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The Evolution of the Statesboro Blues

11 Apr

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 (

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?”

Got My Mojo Working – Muddy and Cole

17 Nov

Mojo Baby Yeah!

How weird is it that the last Austin Powers movie was released almost a decade ago? My mojo reference is dated. No, Austin Powers is still a fresh memory. Plus, he is perfect for this post.
“Got My Mojo Working” is a fast-paced, haromica-driven blues song popularized by the great Muddy Waters. His 1957 version of the song became the one that most people cite when they think of this prime example of fast blues. There is no denying it. Muddy’s smooth croon and hedge-like slick black hair make the song slippery and a little dirty. What made Waters’ version so popular was its skilled use of call-and-response and James Cotton’s “I’m better than everyone here” harmonica. It is so proficient it’s scary. But when people say that Muddy Waters created this song, they are mistaken. While he did manipulate elements of this famous blues hit to fit his mold (and this definitely contributed to its popularity), the song was written by Preston Foster and first recorded by Ann Cole in 1956.
Cole’s version is more jump blues than traditional blues. The doo-wop background singers, backing high-pitched guitar, horns, and Cole’s poppy voice contribute to this conclusion. That is not to say that this original version is not good. No, it is great. There were lawsuits (of course) between record companies – claiming that Muddy stole the song after hearing Cole perform it. Whatever, that stuff was settled and it is unimportant. There was, however, a humorous ruling by the court when another performer claimed that songwriter Preston Foster stole the concept of “mojo” from her. This was the ruling:
 “MOJO is a commonplace part of the rhetoric of the culture of a substantial portion of the American people. As a figure of speech, the concept of having, or not having, one’s MOJO working is not something in which any one person could assert originality, or establish a proprietary right.
Mojo should be shared by all. Now, here is to hoping that the Jets have their mojo working for their Thursday Night Matchup against the Broncos tonight! To sponsor this sentiment here are some more performers showing their mojo off.
   – I think I was at this show.

It Takes a Worried Man To Sing a Worried Song – The History of “Worried Man Blues”

21 Sep
He’s Worried Now, But He Won’t Be Worried Long

When Rod Stewart received his first guitar from his father, he first developed hard-earned calluses from playing “Worried Man Blues.” The folk classic sparked the musician inside of Stewart. Now, obviously, Stewart did not stake his claim as a guitarist, but the song helped engender Stewart’s burgeoning musical creativity. I mention this little story because “Worried Man Blues” is another example of a traditional folk song lost to time; a deracinated ditty, a matchless melody. Okay, you get the point. “Worried Man Blues” was first propagated by the Carter Family, but its roots are forever lost in the vast annals of time. Please excuse my corny hyperbolizing. Let’s explore the evolution of this folk smash.

Like I said in the previous paragraph, “Worried Man Blues,” came from somewhere, but past the first recording of the song in 1930, we do not know much about its history. What one can delineate from written record is this: A.P. Carter, the tall, lanky male member of the original Carter Family was known for traveling throughout the country and collecting old songs, especially in the Appalachian region. In 1928, he met Lesley Riddle, a one-legged blues musician, and Riddle joined Carter on his country-wide blues excursions. Carter would write down the lyrics of songs they picked up, and Riddle would memorize the melodies. It is possible that “Worried Man Blues” came from these trips. But it is also possible that Riddle had nothing to do with the old-time piece. Carter did pick up the song and in 1930 he recorded “Worried Man Blues” with his wife Sara Carter and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. Here is the recording.
If you have heard the piece before performed by more recent artists you might notice that there is a distinct different. In more modern versions, the opening line of every verse is repeated three times. But in the Carter Family version (and in the later mentioned Guthrie version – which we will get to), the first line of each verse is only repeated twice. The melody is also slower than some other versions. Each version does practically have the same melody and chord structure (G with variation, C, D – easy to play on the guitar or banjo, you just need to figure out the picking pattern) The lyric is where the differences really shine. I am going to paste the full Carter Family version so we can have a solid FIRST lyric for reference.
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long
I went across the river and I lay down to sleep
I went across the river and I lay down to sleep
When I woke up, put the shackles on my feet
29 links of chain around my leg
29 links of chain around my leg
And on each link an initial of my name
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long 
I asked the judge, what might be my fine
 I asked the judge, what might be my fine
21 years on the R.C. Mountain Line
The train arrived, 16 coaches long
The train arrived, 16 coaches long
The girl I love is on that train and gone
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long
If anyone should ask you who composed this song
If anyone should ask you who composed this song
Tell ’em ’twas I, and I sing it all day long
I love this last little passage, which, by the way, is completely original to the Carter Family version, and it doesn’t appear again often (if ever) in more modern versions. It sort-of has a mark of irony, since we are now asking 81 years later who first sang this song. I guess it was I, and I sing it all day long. Old folk/blues pieces with unknown origins are kept alive by popular recordings and kids, who, like Rod Stewart, pick up a guitar, pluck the simple chords, and sing about being a worried man singing about being worried all day long. This timelessness is genuine. After the Carter Family recorded the song in 1930, Woody Guthrie picked up the classic and took it on in 1940. Here is a version from volume two of the Asch Recordings (1944).
Guthrie’s version immediately just sounds different, especially with the slightly out-of-tune, but stylish acoustic guitar. The all-male vocal backing obviously differs from the Carter Family. The main difference, though, is that Guthrie, unlike all other versions, does not begin with the chorus. He dives right into going across the river and lying down to sleep. Guthrie maintains the two repetition of the Carter’s, but, starting with verse two, stuff begins changing.
In the game of lyrical telephone (like I mentioned in previous blues evolution posts), some of the first things to go are numbers and places. In this case, Guthrie mentions 21 links of chain, as opposed to the Carter’s 29 links of chain. Then, on the next verse, the protagonist of the song is sentenced to 21 years on the Rocky Mountain line. In the Carter’s version, the protagonist is spending 21 years on the R.C. Mountain line. What is the R.C. Mountain line? Railroad Company? Perhaps. It may be referring to the Rocky Mountain line, but, supposing this song was first learned from Appalachian blues artists, it is most likely referring to a rail line in the east.
Guthrie’s train is 21 coaches long (he has an obsession with the number 21) and the Carter’s train is 16 coaches long. Also, Guthie ends the song with a completely independent verse that he seemingly made up. It goes:
Twenty-one years
Pay my awful crime
Twenty-one years
Pay my awful crime
Twenty-one years
And I still got ninety-nine
It is a neat, different version of the song, perhaps inspired by other versions he heard outside of the Carter’s 1930 recording, or, Guthrie may have just taken creative liberty. A group that took complete creative liberty was the Kingston Trio, who recorded a completely different version of the song – only keeping the chorus – in 1958. It is sped up (in typical Kingston Trio fashion) and repeats the first line of the chorus three times. Hmm…interesting. (The first song is “Worried Man Blues”)
This is actually the first version of the song I became familiar with. It’s just completely different, but still enjoyable.
I would like to leave you all with one more version of the song. This one performed by folk perfectionist Pete Seeger and the great Johnny Cash (1970). Pete Seeger is awesome. There is just no way around that statement. He is a classics man and he performs the songs with such enjoyable passion. I also love when Cash performs old folk songs (see the last blues evolution I did). This version also repeats the lines three times. It does, though, follow the classic version pretty well. It also features a Seeger monologue and, hopefully without being too sententious, I want to post his statement for I think it is rather apt for this post.
 “These old songs are never going to die out. This song is the whole human race. I crossed the river, laid down to sleep, and woke up with shackles on my feet. Across the river we thought we solved all of our problems. You have that revolution. You get that home. You get that job. You think you solved all of your problems. You crossed that river and found you got shackles on your feet. And who’se the judge. Is it some old guy, 74 years old, with black robes. It might be the young judging the old or the old judging the rich. But no matter what mistakes we ever made, there is still a last verse that holds out some hope.”   – Pete Seeger
I’m worried now…but, I won’t be worried long.

The Rock Island Line Is the Road To Ride

7 Sep

Well, here’s the story about the Rock Island Line. You see, the Rock Island Line is a good road, but you need to pay a toll unless you have certain goods, like livestock. So, if you can just trick the man at the toll gate that you have livestock, you can go on through without paying a cent.

That’s the premise of a timeless set of lyrics that have adapted, evolved and survived for over 80 years. Yes, the Rock Island Line is a mighty good road. The Rock Island Line is the road to ride. The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road so da da da da da da da da da da da gosh this lyric is fast.

If you are a fan of American blues/folk music you definitely know “Rock Island Line,” a traditional piece recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and the blues man himself, Huddie Ledbetter (more famously known as Lead Belly). And, like is the case for most traditional songs, people often attribute song credits to the artist they first heard perform it. For the longest time, I thought Johnny Cash created the famous ditty. But I was educated. “Rock Island Line” has a history rooted in the prison gangs of Arkansas. Journey with me to find the first known versions of the song about the mighty good road.

Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar and extensive list of folk songs have made him one of the most revered early 20th century blues performers. He is also one of the first people to ever record “Rock Island Line.” There is controversy over the true foundations of this classic. What we do know is that folk/blues historians and preservers Alan and John Lomax heard the song at an Arkansas prison and recorded it. One version of the story has Alan and John Lomax hearing the song performed by convict composer Kelly Pace in 1934 at Cumins State Prison farm, Gould, Arkansas. It then states that Lead Belly heard and rearranged the piece and released his own version in 1937.

But while that version is cited in Alan Lomax‘s book The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, published in 1964, an analysis of Lomax’s old recordings at the Library of Congress proves that the song was actually recorded earlier at another prison in Little Rock, Arkansas. This time, Lead Belly is actually with the Lomax’s when they hear the song being sung a cappella by a prison work gang. Lead Belly wrote down the lyrics, rearranged it and recorded this:

Do note the laid-back folk style of the recording. Keep in mind the initial narration also (because this changes). First off, Lead Belly gives an explanation of how the train stops and says that the man does not want to stop the train.  This does not appear elsewhere. Lead Belly also describes more animals than other versions. Also, notice how Lead Belly makes no mention of the train speeding up prior to the song speeding up. But we do get the trickery of pig iron and this stays consistent. For those who have listened to newer versions, the lyric is certainly a bit different. The part that does stay constant is the hook:

The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road – The Rock Island Line is the road to ride – The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road – If you want to ride, you gotta ride it like you find it – Get your ticket at the station of the Rock Island Line.

Before every chorus repetition, Lead Belly sings something religious. For example, in this version he says, Jesus died to save our sins Glory to God I’m gonna see Him again. This is important, because it changes. Let’s move now to perhaps the most famous recording of the song (no not Johnny Cash).

Lonnie Donegan pretty much started the mid-late 50’s British skiffle craze with his sped-up, slightly changed recording of Lead Belly’s version of the  “Rock Island Line.” Skiffle, a blend of blues, jazz, folk music usually played with homemade instruments like washboards and tea-chest bass, became incredibly popular in this span of time. The Beatles emerged out of John Lennon’s skiffle band The Quarrymen. Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Roger Daltrey, Robin Trower, David Gilmour all played skiffle music before forming rock bands and creating some of the greatest music ever in the 60s. Yes, skiffle had quite the influence despite its humorous name. Anyway, back to Donegan.

I have one problem with Donegan. He received considerable music publishing royalties from “Rock Island Line” by claiming the British copyright on the unregistered song which was considered to be in the public domain. I understand that this was obviously a “good” move, but he did nothing to credit Lead Belly and, come on, give some credit to the guy! But besides that, Donegan’s version did inspire most of the other versions of the song because he really sped it up and gave it the fun swing we all know.

Donegan actually tells it like a story. He reads it like it was from a book. His narration is a little different from Lead Belly’s, but it keeps the same concept. And, like in Lead Belly’s song, we are in New Orleans. Donegan lists off less livestock than Lead Belly and he spells out the story a little more. He then speeds the train up, unlike Lead Belly. Then we are all tricked again because he has pig iron. You know, I have to stop trusting people who say they have livestock when they clearly have pig iron.

In the recording you can hear the washboard and tea-chest bass and this just adds to the song’s awesomeness. Also, quite importantly, the hint of religion that Lead Belly put in the song was shifted slightly by Donegan. He does mention the Lord seeing him again, but instead of two other pre-chorus religious statements, Donegan has one and he says, “ABC WXYZ, The cats on the cover but he don’t see me.”

All the religion is out of the song when Cash gets his hand on it.

Johnny Cash recorded “Rock Island Line” in 1957, probably because the Rock Island Line is really a mighty good road. Cash tells a similar story. And, guess what, he fooled you. He had pig iron. All pig iron. Damn, three times!

Here’s where things change. After the usual chorus Cash sings two pre-chorus’ that are completely different than the other versions. They are:

Looked cloudy in the west and it looked like rain
Round the curve came a passenger train
North bound train on the southbound track
he’s alright a leavin’ but he won’t be back

Oh I may be right and I may be wrong
But you gonna miss me when I’m gone
Well the engineer said before he died
There were two more drinks that he’d like to try
The conductor said what could they be
A hot cup of coffee and a cold glass of tea

Pretty cool touch if you ask me. So, that’s the story of the Rock Island Line. And to think, if the toll gate man wasn’t so gullible, the song would have never existed…and our sly conductor would be out some money for the toll.

The House of The Rising Sun – A Folk Evolution

28 Jun

All songs have stories. But some indelible classics have something beyond a mere story of creation. They have evolutionary histories. The transformation of early folk and blues songs into modernized favorites is extraordinary. These are songs that are not bound by copyright laws because they, like fairy tales, have been passed along from generation to generation, each manipulation furthering the song like a game of musical telephone. Lyrics and rhythms changed but the original melody, like the moral of a story, stuck. There was no basis for comparison up to the early 20th century when these folk and blues songs were finally recorded and preserved. This is how we know them today. Yet, the first recordings are not what the mass populace listens to. “The House of the Rising Sun” is an example of such a piece. While the 1964 version by the Animals is clearly the most known, the song’s first recording happened 31 years earlier, and the roots of the song stretch even further back.

Clarence Ashley

We will explore the disputed meaning of the song later in this post. For now, I want to provide a summarization of the recording history of “House of the Rising Sun” prior to the Animals’ version. Sound boring? It’s not. A lot of popular musicians recorded this song prior to the Animals and reading on will abet your quest to stump your friends on music knowledge.

Clarence Ashley was a clawhammer banjoist and guitar player from Tennessee. In 1933 he and fellow Appalachian artist Gwen Forest recorded a slow version of “Risin’ Sun Blues” (House of the Rising Sun) which I am including below:

Ashley said his grandfather taught him the song. Does not sound like The Animals, does it? The song is classic folk at its finest, twangy voice paired with a blues-inspired chord progression. The lyrics are significantly different than The Animals version. The Animals changed the song’s protagonist to a male. The traditional song is about a woman and her life with her “sweetheart,” a gambling drunk. The song acts as a warning to not make the same mistakes that she has made. The question is what is the house they call the “rising sun,” and I’ll ponder the two theories in a bit.

After Ahsley’s recording, the song was forgotten about until it was revived by Alan Lomax, the famous co-curator (with his father) of the Archive of American Folk Song. In 1937, Lomax recorded 16-year-old miner’s daughter Georgia Turner performing a version of the song. He would later incorrectly credit her with creating the lyric, even though her interpretation can technically be considered original, I guess. Nobody knows who created the original lyric. And it doesn’t really matter because I guarantee that if the original lyric was over located it would bear little resemblance to “The House of the Rising Sun” we know. This is the natural progression of traditional music.

The song would go on to be recorded throughout the 40s by performers like Josh White (’47), Leadbelly (’44) and the fascist killer himself Woody Guthrie, who recorded the song in 1941. Guthrie’s version maintains the same lyric as Turner’s interpretation, but the verses are in different places. This is a key difference because Guthrie’s version is closer to The Animal’s verse placement. You can definitely attribute some of this inspiration to Woody Guthrie. His version is below:

The song’s simplicity is a huge reason why it has been able to transcend so much time. The chord progression is

Am, C, D, F

Am, C, E, E7

Am, C, D, F

Am, E7, Am, E7

There is nothing else to this basic chord progression in the scale of A-minor.

Nina Simone

At the corner of Thompson and Bleecker street in Greenwich Village, New York, stood a club called The Village Gate and in 1961, Nina Simone recorded a jazzy version of “The House of the Rising Sun” that is one of the most powerful and intriguing performances of the song ever recorded. Yes, I do personally prefer The Animal’s picked take on the classic, but Simone’s version accentuates the full flavor of the song. It is passionate, despite its methodical pace.

The lyrical transformation is minor. The true change came with The Animals’ version.

Bob Dylan, who recorded “House of the Rising Sun” a few months after Simone’s live version (sparking controversy with Dave Van Ronk who was mentioned in yesterday’s post, but let’s not delve on petty music controversy), is said to have “jumped out of his seat” the first time he heard The Animals’ version of “The House of the Rising Sun.” He would also never play the song again because fans accused Dylan of plagiarism. That is what The Animals’ did with “The House of the Rising Sun.” They sped it up, masculinized the lyric, and made the song their own. Eric Burdon’s voice significantly helped create that bluesy aura, but the intelligent decision to pick the song mixed with the keyboard’s distinct presence made the song a classic and one of the first folk/rock songs of the 1960s.

Okay, we got it with the recording history. Where did the song come from? What is it really about? Well both of these questions come with numerous answers. Where the song came from really is narrowed down to two potential answers. According to Alan Price of the Animals, the song is a 16th century English folk song about a brothel. Many other British folk aficionados claim that the song has a similarity to “Matty Groves,” a traditional English folk song.

Others believe that the song is an American folk tale, but it is certainly not out of the question that the folk song was brought to American by early settlers and then revised to fit the time period. What is the house, though? Many believe it is, like Price said, a brothel. Obviously, since it is in New Orleans, the lyric has been transformed to fit the area where it was popularized. We can then conclude that the version that stuck was first imagined in New Orleans or with New Orleans in mind. This would place it somewhere in the early 19th century. There was a small, short-lived hotel called the “Rising Sun” in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1820’s that burned down. It is quite possible that it acted as a brothel as well.

Another theory states that the House of the Rising Sun is actually a women’s prison. Van Ronk says that he saw a picture of a the old Orleans Parish Women’s Prison and the entrance had a rising sun decoration. That seems almost too convenient.

The House of the Rising Sun could also be a reference to a plantation. Like I said, there are many different possibilities. Reviewing the earliest lyric, I can see the song being about a prison or a brothel.

Perhaps we should just all listen to New Orleans’ Williams Research Center Research Librarian Pamela D. Arceneaux who wrote:

“Many knowledgeable persons have conjectured that a better case can be made for either a gambling hall or a prison; however, to paraphrase Freud: sometimes lyrics are just lyrics”

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