinosaur marrow w/ mole sauce than compete with Bones.

The event is of course not a competition of any kind, really. It is a celebration of a raw, urgent, vital music. A music that lives fully within the boundaries of Big Bones.

I invite you to join me for this extraordinary event. It will be memorable.

Please CLICK HERE to attend.



The Country Blues

In Memory of Samuel Charters

Samuel Charters passed away last week. A man to whom I owe an almost inexpressible debt.

As I read Mr. Charters’ obituary, I was stunned to realize that I first read his book “The Country Blues” 30 years ago. Because of his book, I have been playing this music for 30 years. 30 years! If I read that number in someone else’s bio, I’d immediately assume elder statesman; a grizzled veteran; a lifer. Strange to realize that number 30 applies to me now.


But that’s how important that book was to me. It literally changed my life. Dramatically. Who knew one seemingly innocuous trip to the library by my mother would result in a 30-year immersion in this music?


I signed my first record deal in 1994, with Blind Pig Records. This was approximately 10 years after I first read “The Country Blues.” If you look up my first bio on the Blind Pig Records website, you’ll find the story of the book right there:

“When he was 16, he stumbled upon Samuel Charter’s book entitled The Country Blues, which his mom had brought him from the library, knowing his current fascination with a Howlin’ Wolf record that he had found in the family record collection. Although he had never heard of any of the names in the book, their stories and personalities completely swept him away. He immediately ran to the record store and purchased a compilation album from the Newport Folk Festival, and thus began a lifetime of respect, love and devotion for the music of players like John Hurt, Son House, Fred McDowell, Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb and many others.”


On my second Blind Pig album (Gutters & Pews), we did a version of Catfish Blues, based on a performance from the Newport Folk Festival by Willie Doss that I discovered on that Vanguard album noted above. The Vanguard album I bought because of Samuel Charters.


My album Demanding To Be Next was released in 2004. 20 years after I first read The Country Blues. On it, I did a version of “Death Letter Blues” by Son House. A song I first heard when I was 16 years old. Because of that book by Samuel Charters.

It’s early 2015 now. It is 30+ years since I read “The Country Blues.” And I am going to release a new album this year. (Actually, I’m going to release 3 new albums! But that’s another story …). And that album is going to contain performances of songs I first discovered because of Samuel Charters.

I won’t name names, but there are a lot of writers out there these days trying to make their names by debunking the idea of Country Blues. Writers who seem to think they’re awfully clever for “proving” that the whole story of Country Blues was “invented” by a bunch of misguided young white kids in the 60s who “rediscovered” Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, and more.

Well, listen. I’m not rendering judgement on the conduct of those individuals. Dick Waterman, Stephan Grossman, John Fahey, Dick Spottswood, et al. But what I will say is this: I don’t care how clever you think your book is, or how deep your research is, or how many myths you think you’ve debunked, or how much you think you know about race issues as they relate to this music. Nothing — I repeat, nothing — can change the truth of those recordings. They exist. They are real. Those performances happened. Those songs were written. Those voices were lifted. Those chords were played. And my life –and the lives of so many others — was changed. Not because of any myth. Not because of some false and over-romanticized narrative. Not because of some imagined and perpetuated legend.

We were changed by the music.

I read the book, and the book took me to the record store. (Tower Records, Seattle). And the book and I, we found that Vanguard Twofer full of names that were in the book. And so the book and I bought it. And then the book and I took ourselves home on the bus. And when we got home the book and I went to the living room and put the album on the record player. And the book and I sat back and listened as Mississipi John Hurt began to play “Sliding Delta.” And my life changed.

And that is a true story.

And I would not have experienced any of this truth if it wasn’t for Samuel Charters. So to him I offer deep bows. Very, very, very deep bows.

Samuel Charters, you changed my life. And I cannot thank you enough.

Thoughts On Mississippi John Hurt

Just finished reading a biography on one of my real and true heroes: Mississippi John Hurt.

To be honest, the book wasn’t totally to my liking. A little heavy on things like census reports about the population of Avalon, and a little too much rote speculation on what folks MIGHT have talked about whilst whiling the day away on the porch of the general store. Plus, the constant attempts to link Hurt’s story to the parallel civil rights dramas taking place were at best awkward, at worst totally disruptive, and most of all, unnecessary.

All that said, the book was written with so much obvious love for its subject that it’s hard to be upset. And I will say, I did finally learn the origins of “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me,” so it wasn’t a total loss, by any means! In fact, it wasn’t a total loss at all, given that since finishing the book, I’ve been basically doing nothing but what the author obviously hoped I’d be doing, which is listening to John Hurt’s music non-stop, and reminding myself all over again just why I fell for it so strongly in the first place …

In reading the book, I also learned a whole lot about the folks who were behind the various “rediscoveries” of still-living country blues singers in the early-to-mid-sixties. Or should I say, I learned a lot about their various court battles over who should get the money generated by the performances and recordings! Not necessarily a pretty part of the story, that bit …

Still again, it’s hard to be upset, given that we likely would never have heard from these remarkable artists again if it hadn’t been for the likes of Tom Hoskins, Dick Waterman, Stefan Grossman, John Fahey, etc. (Waterman comes off as a mixed character in this book, by the way, but I will say, when making arrangements to cover Son House’s “Death Letter” for Demanding To Be Next, SONDICK Music was spot on about granting the right!).

But back to John Hurt’s music. I first learned to play “Sliding Delta” when I was about 16 years old. I say “learned to play,” but I can’t really claim to have learned it properly. I should say I managed to to be able to get through a version of it by the time I was 16 or so. I still don’t play it quite right, really, but having played it about a billion and a half times over the years, I’ve at least got my version down really well! The version I studied so relentlessly was from Hurt’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival. You can find it on this album:

Great Bluesmen/Newport

“Sliding Delta” is easily one of my favorite songs of all time. As are “Ain’t Nobody’s Dirty Business,” “Stagolee,” “Got The Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “Coffee Blues,” “Richland Women Blues,” and more. The man was incredible. I love his music. I really and truly love his music.

God of Mississippi John Hurt, thank you for giving us Mississippi John Hurt.

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