Merry Christmas to everyone who keeps the holiday, & happy Friday to those who don’t! It’s a lovely winter day here in Idaho, tho very cold. Eberle & I saw Christmas come in at Marymount Hermitage, where we played music for the Christmas Eve midnight mass & I got to break in a brand new banjo! More on that later on, but now hope you enjoy these blues songs that the Christmas Train is bringing into the station.
LONG TRAIN BLUES: This song is by one of the unquestionably greatest blues guitarists & singers ever, tho his name may not be familiar to many. Robert Wilkins was born in 1896 & lived to be 91 years old. Wilkins was not the prototypical bluesman, haunted by demons of various descriptions. He was apparently abstemious in his habits even before he gave up secular music in 1930 & became an ordained minister. He did continue to play gospel music after this, & even changed the lyrics to one of his best known songs, “That’s No Way to Get Along,” renaming it “Prodigal Son”—the Rolling Stones later covered this, & the song also heavily influenced Led Zeppelin’s “Poor Tom.”
“Long Train Blues” is curiously upbeat in terms of tempo, & its bright melody belies the tale of a lover whose woman has left him on “the longest train she seen.” The second verse is a “floating lyric” that is similar to one found in Tommy Johnson’s “Bye Bye Blues” (a different song than the old standard of the same name:
“It's two bullyin' freight trains runnin' side by side
It's two bullyin' freight trains runnin' side by side
They done stole my rider and I guess they're satisfied”
Check out Wilkins’ guitar playing—some intricate fingerpicking mixed with interesting riffs. His guitar work is always first rate, tho it doesn’t have the pyrotechnic qualities of a Robert Johnson or Skip James. & by the way: check in on Wednesday’s final installment of The (Blues) Christmas Train for Wilkins performing one of the very greatest blues songs ever! Robert Wilkins: The Original Rolling Stone (Yazoo)
LOVE IN VAIN: Here’s another great blues tune that was later covered by the Rolling Stones, Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” As in “Long Train Blues,” again the lover watches his woman leave him on a train, tho Johnson’s song is starker than Wilkins’, both lyrically & melodically. In fact, “Love in Vain” showcases some of Robert Johnson’s songwriting strengths—his choice of details in the lyrics is superb, with the great verse about the train’s lights:
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
The song’s structure is based on Leroy Carr’s “In the Evenin' When the Sun Goes Down,” but just as Johnson makes Skip James or the Mississippi Sheiks musical material his own in songs like “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Come on in My Kitchen,” the musical style is unmistakably Robert Johnson. The song was autobiographical, & records his emotions at the end of a love affair with one Willie Mae Powell; in fact, we see Willie Mae, now elderly, listening to the song in the film The Search For Robert Johnson. As with all of Johnson’s recordings, this is essential listening for anyone with an interest in the blues. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Sony)
MOON GOIN’ DOWN: We wrap up our Blues Christmas Train installment with the great Charlie Patton. Patton’s singing & playing are elemental—if the term “force of nature” could be used to describe a musician, it certainly fits him. It’s also impossible to overstate Patton’s influence as a renowned player in the area of the Dockery Plantation; he played with Son House & Willie Brown & many others, & was known to Robert Johnson & such later players as Howlin’ Wolf & John Lee Hooker.
“Moon Going Down” doesn’t create a narrative as much as a landscape—this can be said of a number of older blues tunes, with their use of “floating lyrics.” The train references in “Moon Going Down” don’t come up until the fourth verse: “Lord, I think I heard the Helena whistle.” Some have speculated that this may refer to a steamboat rather than a train; however, the next verse is a floating lyric: “Well, the smokestack is black & the bell it shines like gold.” As far as I know, the latter verse always refers to trains in other songs, which makes me think the “Helena whistle” also is a train reference. Helena, Mississippi is a town in the delta region; Robert Johnson also mentions it in “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.”
Patton recorded this song in 1930 in Grafton, Wisconsin; Son House, Willie Brown & Louise Johnson accompanied Patton to Wisconsin & also made recordings at this time. Rory Block also does a powerful version of “Moon Going Down.” Charlie Patton: The Best of Charlie Patton (Yazoo); Rory Block: Best Blues & Originals (Rounder)
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