Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)
When it comes to the mythopoetic bluesman, Tommy Johnson was the archetype. A rambling, hard-drinking, hard-loving guitar picker with one of the most distinctive and celebrated voices in blues history, Johnson stands in company with Son House and Charlie Patton as one of the genre’s most important early artists, head-hunting and juke-jointing in Dockery and across the delta a full eight years before Robert Johnson ever picked on record.
He was born 1896, near the small town of Terry, Mississippi, on the George Miller plantation. Fourteen years later, Johnson’s family moved to Crystal Springs, Mississippi, where Johnson’s older brother, LeDell, began to teach him how to play guitar. Johnson was soon playing parties with his brothers, Major and LeDell, to supplement the family income, but he stayed only two years, running away at age 16 to become a professional musician. Johnson’s freewheeling, impulsive nature and, in particular, the vices it helped him acquire would come to haunt him for the rest of his life.
After leaving Crystal Springs, Johnson began his career as an itinerant musician, picking up with the likes of Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, Ishman Bracey and a host of other blues legends, but never for long. Johnson only played when money was tight, or he simply felt like it, and exhibited little or no desire for self-promotion or furthering his career. He was busy. Johnson occupied the majority of his time with dogged womanizing or his favorite past-time, and what seemed like his life’s true passion, drinking. When the whiskey river ran dry, Johnson had two ways of getting his fix: he would drink denatured alcohol from a Sterno can, the type used today for heating chafing dishes, or common shoe polish. Both would be heated and strained through bread or a sock, and both would provide Johnson his necessary kick.
As Johnson was still young, his alcoholism was yet a hindrance. He was playing out and playing often, and, despite his own aversion to dogged promotion, was busy cultivating a legendary persona. He was the finest blues vocalist of his day. His voice, a trademark of his music, was remarkably nimble and could modulate from a soft whisper to a great, Patton-esque growl and upwards to a ghostly falsetto, more delicately attenuated than would seem possible when compared to any of his thunderous, preceding barks. Also like Patton, he could play the guitar between his legs, behind his head, and in a number of other crowd pleasing positions, screaming and hollering and howling without a break, throwing his axe into the air and catching it mid-number, but perhaps the most powerful aspect of Johnson’s newly cultivated public face, and certainly the most lasting, was his encounter with the devil.
You’ve heard it a thousand times. The crossroads myth. Well, it began with Johnson, and not Robert. Tommy. He told it himself many times to reinforce his abilities to new, unfamiliar audiences. Many, out of interest, picked up and began telling the story themselves. So began the myth of Johnson’s journey from Dockery to the crossroads, waiting there for the man until his arrival at Midnight, the man nimbly and quickly tuning Johnson’s guitar, rifling off a tune, passing it back to Johnson and, along with it, a comprehensive mastery of blues guitar.
After eight years of playing in and out of combos but primarily alone, honing a distinguished and awe-inspiring reputation as a Satanically-acquainted guitar picker with a library of classical blues delineations, several original compositions, and a throat that summoned at-once gravel and honey, Victor Records, later RCA Victor and then BMG, approached Johnson to make his first recordings.
He travelled to Memphis with his sometime-accompanist, Papa Charlie McCoy. There, in two sessions, he cut his first seven sides: “Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, “Big Road Blues”, “Bye-Bye Blues”, “Maggie Campbell Blues”, “Canned Heat Blues”, “Lonesome Home Blues” and “Big Fat Mama Blues”.
“Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, while not Johnson’s most famous song, is perhaps his most recognizable and influential, serving as a metaphor, in a sense, for Johnson’s complicated relationship with addiction.
Over an ebbing and flowing, hypnotically propulsive finger-picked progression, we hear Johnson’s otherworldly howl issue for the first time. “I asked for water,” he bawls, “then she gave me gasoline.” His voice trembles with the vibrato of a violin playing in the upper register. It is immediately arresting, haunting and spectral. Maybe more than any other Faustian musician, there is the suggestion of devilment in Johnson’s tone. Whether it be the devilment of his demons- an addiction to alcohol -or true soulless lament it is impossible to define, but it is easy to indentify the profound level of sadness with which Johnson sings of his woman woes, her mistreatment of him, and his dependence on the availability of high-strength alcohol of any nature: “Lord, Good Lordy, Lord / Cried Lord, I wonder / Will I ever get back home?” He continues on, using the metaphor of a poor man begging to “ride the blinds” of a train car in the hopes of making it home, but the Conductor denies his request and says, “this train is none of mine”. Johnson’s woes, it seems, are his own to remedy and, thus, destined to remain dry despite his tearful, falsetto plea.
“Canned Heat Blues” is arguably Johnson’s most famous. The centerpiece of Johnson’s first recording session, “Canned Heat Blues” is an upbeat, strum-heavy number ready for peaking the floor of the local juke joint. Like many a Johnson song, it details Johnson’s lament of his affinity for alcohol, particularly canned heat, and, presumably, the awful hangover one acquires after a raucous night on it. He begs for some relief, for someone to physically remove all of his pain and the substance itself, saying women don’t want a man on the heat and that, if not for it, he “never would die”, but the joy with which he sings his regrets, suggests that his wish is only half-hearted, and to dispatch of his canned heat he would very soon regret:
I woked up a-this mo’nin / With canned heat on my mind / Woke just this mo’nin’ / Canned heat was on my mind / Woke up this mo’nin / With the canned heat, Lord / On my mind
Cried, Lord / Lord, I wonder / Canned heat, Lord, killing me / Think alcorub is / Tearing apart my soul / Because brown-skin woman / Don’t do the easy roll
I woke up, a-this mo’nin’
Cryin’, canned heat ’round my bed / Run in here, somebody / Take these canned heat blues / Run here, somebody / An take these canned heat blues.
Cryin’, mama, mama, mama / Cryin’, canned heat killin’ me / Plead to my soul, Lord / They gon’ kill me dead.
It is clear what is meant when reading about Johnson’s love for the craft of blues music when compared to his love of alcohol. They are, in many ways, intertwined, both a subject of great inspiration and dedication, both playing and feeding off each other, but one true love reigns supreme: alcohol, Johnson’s tumultuous relationship with it and his desperate need to acquire it by any means necessary.
A year and a half later, after the Victor sides began to circulate the delta, Johnson was tapped again to record, this time by Paramount Records. Through the channel of an urging Charlie Patton, drinking buddy, on-again, off-again playing partner, constant competitor and collaborative, mutually dependent imitator of Johnson’s, Paramount convinced Johnson to come to Grafton, Wisconsin, where Patton and fellow delta inner-circler, the semi-professional Son House, recently recorded, and cut sides. They would be his last.
In Grafton, Johnson recorded nine sides in total, “Button Up Shoes”, “I Want Someone To Love Me”, “I Wonder To Myself”, “Slidin’ Delta”, “Black Mare Blues”, “Morning Prayer Blues”, “Boogaloosa Woman”, “Alcohol and Jake Blues” and “Ridin’ Horse”, bringing his total oeuvre to just sixteen songs. The songs from Johnson’s Grafton sessions would not prove to be nearly as successful, nor as lasting and influential, as those from his two Memphis sessions with Victor, but they are nonetheless excellent, masterfully composed, beautifully executed and hauntingly penetrative.
In the words of Emily Dickenson, Johnson did not stop for death. Why Johnson’s recording career was cut short at just sixteen songs is a story that fits in remarkably tight with not only the lore of his personal life, but the troubles of his immortal songs as well.
The Mississippi Sheiks, a popular and extremely versatile “jug” band of the time, recorded a song known as “Stop And Listen”. The song was very successful, but a team at Victor records, where Johnson had recently recorded, believed that the Sheiks had stolen their melody for the song from Johnson’s very popular, and to this day one of his best, “Big Road Blues”. The Victor folks brought about a copyright suit, to which Johnson was party, but he was apparently so drunk that, upon signing the final settlement, a decision in his favor, he believed, not knowing exactly what the document was, that he had signed away his right to record in perpetuity. For this reason, this supremely drunken mistake, Johnson never recorded another song. He continued to play parties, juke joints, and all manner of venues until his death, during a performance at a local house party, of a heart attack in 1956. Bonnie Raitt paid for his tombstone.
His music continues to influence countless artists, from the band Canned Heat, to the equally immortal Howlin’ Wolf, a former resident of Dockery, and Otis Spann (a familiar name around In The Dust). The Coen Brothers included his purported likeness in their 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
It is hard to say what is the stronger of Johnson’s legacies, his music or his personal life. His dealings with the devil are, of course, the stuff of legend, but as is his torrid love affair with alcohol. The substance was a greater influence on Johnson’s life and music than any other. It inspired his greatest songs, kept him from a full, lush career as the iconic blues musician he was destined to be, and ultimately caused his death. He lived hard and surprisingly long, with his canned heat at his side, the life of the consummate bluesman: dark, shrouded in myth and mystery, a drunk carouser of the highest verve, a heartbreaking, soul-stirring guitar-picker whose small but significant oeuvre, and unforgettable, chilling voice, are beyond compare.
Written by Ben Brundage
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
When most people today get to talking about the blues masters, they first mention names like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Further on into the conversation, you hear Elmore James, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House. Stick around a while longer and there’s Skip James, Charley Patton, Furry Lewis and Tommy Johnson. Take root at that table, settle in, and you get to Mississippi Fred McDowell, slide guitar master, renowned to those well-initiated, but relatively obscure to many.
Of course this conversational progression is by no means doctrine of blues hierarchy, but it is a fact that Fred McDowell is rarely mentioned in the same breath as many other early masters of the craft, despite the fact that he was their contemporary. This is not for lack of talent, but rather the unusual origin of McDowell’s blues that set him apart.
McDowell was born in 1904 in Rossville, Tennessee but eventually moved to Mississippi, working for a spell in a feed mill in Memphis and settling in Como, a town in a region known as ‘North Mississippi’, just to the east of the Delta. It is here McDowell lived and developed his own brand of the blues. He began playing slide guitar with a pocketknife, as did Henry Sloan (a man mentioned many times here, famous for playing the first blues W.C. Handy ever heard and writing the ubiquitous lyric, ‘goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog’). McDowell then graduated to a ground-down steak bone, for which he is famous, and eventually a true glass bottleneck. As played by McDowell, this brand of blues, referred to as ‘hill country’, is a slide-based, Delta-esque style that incorporates some of the finger-picking flourishes of East Coast, ragtime-influenced Piedmont blues, while emphasizing African traditions like droning and single chord “harmonic centers” played in repetition, rather than complicated chord changes and drastic variations movement to movement. Succeeded by the more modern artists of Fat Possum Records such as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell was arguably the first successful ‘hill country’ blues artist. He is widely regarded in deep blues circles as one of the most technically talented slide guitar players to ever slip on the bottleneck but does not often receive the same accolades as his contemporaries because of this slightly removed, heavily localized and “primitive” style.
Like many seminal blues artists active in the 20s and 30s, McDowell’s popularity subsided in the late thirties, concurrent to the approach of the Second World War, but a rise in the popularity of folk and blues music in the late fifties brought about an infamous rediscovery period for all music Americana, of which McDowell was a primary beneficiary. He recorded with the truly immortal Alan Lomax in 1959, which eschewed McDowell into a career renaissance. His music received state-of-the-art sonic treatment, rather than the hasty, acetate field recording he was used to. The uniqueness and virtuosity of McDowell’s sound showed through for the first time in crystal lucidity (a track recorded by Lomax from early in this period, indicative of the audio quality and guitar styling of the sessions, is “What’s The Matter Now?”, and well worth checking out). The records recorded by McDowell and Lomax proved immensely popular and he toured extensively as a result. Those recordings still stand today as some of the finest, most poised and truly remarkable tracks of his career.
One such record, Steakbone Slide Guitar, McDowell’s first solo electric album and one of the last he recorded before his death in 1972, exhibits the searing slide, soulful articulation and idiosyncratic, indefatigable spirit for which his music, and the man himself, is still revered.
The album opens with the blues standard, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, originally recorded in 1937 by John Lee Williamson (AKA Sonny Boy Williamson I). This song has been done and done and done by almost every bluesman under the sun, but McDowell, somehow, seems to imbue it with new life unlike any other rendition this author has heard. His acrid but immensely satisfying slide work elicits a kind of vibration deep in your mind’s center akin to floating in still waters. The hypnotic tweak and twang of his glass bottleneck, mimicking his vocal patterns in a songbird’s call-and-response, juxtaposes with a clean, sharp melodic attack his gruff, aged vocals, emulsifying into a strange, southern syrup tinged with the mellow sweetness of sugar cane and decades of toil’s salty tang.
McDowell proceeds to play several timeless blues standards, such as the first song he ever learned, “Big Fat Mama”, as well as “The Train I Ride”, “Get Right Church” and “Worried Life Blues”, billed here as “You Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore”, all in beautiful, skillful fashion, sliding up and down his open-tuned neck with a calm and practiced air, often embellishing with “talking slide”, a common but nonetheless impressive technique where the last, or last few, words of a particular phrase are dropped and replaced by a slide guitar’s approximate enunciation, fore-father to the modern talk box popularized by Peter Frampton and wah-wah pedals of Hendrix and countless funk acts.
The centerpiece of the record is a McDowell original, “What’s The Matter With Papa’s Little Angel Child?”. Perhaps the most classically ‘hill country’ of all the songs on the record, McDowell stays on a repetitive, finger-picked progression, circling doggedly the harmonic center, milking from it a churning, trance-like phrase which he intersperses with choice flourishes on his top strings, moving his thumb-heavy bass up a string or two but working still underneath, anchoring, pulling you deeper and deeper into the groove and out of your body. “I wonder what’s a-matter / With Papa’s little angel child? / She won’t come home / ‘Til twelve o’clock at night,” he cries, his guitar seething and writhing as if it were his rogue thoughts and he is wrestling with it, calling out in desperate agony like a snake charmer no longer in control of his serpent: “the meanest woman, lord, you’ve e’er seen.”
The album closes with the song for which McDowell is likely most well-known, “You Gotta Move”, a slow, twisting exhibition of slide mastery made famous by The Rolling Stones of their celebrated 1971 album, Sticky Fingers. McDowell, who was later clung to like a shark with so many suckerfish by the rock-and-rollers and blues-wannabe, rediscoverers-and-appropriators the 60s and 70s, famous declared, “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll.” He was reluctant to associate himself with younger pop acts, but taught the worthy, including Bonnie Raitt, with generosity and patience the ways of slide. Despite his aversion to rock-and-rollers, McDowell was flattered and delighted by The Rolling Stones remarkably faithful rendition of this song, and when listening to McDowell’s original, it is clear that The Stones went to great lengths to preserve the essence and tonal integrity of a master’s masterpiece.
Blues historian and music critic, Robert Palmer, wrote in his classic book, Deep Blues, about the truly subtle and almost imperceptible tonal intricacies of blues music, the bending of notes so delicately and precisely that a particular intonation is achieved, both vocally and instrumentally. A music thought by many uninitiated to be primitive, loose, even sloppy, Palmer argued is, in fact, extraordinarily and almost incomprehensibly complex, a somewhat mystical musical style built upon difficult techniques honed over years of physical and mental preparation, often born of a very specific upbringing, one of anguish, hard work and a complicated relationship with a very Southern brand of faith.
“You Gotta Move” is, in the author’s mind, perhaps the best example of that precise intonation. McDowell delivers a powerful, brilliant performance, but the magnitude of its brilliance could just as easily be confused for not giving a shit whatsoever. Somewhere in this gray area is the mystical allure of the blues, a seemingly relaxed, low-down and easy musical form that, once examined, becomes a convoluted abyss of names, genres, sub-genres, styles, apocryphal tales and astonishing skill. McDowell straddles that line better than most, laying back during “You Gotta Move” in a special sweet spot, “the pocket”, setting fire to shine soaked juke joints with the scorch of his slide and beckoning patrons to dance the building down with a cool, throaty holler.
Maybe it is the seemingly sleepy, sly, cock-eyed vibe of the droning ‘hill country’ blues that kept the genre and its artists so long from the popularity that other brands of other Southern blues experienced? Maybe it is their slightly removed position from the Delta, plantation-cum-blues Meccas Dockery and Stovall and the infamous Beale Street that held them back? Maybe it is the superficially simple use of the harmonic center that led audiences to gravitate to more apparently complex forms? What it is the author cannot say, but if exploring the vast musical tradition of the ‘hill country’ means digging deep into blues and its periphery, passing on the way the Blinds, the Johnsons and the Jameses, marooning oneself on a distant and reputedly “lesser” form of blues all in the name of finding one man who can make the guitar speak in a tongue you’ve never heard, then the answer is simple. You gotta move.
Written by Ben Brundage
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
Pops plays “The Father of The Blues.” Could it get much better? The answer, immediately apparent in the first three seconds of the album’s opener, “St. Louis Blues”, is found in seven notes from Armstrong’s horn: no, no, absolutely not.
W.C. Handy is a name that has been tossed around a few times in the history of In The Dust. It happens to be a very important one, particularly when concerning the blues. Popularly referred to as “The Father of The Blues,” Handy is most well known not for inventing the blues, but inventing its modern form and building the archetypal framework for cross-genre interpretations of the blues and visa versa. He introduced blues scaling, color and form into jazz music, a marriage that has stood the test of time and grown to become nearly one. Because of this, it is no surprise that Armstrong would select Handy as his subject of interpretation. However, when concerning Armstrong’s own personal history and musical development, it is a tad curious.
Armstrong grew up in a rough-and-tumble area of New Orleans known as “Back of the Town”. He attended a nearby boys’ school but did not last long. He dropped out at age eleven and joined a boys’ vocal quartet, but the unstructured, latchkey lifestyle led to trouble. Because of periodic delinquency, and firing a gun in a crowded square, Armstrong was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. It is here he learned how to play coronet, joining a military-style brass band with an emphasis on discipline and musicianship. Despite just learning the instrument, Armstrong quickly became bandleader, garnering considerable attention for his command of the instrument at such a young age. Armstrong graduated to playing in city brass bands and fell under the tutelage of the great Joe Oliver, better known as “King”, of King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band.
Armstrong remembers Oliver thusly:
It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right.
Armstrong credits Oliver as a father figure, and the one who taught him nearly everything he knows, joining Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922, the hottest and most popular New Orleans’ jazz band of the time, and playing with him off and on for the rest of Oliver’s career.
It is interesting to note that only three years later, in 1925, after Armstrong had moved to New York, joined Fletcher Henderson’s band and switched from the coronet to the trumpet, he played on Bessie Smith’s rendition of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” a recording that become of the most popular of the 1920’s and garnered Handy, and Smith, widespread fame and considerable pay.
Armstrong continued to revisit Handy’s work for the remainder of his career, and in full on this collection. Perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for reasons unbeknownst to the author, but, while Oliver’s influence is the one that dominates Armstrong’s sound, it is the work of Handy that dominates his oeuvre. This collection asserts that, maybe, it is because no one but Armstrong can play Handy so beautifully.
“St. Louis Blues,” the song that inspired the foxtrot, also known as “the jazzman’s Hamlet”, opens the record, beginning with a classically beautiful Armstrong fanfare that, despite the year of this album’s recording, 1954, seems right at home snaking over the undulating dance floor of Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom or Cotton Club. The tempo and color when compared to Handy’s 1912 recording is indicative of Armstrong’s recognition of the need to modernize, while retaining the song’s essence and an eye, always, on New Orleans, an impulse that followed him, more or less at times, throughout his career. In his horn and the thick, sultry vocals of Velma Middleton you smell the Pastis and taste the Sazerac as the mixture cascades down upon impossibly slowly, like molasses, until you are encompassed and saturated with joy.
“Yellow Dog Blues,” follows, a lazy-river blues that relieves the tension of the terrifically jubilant, 8:50, “St. Louis Blues,” and sets a deep, upright bass-heavy groove that shines a light on Armstrong’s beautifully quirky and remarkably infectious voice. Drunken horns laugh in the background, cracking blue jokes and downing bourbon with droll, harping clarinets as Armstrong issues references to classic blues lore of the “easy rider,” the “bole weevil”, the “cotton stalk” and even those immortal words W.C. Handy first heard at the Tutwiler Station, waiting for his train, on the infamous day he first heard the blues and the namesake of this song: “goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog”.
“Beale Street Blues,” a true slow-blues standout, opens with soft-lipped clarinets over a fat backbeat, Armstrong singing what is one of the author’s favorite lines in all of music, and, more importantly, the spirit of New Orleans: “You’ll see pretty browns / In beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades / and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men / and pick-pockets skilled / You’ll find that business never closes / Till somebody gets killed.” Armstrong unrolls his trademark vibrato like a red carpet unfurling, flapping and bouncing past drunks, bums, slinking adulterers, and down a gas-lit promenade. “If Beale Street could talk,” he growls, “if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two, who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner / Who sings the Beale Street Blues”. An image echoed in blues from Blind Willie McTell and a host of others to follows in Handy’s footsteps, “Beale Street Blues” is the familiar smell and the feel against your cheek of the cool side of the pillow on your first night back home after a long time away. Perhaps you have never been to Beale Street, or New Orleans, but this Beale Street, and the warm, bright and perpetually breathtaking solos of Armstrong, are there to greet you and assure you that you never really left.
Armstrong selects “Atlanta Blues (Make Me A Pallet On The Floor)” to close out the collection. The tempo, walking bass line and shuffling hi-hat of “Atlanta Blues” makes a sly, joker’s nod-and-wink to the emerging bebop movement before returning to the rapturous, Charleston-ing blues bounce of Armstrong’s New Orleans, “hot” jazz, Dixie sound. Featuring some of his most boisterous and emphatic solos, it is clear that this song, in classic New Orleans style, is Armstrong’s give-it-your-all send-off. “Just make me a pallet on the floor,” Armstrong repeatedly suggests, as playing like that would leave anyone bushed, and a pallet will suit his humble needs just fine.
And in grand style, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars draw their tribute to W.C. Handy to a close, Armstrong repeating, “So please, just make me a pallet on the floor,” for once the listener has concluded the last track in this collection, is it not the end of their time together. The curious timbre and lovable theatricality of Armstrong’s voice, the amazement at his unparalleled virtuosity and his friendly, comforting persona will stay with you, as the most welcomed and celebrated houseguest, for some time.
This is a record not to be missed, with a place in every jazz or blues lover’s collection. Handy first appropriated the blues for jazz in 1912. Louis Armstrong, in 1954, re-appropriates Handy for everyone, and in gratitude, respect and pure love, we devote to them, and their brilliant careers, as much space as they should like.