Happy New Year everyone! Today’s the last run for the (Blues) Christmas Train, but don’t worry—there will be plenty of blues & trains on Robert Frost’s Banjo in 2010! For today, we’ve got three great songs for you, two of which prove you can construct an amazing tune using just one chord.
When you're done here, please consider visiting Eberle's Platypuss-in-Boots blog, where yours truly is making a guest appearance, along with an even more special guest star. In the meantime, hope you enjoy these tunes!
PEAVINE BLUES: This song begins, “I thought I heard that Pea Vine when she blows,” & as explain at shows when I perform it, this doesn’t refer to an exploding vegetable—it refers to the whistle on the Peavine train line. The Peavine was a branch of the Yazoo Delta Railway that ran from Dockery Plantation to Boyle; as we learned when we were listening to Patton’s “Green River Blues” earlier in this series, the Yazoo Delta was nicknamed the Yellow Dog.
“Peavine Blues” is one of my all-time favorite train songs, tho in all honesty only the first & last verses refer to the Peavine Railroad—the rest is about a woman who’s done Charlie Patton wrong, & how he’s gotten over it—“I cried last night, ain’t gonna cry no more.” It’s closely related to his song “Banty Rooster Blues” in terms of melody & also a characteristic riff he does on the bass string involving the minor third (or blues note). In fact, when Rory Block covered “Peavine Blues,” she mixes in some of the lyrics of “Banty Rooster Blues.”
This song, & the next in this list are two of the very greatest country blues numbers ever, at least for my money! Charlie Patton: The Best of Charlie Patton (Yazoo); Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder)
ROLLIN’ STONE 1 & 2: There’s a good chance you haven’t heard either "Rollin’ Stone" part 1 or part 2 or about its performer & composer, Robert Wilkins; I’m happy to remedy that! Some people have called this the greatest country blues song ever. Now, I’m of a non-hierarchical bent, so I’d never make that kind of claim for any song, but I’ll say this: it’s a deeply moving song, both in terms of its music & its lyrics.
It might further amaze you to learn that “Rollin’ Stone” is based harmonically on a single chord, tho Robert Wilkins does imply chord changes with his artful bass runs. The lyrics tell a tale of desertion & loneliness; the sort of emotions you associate with a train whistle in the night, or with looking down a stretch of train track. Trains signify several things in blues: the freedom to travel, the urge (sometimes, the compulsion) to move on—but behind the image there’s usually a stark loneliness, & it’s never captured any better than in this great song. Robert Wilkins: The Original Rolling Stone (Yazoo) or Memphis Blues 1928-1935 (Document)—the latter has the advantage (I think) of running the two parts consecutively on the album, whereas the Yazoo release separates them.
SMOKESTACK LIGHTNIN’: What better way to conclude this series than with this Howlin’ Wolf song? Again, we have a song constructed on a single minor chord—essentially, built on a riff. But “Smokestack Lightnin’,” with Wolf’s falsetto “boo-hoo” train whistle & driving beat is a classic.
Wolf explained the title as follows: "We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning." The song is based on an earlier Howlin’ Wolf song, “Crying at Daybreak,” which was itself based on Charlie Patton’s “Moon Goin’ Down.” It’s a fun song to play (& a surprisingly fun tune on the banjo), & has been covered by a slew of other musicians, including Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The AnimalsThe Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Soundgarden, Widespread Panic, & George Thorogood. Howlin’ Wolf: The Definitive Collection (Geffen Records)
The top pic shows an O gauge Lionel locomotive. The photo is by Flickr user JJW, who has posted it to Wiki Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.