List five of the most famous blues songs you can think of. Was “Statesboro Blues” on your list? It is a mainstay on most lists not only because of its excellence as a song, but also because of its proliferation – i.e. the song was re-recorded by the right people. Even if “Statesboro Blues” didn’t find a spot on your list, it is certainly a staple of blues history and a widely recognized song today. You hear the opening few notes of the riff and hear “Wake up Mama, turn your lamp down low” and you just know you are traveling to Georgia to experience the Statesboro blues. But with whom are you traveling with. The original creator of the famous blues piece, the first modernizer, or the performers with arguably the best version of the song? I think we are in need of a Blues Evolution.
By the way, before I continue, if you are interested in the blues and want to learn more about famous originators check out the list that John Phillips is compiling over at the Real Canadian Music Blog. His Let’s Explore the Blues section offers a deep dive into pre-rock blues (http://therealcanadianmusicblog.wordpress.com/category/blues/)
The best way to explore the evolution of “Statesboro Blues” is to work backwards. Instead of starting in 1928, let’s start 43 years later at the Fillmore East in March of 1971. The Allman Brothers recorded a version of blues piece for their live album At Fillmore East, which is one of the most extraordinary live albums ever released. The song is now a staple during Allman Brothers’ concerts. Why did the song succeed initially? One name. Duane Allman. His slide work on “Statesboro Blues” is some of the greatest ever done by any guitarist ever. It is spine-tingling, goose-bump inducing, holy sh*t how is he making that sound, good. You can listen to it over and over again, transcribe it and play it until your fingers are blue and pulsating, NO ONE will ever play the slide guitar and this song like Duane Allman. Let’s not forget Dickey Betts who also creates a magical tone with his guitar. The riff is heavenly, the blues solo scary good, and the vocals fresh and original. The Allman Brothers makes the song theirs, which is partly why everyone thinks it is their song!
But it’s not. And it is not Taj Mahal’s either, who recorded a modernized version of the song for his eponymous debut album in 1968. The version, slower than the Allman Brothers piece, clearly influenced the Brothers. Taj Mahal’s voice is the strength of his version. I give him a whole lot of credit for turning this song into a late 60s blues piece, but he knocks the piece out with his chops. Listen here:
Will the real Statesboro Bluesman please stand up? Name is Willie McTell, Blind Willie Mctell. McTell was an early 20th century blues singer/songwriter/guitarist, with tremendous skill on the 12-string guitar – fingerstyle and slide (Allman inspiration of course). His music is more Eastern than Delta Blues. It is more ragtimey and his voice is not as granular as the deep south Delta blues performers like Big Joe Williams and Charley Patton.
The original lyric is different from the Taj Mahal and Allman Brothers versions of the song. The covers splice together parts of McTell’s original lyric, a narrative about some family struck with the Statesboro, Georgia blues. One of the most influential portions of the song is McTell’s fast-paced verse progression later in the song which is a bit atypical and certainly much appreciated. Anybody out there have the “Statesboro Blues?”