It CANNOT yet be said (fortunately!) that the very people who were purporting to preserve the blues, were in fact those who strangled it to death.
However, it CAN be said, that this WILL be the case, if certain things don’t change.
The preservationist ethos. It’s a dangerous thing. Potentially fatal. That whole, “This is how Muddy did it, that’s how I’m doin’ it, and that settles it” attitude. It’s scary.
Muddy Waters almost single-handedly architected an astonishing artistic transformation by connecting the dots between the country and the city. There was no precedent for him. His music was revolutionary. So if you truly want to stand on the shoulders of giants, walk in the footsteps of the masters, and embody the spirit of the greats, shouldn’t you be engaged in revolution?
Instead, to put it bluntly, we just get the same old shit.
Which brings us to the core of the question posed in the title of this post: What Happened?
We can ask this question about many things in the blues music tradition. Today, the question is about minor chords, and minor keys. Where’d they go? Robert Pete Williams and Skip James—two of country blues music’s most transcendent, visionary talents—regularly worked in minor keys. Robert Johnson, arguably one of the most influential blues musicians of them all, gave us perhaps his greatest creation when he recorded “Hellhound on my Trail”; a straight-up homage to his minor-key master, Skip James. Tommy Johnson, another legendary figure in the annals of blues music history, derived much of his sound from the tension created by moving back-and-forth between major and minor tonalities.
It’s not as simple as just having a token song in G minor on an album. Great blues music IS NOT simple. It’s about COMPOSING. It’s about tonalities, and colors, and feels, and imagination, and creativity. It’s about the raw, and the beautiful.
Preservationist be damned. Let’s have the weird back. Way over yonder in the minor key, something special is still happening. Go find it. Quick.
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
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.
“Down The Drain” is the first official video single off my new album “The National Blues” on Coast Road Records. And like virtually everything I write, its roots go deep, and it draws on a great many influences for its shape and sound.
The origins of the song are actually a little out of step with much of what I write, the bulk of which is largely inspired by the early country blues/delta blues canon. Probably the most important influence is actually a comparatively contemporary musical act, a band called Sixteen Horsepower. For my money, they’re likely the greatest band you’ve never heard of. They came out of Denver about the same time as my first album came out (1995), part of a small, localized, but very wonderful sort of Gothic Americana movement that included acts like The Denver Gentlemen, Slim Cessna, Tarantella, Munly, and more. (Full disclosure, I later spent about two years in Denver, and shared bills at one time or another with most of these acts).
David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower was fond of using open minor tunings in what sounded to me like an Open Gm form, and while I’d already spent half my life in open tunings, and while I was also deeply fond of minor keys, I’d never really put the two together in an Open Gm form until I heard 16 Horsepower. But listen to South Pennsylvania Waltz, or Coal Black Horses, or I Seen What I Saw, or Prison Shoe Romp, and you’ll surely see the similarities! (The following playlist has a whole host of 16 Horsepower gems):
Another big influence on the sound of “Down The Drain” was actually a song I learned to love from hearing my Dad play it on the record player when I was a kid. It was a great guitar instrumental from an era full of great guitar instrumentals, and I used to just love it. I’m not even sure I was drawing on its influence as “Down The Drain” started to come together, but once I realized what I’d done, it was pretty obvious what I’d done! Give it a listen, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean:
Duane Eddy did a killer version of this as well, which you can check out here, and which I also really love.
The semi-wordless chorus (depending on whether you think “sha” and “la” are words!) of “Down The Drain” is probably the other key component of this song that has clear sonic antecedents. I’ve always loved songs that use vocal “sound” as evocation … think of the “humming” part of Skip James’ magisterial “Hardtime Killing Floor Blues” as but one example (Skip’s melodies on this song are definitely an influence on “Down The Drain” as well!), or Adelaide Hall on Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” both of which are great examples of this kind of thing. Probably more specific to “Down The Drain” of course is something like Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”—the sha-la-la’s tell the whole emotional story! Given the sound of my voice though, the comparison that probably leaps to mind sooner than Van Morrison is Tom Waits, from “Jersey Girl.” And yeah, I’ll confess that was in my mind when I first started toying with doing the chorus this way. But honestly, it’s not one of my favorite Waits songs, and truthfully, while “Down The Drain” may SOUND like “Jersey Girl” the effect I was actually after was more akin to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” which somehow manages to make la-la-la sound somehow so … rueful.
So, where does that get us to so far? 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, and some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. That’s the music!
Now, as to lyrics, that’s a little harder. I don’t entirely know WHERE they came from! I will certainly admit that the drink has played a lot of roles in my songs over the years, and Shane MacGowan has certainly been my patron saint in that regard, so the reference to “your Chardonnay sky will go black & tan” can probably be attributed in no small part to the influence of The Pogues. And I’m not sure one can write a song with rain as a central metaphor and not be thinking of Ann Peebles singing “Can’t Stand The Rain”:
There is actually a LOT of country blues in Peebles’ song, most notably in this verse:
Alone with the pillow Where his head used to lay, yeah I know you’ve got some sweet memories But like a window you ain’t got nothin’ to say
Which definitely calls to mind these lyrics from Son House’s immortal Death Letter Blues:
Got up this mornin’, just about the break of day A-huggin’ the pillow where she used to lay
I actually first discovered Ann Peebles’ song being sung by a band at Your Place Too in Oakland, back in the late eighties. (Check out my friend Pete Devine’s bio on the Howell Devine website for a nice little reference to Your Place Too). I don’t remember the band, but I’ve always remembered the song!
So, now we’re up to: 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop, Shane MacGowan, and Ann Peebles.
And I think that’s where I’ll stop. Eight! And I tell you what, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to write songs, if for no other reason than you get to listen to so much music! Thanks for helpin’ me continue to get to do it! To borrow (and mutate!) a great quote from the world of creative writing, to be a good songwriter, you must be a good songlistener!
Buy “Preacher Boy – The National Blues” direct! Just click the image below:
Question: Who are your Top 5 Most Influential Vocalists?
Depending on whether you’re at all familiar with my musical career, this may or may not be a surprising list.
But it’s definitely the list. I will never, never, never forget the first moments when I heard each of these singers. Thank you Yazoo Records. Thank you Takoma Records. Thank you Chess Records. Thank you Folkways Records. Thank you to my parents for having a record player in the house. Thank you to Samuel Charters for writing The Country Blues.
And while I’m at it, thank you to my first grade teacher for making fun of my voice when I tried to sing “I Saw Her Standing There.” You set me on a whole different vocal path, lady. And I thank you.
The thing is, if you’ve ever read a review of a Preacher Boy album, you’re probably thinking, why isn’t Tom Waits on this list? After all, virtually every Preacher Boy review in the last 25+ years has managed to mention Tom Waits.
Well, he’s not on my Top 5 list, because he doesn’t belong there.
The thing is, I was intimately and obsessively familiar with the music of the five artists in the title of this post long before I had any idea who Tom Waits was. The reason someone hipped me to Tom Waits in the first place was because they knew the other stuff I was into. It was a former roommate of mine; a college radio DJ. He gave me a Memorex. One side was Mose Allison. On the other, Swordfishtrombones.
Now, was Waits an influence? Absolutely. But not because of his voice per se. He was an influence because THAT voice was writing THOSE songs. That was what made the difference for me.
See, I knew what my voice sounded like. It wasn’t pretty. But that was ok. I didn’t like pretty voices. Charley Patton’s voice made sense to me. Bukka White’s voice made sense to me. Blind Willie Johnson’s voice made sense to me. They were the right voices for their music. That made sense to me.
I knew what my voice sounded like. It wasn’t pretty. But that was ok. I didn’t like pretty voices.
And I knew how I was going to play guitar. I’d heard Mance Lipscomb. I’d heard Fred McDowell. I’d heard Robert Pete Williams. I’d heard Son House. I got it, man. I got it. Ever since I heard Mississippi John Hurt playing Sliding Delta, I knew what I was going to do as a guitarist.
And I knew I was going to be a songwriter.
But that was the problem. How to connect it all? I wasn’t going to write songs like Charley Patton. That wouldn’t have been honest. I knew who I was, and even at a young age, I expected authenticity of myself. So what to do? I didn’t know. I didn’t think I was going to do anything.
Then, I heard “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six.” Vocally, I got it. The man had clearly listened to a lot of the same things I had. And the groove, the rawness, the hypnotic stomping drone-ness of it; I got that. Those were country blues ingredients. But the lyrics. The lyrics. Here was something different. A new sort of language, a new sort of poetry. A sort of rustic, sordid, gritty, earthen, American poetry that was both mystical and soiled. It was at once visionary and hallucinogenic, but also totally raw and present and real and folky and outlandish. A kind of literate and bent hobo prosody. It was Nelson Algren and Gary Snyder and James Wright and Tony Joe White and Jack Kerouac and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’ Connor and Raymond Chandler and Erksine Caldwell and Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley and Townes Van Zandt and Toni Morrison, all rolled into one. I got it. I dug it.
So that’s the Waits influence in a nutshell for me. His music—as represented by that blessed trio of Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years, and Rain Dogs— made clear to me it was possible to weld voice and music and lyrics together in ways I hadn’t previously believed entirely possible.
But here’s the thing … and I’m probably gonna get some flack for sayin’ this … but the thing is, Tom Waits can’t play country blues. I can.
So back to my list. Charley Patton. The rawest of them all. Listen to Charley Patton’s vocals on High Water Everywhere. He sounds insane, and like he’s about to die. That’s what I strive for. Bukka White. You can’t get heavier than that. When he sings the line “When can I change my clothes?” you hear the whole history of masculinity and pain in his voice. That’s what I strive for. Blind Willie Johnson. Jesus, listen to my first record. It’s almost embarrassing to me now, how obviously derivative some of my songs are. The Cross Must Move? Please … Still, I’m really proud of that song! It’s still with me today. Derivative or not, it IS authentic to me. I’m still singin’ it and playin’ it today, 21 years after it was released. Howlin’ Wolf. Synonymous with nuanced ferocity. When I first heard the song “Who’s Been Talkin'” I thought, right. That. How do I do that? Dave Van Ronk. This should be obvious. Virtually the only white guy from the whole folk-blues thing in the sixties who could actually sing and play country blues. So yeah, when I heard him, I had hope, man. His approach still informs so much of what I do. But mainly, I just loved that he sung with total and complete full-throated abandon. No mic needed. That’s my barometer of true vocal authenticity. If you NEED a mic? Ain’t interested …
Listen to Charley Patton’s vocals on High Water Everywhere. He sounds insane, and like he’s about to die. That’s what I strive for.
Here’s my recommendations, if you’re not familiar with these voices. Start with these songs:
Charley Patton: High Water Everywhere, Parts 1 & 2
Bukka White: When Can I Change My Clothes
Blind Willie Johnson: God Moves On The Water
Howlin’ Wolf: I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)
I wrote the lyrics to the song “Coal Black Dirt Sky” pretty much exactly 20 years ago. With The Backyard Funeral Band, we recorded it for the album “Crow.”
Despite the fact that I really love the song, I’ve virtually never played it live. It could be the arrangement. The way we recorded it was very much the evolutionary result of that particular group of musicians coming together, and it just never made sense in any future ensemble incarnations. The same might be said for solo performances as well—I just never wrapped my head around how to own the song on my own.
And so into the brume it went, disappeared into the obfuscatory tendrils of time …
Until recently. The song just started coming back into me for some reason. I wanted to play it. I wanted to own it. I wanted it to be my song again. I wanted to play it on my National.
So I had a go at working up an arrangement, and I played it a couple nights ago. It didn’t go very well. The brume beckoned. But I didn’t give up. I had to get it. The minor tonality of the chorus’ second chord—that had to be nailed on the National somehow, in a way that wouldn’t dip in intensity.
Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” gave me the first third of the answer. It was all about flipping the chord, and pulling the minor tonality out of the bass strings.
That meant the rhythm had to change. Tricky, as the song has a very particular syllabic pattern. That’s where Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” came in—it gave me the second third of the answer. It had to swing.
Finally, I had to bring the slide in. Thank you Mississippi Fred McDowell, for once again showing me the way. This was the third third.
Boom. I have my song back. I hope you like it too. I really do. But regardless, I’m happy. I have my song back. And I love to play it. I played it last night. And I was very happy.
This is bootleg-quality guerrilla audio, but I think you’ll get the gist. Check it out, see what you think. Then, go check out the version from Crow.
A travelin’ song that’s done a lot of travelin’. That’s what this is:
Preacher Boy – Coal Black Dirt Sky [LIVE], 2016
Preacher Boy (and The Backyard Funeral Band) – Coal Black Dirt Sky [Studio], 1998
Coal Black Dirt Sky
when you’re alone in wyoming you are truly alone
you look out the window and there’s nothing there but road
and if you make it to nebraska there still ain’t nothin’ ’round
and the night wraps around you just like a gown
you look out the window and the sky is coal black dirt
and you realize you’ve ridden through hell on earth
and you leave behind the creaking night, the whip-slap winds a-moanin’
never again to see the wilds of nebraska and wyoming
it’s a coal black dirt sky
the hills laugh out load as we speed by
between sleep, i spy
nothing in the coal black dirt sky
wyoming is as cold as frost on a metal rail
and the cold wind pins you down like the bars of a jail
and the snow sits at the side of the road like a threat
and you pray for the end of the ride but you’re not there yet
and nebraska is tall as heaven and it’s twice as wide
and it’s bound to take a lifetime to reach the other side
and you don’t know what it looks like ’cause you never saw it’s day
(Preacher Boy, live at Mission St. BBQ. Photo by Jake J. Thomas.)
Kind of an intriguing set tonight, if I do say so myself. I certainly bookended with a pair of the usual suspects, and there were a few other familiar chirps throughout as well, but all in all, quite a lot of strange birds making sonic appearances tonight. Lots of country blues in here. Here’s the full list of what I ran down:
If I Had Possession Over My Judgement Day (Robert Johnson, arr. PB)
Preachin’ Blues (Son House, arr. PB)
Levee Camp Blues (Mississippi Fred McDowell, arr. PB)
Old Jim Granger (from the Preacher Boy album “The Tenderloin EP”)
Diving Duck Blues (Sleepy John Estes, arr. PB)
Evil Blues (Mance Lipscomb, arr. PB)
A Little More Evil (from the Preacher Boy album “The National Blues”)
Revenue Man Blues (Charley Patton, arr. PB)
Milk Cow Blues (Mississippi Fred McDowell, arr. PB)
Catfish Blues (Willie Doss, arr. PB)
The Dogs (from the Preacher Boy album “The Devil’s Buttermilk”)
Spoonful Blues (Charley Patton, arr. PB)
Down And Out In This Town (from the Preacher Boy album “Gutters & Pews”)
Sliding Delta (Mississippi John Hurt, arr. PB)
Stagolee (Mississippi John Hurt, arr. PB)
A Person’s Mind (from the Preacher Boy album “The National Blues”)
Down South Blues (Sleepy John Estes, arr. PB)
Coal Black Dirt Sky (from the Preacher Boy album “Crow”)
Black Crow (from the Preacher Boy album “Crow”)
Railroad (from the Preacher Boy album “Gutters & Pews”)
Motherless Children (Blind Willie Johnson,/Mance Lipscomb/Dave Van Ronk, arr. PB)
Shake ‘Em On Down (Bukka White)
And for your listening pleasure, two straight-from-the-stage-to-yer-ear-buds guerrilla-live tracks:
Preacher Boy – Sliding Delta [LIVE]
(arrangement based on the Mississippi John Hurt version)
Preacher Boy – Levee Camp Blues [LIVE]
(arrangement based on a recorded performance by Mississippi Fred McDowell)
For the guitar heads amongst ye, this version of Sliding Delta is performed on a ’36 National (Grandpa’s National), which is set up for standard tuning. This chords are based on Key of E forms, but the guitar is capo’d at the 4th fret. Levee Camp Blues is performed on a different ’36 National (THE National), and the guitar is tuned to an Open G tuning, then capo’d at the 2nd fret.
For the footwear fanatics amongst ye, the stomps come courtesy of my cowboy boots, which are a Size 13.
It was written while the missus and I were living in Ireland. In the wild barren west of County Clare. In The Burren. In a 200-year-old stone house that was once the parochial house for the small village down the coast road. Under Jameson’s. Under a peet fire. It was written in Ireland.
Tonight, Virgil and I, we gon’ jus’ roll the dice, and see what songs come up. Recent “set lists” (in quotes of course, cuz they’re not exactly planned!) have included songs from just about every Preacher Boy album over the last 20 years (including some I’ve NEVER played live before), plus a whole slew of groovy ol’ country blues gems and other Preachorum Obscurata. Here’s just a sampling:
The Cross Must Move & Dead, Boy (from Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues, Blind Pig Records)
Ugly & In The Darkened Night (from Gutters & Pews, Blind Pig Records)
Old Jim Granger & Rollin’ Stone (from The Tenderloin EP, Blind Pig Records, Wah Tup Records)
Black Crow & Coal Black Dirt Sky (from Crow, Wah Tup Records)