Many Matches in the Matchbox

4 Sep

It’s often shocking how often you find yourself unknowingly enjoying a modern incarnation of a song that has its roots embedded in the past. Covers are great, but they spawn histories that are often forgotten. The Blues Evolution is The Music Court’s attempt to combine two engaging topics, music and history, and share tales of popular blues songs that were first recorded before the first rock n’ roll song was ever created.

Today’s song of choice is “Matchbox,” a blues song born in the 1920s and covered 30 years later by Carl Perkins (and later the Beatles). It is also a great example of musical telephone, where Perkins was forced to guess on the lyric of the decade-old blues song, thus creating an entirely new song that simply held the original’s foundation. So, if you will oblige, let’s take a trip down the long stretch of road that is blues history.

Blind Lemon Jefferson

It all begins with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Well, kind of. Blind Lemon was just one of the many ultra-talented blind blues musicians who inspired the eventual creation of rock n’ roll, but he developed “Matchbox” because he was inspired by a lyric in a Ma Rainey song. Blind Lemon, who has been called the Father of Texas Blues, was inspired by Ma Rainey – “The Mother of the Blues.” The blues ancestry works much like mythology, it seems. Blind Lemon and Ma Rainey inspired Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and many, many others.

In Ma Rainey’s 1924 record “Lost Wandering Blues,” she sings, “Lord, I’m standing here wondering, Will a matchbox hold my clothes. I’ve got a sun to beat, I’ll be farther down the road.” In a pre-sampling example of sampling, Blind Lemon took that lyric and wrote, “I’m sittin’ here wonderin’ would a matchbox hold my clothes.
I ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go.” Quite similar, indeed. Blind Lemon’s version of the lyric became more popular, but credit must be given to Ma Rainey as well.

There is Blind Lemon’s high croon and traditional Texas acoustic blues guitar. Gosh, pre-rock n’ roll blues is just awesome, isn’t it? This song was recorded several more times through the 30s and 40s but to no true popularity, though it was through one of these covers that the song was reintroduced to the public.

Thirty years later, Carl Perkins’ father suggested he cover the song in a December, 1956 recording session. Perkins’ father, Buck, was a student of old country music, and several country musicians covered the Blind Lemon song in the 1930s and 40s. He only remembered a few lines of the song. Carl decided to try his luck, and the session pianist, Jerry Lee Lewis (not a bad session pianist!), played a boogie rhythm on the piano. Perkins transformed the song into fast-paced rockabilly…with completely different lyrics.

The line that Blind Lemon adopted from Ma Rainey is still there. It is the only similarity that remains. The song, which Blind Lemon made about a mean woman, became a about a poor boy a long way from home. Here is Carl Perkins performing the song with Johnny Cash and Eric Clapton because we can!

The Beatles, who were inspired by Perkins, had received a request to record a Perkins song, and in 1964 they recorded the song with Perkins himself standing by. Yes, he was invited to the session, and did jam with the band (just not on the track). Ringo was tasked with the vocal responsibilities, and he sang the song while playing his drum set.

From the mother to the father to Mr. Blue Suede Shoes to the greatest band of the 20th century. And to think, I’m sittin’ here wondering if a matchbox will hold my clothes.

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One Response to “Many Matches in the Matchbox”

  1. Glennaceta June 28, 2017 at 5:05 am #

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