Category Archives: Blues Musicians

Way Over Yonder: What Happened to the Minor in Blues Music?

Way Over Yonder

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.


What Great Blues Music Is NOT: A Lil’ Somethin’ From The Wee Bully Bulpit

“The point is, if you hear Blues Musicians writing and singing about the same old thing over and over, that’s not universal truth, that’s just willful mediocrity.”

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As an old acquaintance used to say, here’s a lil’ somethin’ from the wee bully pulpit:

Great Blues Music is NOT about the things we ALL share and experience. To borrow a concept from the late, great Cultural Anthropologist Alan Dundes, Great Blues Music is not some sort of catalog of jump rope rhymes that transcend geography to express a kind of universal unconsciousness.

Rather, Blues Music is about the totally unique, personalized, rough-hewn translation of immediate experience into an almost haiku-esque poetic form. Put another way, it’s about musician’s turning their lives, and the lives around them, into song, with a Haiku master’s flair for capturing direct and immediate experience.

Think of Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere.” Sleepy John Estes’ “Fire Department Blues.” Skip James’ “Washington D.C. Hospital Bed Blues.” These songs represent the very best of what Blues Music is capable of.

Robert Pete Williams once said his songs came to him on the wind. Bukka White famously called his songs “Sky Songs” because they came to him from out of the sky.

The point is, if you hear Blues Musicians writing and singing about the same old thing over and over, that’s not universal truth, that’s just willful mediocrity.


Rest in Peace, Robert Lowery

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Robert Lowery’s boots no longer walk the streets of Santa Cruz. Robert Lowery’s fingers no longer pluck and slide on a resonator guitar. Robert Lowery’s voice no longer tells us the stories we need to hear. Robert Lowery’s ears no longer hear the sky songs. Robert Lowery’s eyes no longer watch us as we absorb his lesson. But Robert Lowery’s spirit is still with us, and for this, we are grateful.

Robert Lowery represents a critical thread in the fabric of our musical history and heritage. As I am still sad for myself for having been born too late to have met Mississippi John Hurt in person or seen him play live, I am sad for everyone today who will miss the same experience with Robert Lowery.

I am fortunate. I did meet him in person. I did hear him play live. When he was presented a lifetime achievement award from Santa Clara University, I played with him. Just a few weeks before Robert passed, I was able to play for him, an honor I am all the more grateful for now. With me on stage that night was Virgil Thrasher.

Virgil and Robert occupied a very special world together. This was more than music. They embodied and enacted a story of nobility, humanity, artistry—one that transcended time and place. If history is behaving itself, it is right now dipping its quill into the black ink of time, to write the names Robert Lowery and Virgil Thrasher alongside Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee; alongside Hammie Nixon and Sleepy John Estes; alongside Carey Bell and Louisiana Red; alongside Little Walter and Muddy Waters.

That night but a few weeks ago, when Robert Lowery came to see Virgil and I perform, I asked Robert how he was doing. He said, “not very well.” Honest, straightforward, raw. Just like his music. When he left that night, I spoke from the microphone, and told the small crowd that they had a legend in their midst. The room applauded as he left the building.

“Country bluesman Robert Lowery died today at 85-years-old. His music touched many in Santa Cruz and throughout the blues world. He could tap into the core of Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lightnin’ Hopkins with great authenticity. He was a real treasure. Here is a poster of his last appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, his very favorite event. RIP, Robert.” —Virgil Thrasher

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Whatever happened to the WEIRD in blues music?

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Man, I mean, have you LISTENED to Robert Pete Williams, Skip James, or Charley Patton? Or Dock Boggs, or Joseph Spence for that matter? This is STRANGE, creepy, weird, unsettling, amazing, bent, odd, utterly and completely compelling music!

What happened?

How the f&*k did we get from all of the glorious, insane, angular, spooky, mischievous, malevolent, inspired, desperate, sly madness of what Greil Marcus called the “weird old America” to … well, you know who and what I mean.

Or maybe you don’t.

Have you LISTENED to the original “Rollin’ Stone” by Robert Wilkins? Parts 1 & 2? That s&*t is creepy!

So what happened? Where is the ghost of Sleepy John Estes? Where is the ghost of Junior Kimbrough? Where is the ghost of Howlin’ Wolf?

Now, I like Brother Dege. He’s got the weird. I like Johnny Azari. He’s got the weird. I like Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Will Scott, Dave Arcari, they got the weird. I heard these cats the other day, Hillfolk Noir. They’re gettin’ a bit of that weird. They’re from Boise, for God’s sake. That’s weird. 16 Horsepower had the weird, and Munly and Slim Cessna still have the weird. Kelly Joe Phelps? Weird! Bob Log? Yeah man. That’s the weird. Chris Whitley? Oh, Chris Whitley had the weird. What a loss …

Where is the ghost of Bessie Smith? Where is the ghost of Big Mama Thornton? Where is the ghost of Victoria Spivey, singing “Bloodthirsty Blues?” I mean, my God, the first lines of the song are “Blood, look at all that blood!”

Where is the ghost of Memphis Minnie?

I’m tellin’ you, man, go listen to Dock Boggs and Joseph Spence. It’ll blow yer mind. Listen to Tommy Johnson’s voice on “Cool Drink of Water” and tell me yer damn skin doesn’t crawl.

Here you go, this is your 15-song critical listening homework on the Old Weird America:

  1. Robert Wilkins: Rollin’ Stone, Parts 1 & 2
  2. Skip James: Hardtime Killin’ Floor Blues
  3. Joseph Spence: Sloop John B
  4. Dock Boggs: Sugar Baby
  5. Charley Patton: High Water Everywhere
  6. Robert Pete Williams: Ugly
  7. Robert Johnson: Hellhound on my Trail
  8. Tommy Johnson: Cool Drink of Water
  9. Sleepy John Estes: Sixty-One and Sixty-Two Rats
  10. Junior Kimbrough: Sad Days, Lonely Nights
  11. Howlin’ Wolf: I Asked for Water (she gave me gasoline)
  12. Bukka White: When Can I Change My Clothes?
  13. Fred McDowell: Will Me Your Watch & Chain
  14. Blind Lemon Jefferson: Matchbox Blues
  15. Blind Willie McTell: Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues

That’s just a start. Just go on and keep listenin’. It’s out there. It ain’t lost. In this day and age, in this country—and you know what I mean—we NEED this. We need the magic of this realness. The real, deep, weird soul of America. We need it, man.


Rollin’ the PreachSongs Dice

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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)

The Dogs & At The Corner Of The Top And The Bottom (from The Devil’s Buttermilk, Manifesto Records)

A Little Better When It Rains & One-Way Turnstile (from Demanding To Be Next, Coast Road Records)

A Person’s Mind & A Little More Evil (from The National Blues, Coast Road Records)

 

-plus-

 

Mama, Let Me Play With Your Yo-Yo (Blind Willie McTell)

Stagolee (Mississippi John Hurt)

Levee Camp Blues (Mississippi Fred McDowell)

Milk Cow Blues (Kokomo Arnold)

I Just Hang Down My Head And I Cry (Mance Lipscomb)

Diving Duck Blues (Sleepy John Estes)

Fixin’ To Die (Bukka White)

Preachin’ Blues (Son House)

Spoonful (Charley Patton)

Maggie Campbell (Tommy Johnson)

 

And more, and more, and more!

 

#DIG

 


Albums You Should Resolve To Listen (Or ReListen) To In 2016

What follows are a selection of “modern” albums (#AltBlues #CountryBlues #DeltaBlues #AcousticBlues) that for me help define the spirit and mojo of #CountryBlues as it continues to inform, guide, mold, and move our music in these contemporary times. PLEASE never stop listening to Son House, Bukka White, Charley Patton, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Tommy Johnson, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and so many more, but PLEASE also listen to these records. The spirit is with us, #DIG.

Chris Whitley: Dirt Floor

A modern genius of emotive, genre-defining authenticity; one of the very few who saw in The National a world of new sounds. This is exactly how he should be heard. Raw, naked, pure. Essential modern #AltBlues, vastly under-rated #SingerSongwriter, genuine #Americana.

Kelly Joe Phelps: Shine-Eyed Mister Zen

Kelly Joe’s hallucinatory slide-fueled lyrical spelunking into the wild, weird America of country blues can be both mesmerizing and maddening to follow, but on this album, everything comes together magically. He’s a slide virtuoso, with the perfect voice for these wistful and wandering narcotic narratives. Vital #AcousticBlues that proves #Songwriting is still required.

Alvin Youngblood Hart: Big Mama’s Door

I appreciate every turn that Alvin has taken on his incredible musical path, but I’ll never shake free of my affection for—and appreciation of—this first album. Full disclosure, I was fortunate enough to hear a lot of these performances in progress before Alvin recorded this album, but regardless of any personal connection, the album stands on its own—on very, very, very tall legs. If there is one album that proves #CountryBlues is alive and well today, it’s this one.

Corey Harris: Between Midnight And Day

Corey is another one who has wandered far and wide on his musical journey, and as with giants like Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal (among others) he has done wonderful work enacting the connections that bind this music and its makers and listeners the globe over. Ultimately tho, it’s this record—where he just gets raw and down it it—that I feel his power most. This was the future of the blues when it was first released, and for my money, it still is. Plus, Jesus, his voice … just listen to “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” …

John Mooney: Comin’ Your Way

This album (and “Chops Not Chaps” from Roy Rogers) is why I wanted to sign with Blind Pig Records in the first place. John is rightly celebrated for his otherworldly ability to channel the ghost of Son House in his playing and singing (he actually “studied” with him in Rochester, NY!), and he’s also become somewhat of a new champion of the Louisiana sound, but for my money, he’s almost closer to Leon Redbone in spirit. That said, his National playing is another thing altogether, and the hoarse urgency of his voice a force unto itself. Critical #AltBlues that should never be forgotten.

Roy Rogers: Chops, Not Chaps

It gives 1992 for the release date on the Amazon page for this album, but it actually came out in 1986. I was awful young at that point, tho I was already trying to play country blues guitar. But if you’d a told me then I’d one day have my own album with the Blind Pig imprint on the back, I’d a thought you were crazy. At the time, Blind Pig meant not a thing to me. But this album sure did (I had it on a cassette!). I couldn’t honestly believe there was someone out there like Roy, who was doing this. This is a straight up brave album, made at a time when there was NO reason to do this, other than because you loved the music. Canonical #AcousticBlues.

Dave Arcari: Devil’s Left Hand

There are probably a lot of albums and artists that you’d expect to see on this list, that aren’t on this list. Why? Well, probably a few reasons, but honestly, the #1 reason why I don’t include some artists you think might would be obvious is because they don’t sing right. That may sound strange comin’ from a guitar nut like me, but it’s true. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re gonna play this music right, you have to sing it right. And that’s something most “interpreters” of this music just don’t get. If I had a dollar for every bloody so-called blues artist I’ve heard who might as well be a karaoke machine for how accurate their guitar playing is (and how crap their voices are), I could buy every karoake machine in the world, and break it. And that’s why Dave Arcari IS on this list. Sure he plays wild National (also important, wildness! i HATE clean picking!), and sure he writes great songs, but most of all, he SINGS it right. And yes, that’s a Scottish accent you’re hearing.

Will Scott: Gnawbone

I’m totally biased, I admit it. I worked on this album. But it’s a great bloody album, because Will Scott is a great bloody artist. Per my comment above, he sings it right, and he plays it wild. This is dangerous and creepy music, and so soulful, and his voice is dangerous, and his songs are lethal, and his whole juju thing is just invasive and excellent. This voice—Will’s voice—is THE sound of what modern #CountryBlues is capable of.

Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road

It’s a funny thing about Lucinda Williams. As far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t until she STOPPED trying to play #CountryBlues that she started to play #CountryBlues. Her early albums are pretty clear attempts to nail that authenticity (listen to “I Asked For Water”), but for me, they don’t make it. But, with this album, suddenly, it’s all there. There isn’t a thing on it that could pass for blues in any conventional sense of the term, but the spirit and the ghosty mojo are there. The Lucinda Williams of this album is as close to a heartbreaking, storytelling Sleepy John Estes as we have today.

Townes Van Zandt: Rear-View Mirror

Townes nuts can argue for hours over which is the best version of this so-very-important musician. The early, plaintive, over-produced but still heartbreaking early Townes, the stumbling, ravaged, but creepily compelling (and also heartbreaking) late Townes, the stripped-down acoustic Townes of Live at the Old Quarter, or some other available iteration. For my money tho, this is the best. The musicians here are SO sympathetic, the song choice is perfect, and Townes is in the perfect middle space where he’s old enough and has seen enough to sound right for his material, but still hearty and hale enough to simply nail every performance with lethal heart mojo perfection. This is #CountryBlues with an emphasis on Country, but if you think this ain’t blues, just listen to “Dollar Bill Blues,” and then be quiet.

 

Bob Log: Log Bomb

Jesus, what can ya say about this cat? Alternative Blues? Pretty much man. I first met him when he was still in Doo Rag. Those were the early days, when just about nobody was playin’ anything resembling Country Blues. So I dug it, big time. And I dig him on his own. Hard to resist. Weird as hell. The NEW weird America. Honestly, hard to pick one album, so start here.

Stevie Tombstone: The Dark Country Blues

This one is a little unfair, since it only just came out, but for God’s sakes, it’s actually called The Dark Country Blues! That pretty much sums it up, man, and if you’re lookin’ for a successor to the way Townes did it—a voice, guitar, and pen that know how to tell the raw stories right—then Mr. Tombstone is your man. #Dig.

16 Horsepower: Sackcloth & Ashes

The greatest band you might never have heard. If Dock Boggs—in all his creepy glory—was Country Blues (and he was) then 16 Horsepower is Country Blues. Raw, Gothic, Gospel Americana at its finest. Too deep. Must listen.

~

I could go on and on and on, but I won’t. Let’s just talk after you’ve given these all a really good listen.

 

 


A Scholarly Paper On Preacher Boy?

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Preacher Boy: A Citations-Included Scholarly Performance Review, and Guerrilla-Raw Recordings From The Show

I have been fortunate to receive a great many press reviews over the years. Most of them have actually been quite favorable, for which I’m grateful. Some even remarkably so. Many have been funny, some almost frighteningly spot on, and virtually all have had something insightful to contribute.

That Canadian publication that likened my singing to “Motorhead’s Lemmy singing the blues?” That was awesome.

The Seattle newspaper that described my music as “dark, beautiful, desperate, and soulful?” I loved that.

And of course, getting reviewed by Rolling Stone was pretty special, though getting a nod from Living Blues may have even topped that, given that I pretty much grew up reading that magazine. Still hard to believe I ended up in those hallowed pages.

The point being, I’ve been lucky that so many generous individuals have elected to write about my music. But a scholarly article, complete with citations and the like? That’s something new for me.

Yet that’s exactly what has transpired. Jonathan Dryden, one of the finest musicians working today–a true piano virtuoso–and a deep musicological student of all things Americana, has penned what I think is a rather extraordinary article based on a recent Preacher Boy performance, and focused on a suite of turn-of-the-century songs that feature in my rather ramshackle repertoire.

I am humbled beyond imagining by this piece of prose, and honestly hesitated to even share it. Well, at least I hesitated for a second or two. Truthfully, I couldn’t wait to share it. I am proud and humbled both, and genuinely stunned to find what I do so deeply understood, so “gotten.” Mr. Dryden is as sensitive and intelligent a writer as one could hope to be on the receiving end of, and I am so grateful to have been considered in this fashion.

Here is an excerpt from this paper:

“Compared to Len Spencer’s jerky and hurried version from the 1910s [Preacher Boy’s] pace was leisurely but well-timed. In his hands, the song didn’t sound one hundred-twenty years old. It was fresh and exciting, and the lyrics weren’t dated. He played it in a modern shuffle rhythm, alternating between G major and minor from beat to beat in the opening four measures instead of the traditional G major throughout. Where there had only been a tonic and dominant chord in the song, he found ways to insert sub-dominant and relative minor chords that brought out the melody and lyrics even more than a plain rendition would have done.”

You can read the full paper by clicking Preacher-Boy-at-Aptos-BBQ-1232015.

And should you wish to listen to some of the performance yourself, here are a few live guerrilla-raw recordings from the show in question:

Take Me Back

Stagolee

You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon, Daddy But You Done Broke Down

Shine On Harvest Moon

For my versions of the above, I am indebted to recordings by Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Leon Redbone, and Dave Van Ronk.

And for this post, and the story it contains, I am indebted specifically to Jonathan Dryden. Thank you, sir! And I am of course indebted to all at Aptos St BBQ, upon whose stage I had the pleasure of performing these songs. I am also indebted to anyone who has been gracious enough to write about me and/or the music I play. And finally, I am indebted to the music that came before me, and the musicians who made it. Deep bows to all.


#NowPlaying: Music You Probably Aren’t Listening To, But Should Be

Joseph Spence. Yep. That’s right. Joseph Spence. Caribbean Country Blues. Trust me. And here’s the best way to get your head wrapped around the gloriously bent and magic acoustical muttering beauty of this strange and incredible artist. Listen to his version of Sloop John B. Because you know the song, but you have NEVER heard it like this. And it’s so, so phenomenal … I mean, literally cool beyond imagining. Seriously. Dig this.

Dock Boggs. I am a firm believer that proper Country Blues needs to occasionally be a bit creepy. And there is little music in the world that is more creepy than Dock Boggs’ original version of  Sugar Baby.

Freddie, by Mance Lipscomb. Mance is associated with a great many fantastic things, and rightfully so. But not often with one chord drone songs. And let’s digress for a moment to note that one chord drone songs are the ultimate measure of a musicianer. And Country Blues does it best. Yeah, take that, modal jazz! (which I happen to love, btw). Anyhow, Mance hypnotizes on this one, so dig:

And here’s one from the newden days. Chris Whitley (RIP) laying into Spoonful with the Billy Martin & Chris Wood, the esteemed Medeski, Martin & Wood rhythm section. Just when you thought an ol’ blue chestnut like this one couldn’t be reimagined successfully, here comes this motherfu&*er of a rendition. This, people, is modern country blues. Not … that other stuff. This.

To be continued, but please. Listen to this music. Listen to this Country Blues.


Everytime I hear “Preachin’ Blues” I think of Will Scott

From the moment I heard Will Scott play, I have esteemed him greatly. I have for him a love that is brotherly, and a competitor’s admiration. I have been both his student and his teacher, and I remain the former forever more. I am proud to call him friend, and put simply, as a musicianer, he is a motherf&*#er.

We got to do an album together. It’s called Gnawbone, and it’s an incredible bloody record. If you don’t own it, own it.

Will Scott: Gnawbone

His next album is Keystone Crossing. It’s essential listening.

Will Scott: Keystone Crossing

Here’s the thing about Will and I. When I heard him sing, I knew I was f&#*ed. He came from a RL Burnside, Johnny Shines kind of thing, whereas I was more Bukka White and Blind Willie Johnson. We met in the middle at Son House. He could sing like Son House, and that was hard for me, cuz I couldn’t. But, I could PLAY like Son House, and that helped.

We started doin’ shows together, and it was one night in some weird place in Williamsburg (of 15 years ago, mind you), and here he comes out with the slide lick from “Preachin’ Blues” and I about fell about the place. Cuz now he was singin’ like Son, and playin’ like Son, and everytime I hear that lick I think of Will. Everytime I hear “Preachin’ Blues” I think of Will Scott.

So this song, really, is several notes of appreciation for Will Scott, because when I play it, I think of him. He’s a couple thousand miles away from me right now, but I’m thinkin’ on him. This is a brand-new song called “Obituary Writer Blues.” And if you know your Son House, you might think I copped a lick from him to build this song on top of, but honestly, I stole it from Will Scott.

Obituary Writer Blues

I’m gon’ quite writin’, gon’ lay down this pen I use
Oh, now I’m gon’ quit writin’ gon’ lay down this pen I use
And you know by that I got the obituary blues

I been at the typer, lord, honey, ’til my fingers sore
Honey, I been at the typer, lord, ’til my fingers sore
I ain’t gon’ write no obituary anymore

Black was the color, one after another
They lay down on sheets of white
Time may erase me, but I ain’t so crazy
That I don’t know my wrong from right

Oh, sweet mama don’t ‘low me to stay out all night long
I may act like I’m crazy, but I do know right from wrong

It was rock, paper, scissors ’til the sword get the better of the pen
Oh, it was rock, paper, scissors, ’til the sword got the best of the pen
I seen it printed in the paper, somebody shot up some poor kids again

Black was the color, one after another
They lay down on sheets of white
Time may erase me, but I ain’t so crazy
That I don’t know my wrong from right

Oh, sweet mama don’t ‘low me to stay out all night long
I may act like I’m crazy, but I do know right from wrong

~

On the subject of thievery, I owe nods to Sleepy John Estes and Nina Simone as well. Dig.

 


16 Essential Country Blues Recordings By 16 Essential Country Blues Artists

In which I list the 16 indisputably greatest country blues performances ever recorded.

Country Blues Music is aural American Haiku.

Country blues isn’t any of the things anyone says it is.

Country blues is these 16 songs. Rippled out in a funky pond …

These are recordings by Country Blues masters.

Anyone who says Country Blues isn’t poetry doesn’t know a damn thing about anything worth knowing …

How does a song make this list? By bein’ juju-laden with groove and rawness and swamp funk and pathos and lyrical mystery and perfect mystery and perfect lyrics and transformative soul-crawl and rawness and wry gruffness and hair-raiser powers and grease and swamp and funk and weirdness and genius and earth-raw American Swamp Haiku funk soul mojo…

in alphabetical order

  1. Blind Lemon Jefferson: Matchbox Blues

Virtually every Blind Lemon Jefferson recording is a master class of Country Blues. But certain moments within certain songs vibrate your mind’s tuning fork in unprecedented ways. This is such a song. The lyrical pivot from “standin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes” to “i ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go” is just magisterial…(recommended recording, the JSP masters version)

  1. Blind Willie Johnson: God Moves On The Water

This’ll mess you up for gettin’ cocky with Mother Nature … dang. Not just the vengeance of the Lord, man, but God MOVES … on the water. As far as I’m concerned, the Country Blues has just a few truly genius slide guitar players. Willie Johnson is one of them. And the Country Blues has only 4 truly great voices, and they’re all on this list, and Willie Johnson is one of them.

  1. Blind Willie McTell: Dying Crapshooter’s Blues

It’s as good a story song as any ever written in the folk tradition. Sophisticated, narrative, compelling, moody, idiosyncratic, sly, somber, perfect. A total masterpiece, a tour de force. The guy was a bloody genius. The 1940 version, recorded in a hotel room, is so raw. The guitar out of tune, the voice creaked and ailing but still all suave and wry and hip, and the delivery so sly, so masterful. It’s incredible. Every version of this song is incredible, but if you get the chance, listen to the 1940 recording.

  1. Bukka White: When Can I Change My Clothes?

“I wonder how long, ‘fore I can change my clothes?”

It simply doesn’t get more powerful than this song. The riff, the taut growl wail, the lyric. Listen to the Takoma recording, by the way. Not the 1940 one. Takoma will put the hurt on ya…

  1. Charley Patton: High Water Everywhere

I can think of a thousand authors on book tours right now who can’t tell a story worth a shit, and here’s Charley Patton with a song about a flood that’s as good as anything Carson McCullers ever wrote, which makes it better than most anything ever written… People don’t talk enough about what a vocalist Charley Patton was, but this vocal is incredible … just urgency incarnate.

  1. Lightnin’ Hopkins: Mama And Papa Hopkins 

You just go listen to the opening verse of this tune, and then just don’t talk to me about Lightin’ Hopkins anymore, about anything, ever …Listen to this one on vinyl. From the album “Autobiography in Blues.” My grandpa gave me this recording on vinyl when I was 16. I’m many, many years older than that now, and it’s STILL changing my life…

  1. Mance Lipscomb: Freddie

He got mad. He got bad. With a gun. In his hand.

Yep.

You got a lyric like that, on a groove like this, you don’t need more than one chord. From Mance’s first album, released on Arhoolie. Get it on vinyl, man…

  1. Mississippi Fred McDowell: Levee Camp Blues

If you work on somethin’ until you go stone blind?  Yeah, man. Fred McDowell just makes the spooky. This song will haunt you. Just grease and dark and soulful and earthy and river-y stunk up and so much slide & vocal voodoo, it’s a masterpiece of unwound pathotic soul fable…

  1. Mississippi John Hurt: Stagolee

Mississippi John Hurt doesn’t sound much like anyone else on this list, but he’s Mississippi Blues, man, and this is canonical American folklore right here …personally, I’ll take one of the later recordings on Vanguard, but the 1928 Okeh version will sure do too…

  1. Reverend Gary Davis: Death Don’t Have No Mercy

What can you say about a song like this? This version, from Newport, is quite simply one of the greatest recordings of American Song ever preserved. Period. And don’t fall for the staged Newport video version, by the way. Gary Davis still kills it, but the version you want to listen to is the concert one. Get it from the “Great Bluesmen at Newport” collection on Vanguard …

  1. Robert Johnson: Love In Vain

Maybe oddly enough, I don’t actually listen to Robert Johnson that much. He’s almost too good. And this song is almost too sophisticated. But this is genuine weird America, man, because how do you craft up so hard on a song like this, and have it end up so perfectly, weirdly, rawly excellent? It’s just a bloody weird blues song, is what it is, and it’s a must-listen…

When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues
and the red light was my mind
All my love’s in vain

That’s just weird, man. What happened to weird in the blues? Gimme some more weird…

  1. Robert Pete Williams: Ugly

Mama, why I gotta be so ugly in this world?
Son, that’s just a mark that God put on your face.

A mark that God put on your face.

Take that, every other writer of anything.

And here’s a secret for you that I’m gonna let you in on. This was recorded on Fahey’s Takoma album, but it’s seemingly impossible–literally impossible–to find. Except it’s not. You can actually hear it on Spotify. But you’d never know it. It’s one of those horrible albums-without-an-album-cover album covers. But don’t be fooled. Click this link, and go listen to this whole dang album. It’s funky as hell, and very, very, very, very true.

Spotify has the album listed as “Freight Train Blues.” And it says all the songs are “live.” Which is actually right, just not how they mean it…

  1. Skip James: Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

How do you pick one Skip James song? Simple. You pick the best one. And for my money, the first “post-rediscovery” version of this is actually better than the original 1930 version… There’s nothing in the world like Skip James. He’s like the VanGogh of Country Blues, you just wonder, where on earth did this come from? And that voice? I didn’t put it as one of the 4 great country blues voices, because it’s not. It one of the one great Skip James voices. Of which there is no other…

You know that people are driftin’ from door to door
Can’t find no heaven, don’t care where they go

And that ghosty hum after? I been listenin’ to this song for 30 years, I still get chills…

  1. Sleepy John Estes: Mailman Blues

Sleepy John Estes is Country Blues’ greatest short story writer, and one of its greatest voices. He is in fact one of Country Blues’ four great singers. The others being Son House, Tommy Johnson, and Willie Johnson. His is the great broken, cracking plaintive sound that the country blues always wants when it’s not busy gravelin’ itself up. But as a writer, man, Sleepy John just wrote the daily history of his life, and just made it so damn beautiful and compelling and simple in a haiku-simple –read, not simple—way. Just a blues about a drunk mailman. Except it’s fully existential and about death. Sartre in A. I coulda put Lawyer Clark, or Martha Hardin, or Floating Bridge, or Fire Department. But I chose this one, cuz it’s the best.

  1. Son House: Death Letter Blues

The king high motherf&%$er of all Country Blues songs. And you want the 1965 Columbia Records version. Just trust me.

  1. Tommy Johnson: Cool Drink Of Water Blues

Honestly, he could be singin’ about anything, and when that yodel-howl-falsetto thing comes on, man, I just faint. And so what if the lyric is a tossed-around shared couplet. You sing it like this, it’s all yours, man. I asked for water, she gave me gasoline. He sings it better than Howlin’ Wolf, and nobody sings anything better than Howlin’ Wolf. Except Tommy Johnson does. So there.

 


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