Friday, January 22, 2010
Friday Blues Jukebox #2
Happy Friday, everybody, & time for another Blues Jukebox. These songs aren’t tied together by any theme, but they all feature some amazing guitar work & vocals—really breathtaking in each case. So, without further ado, let’s get to the music!
Mississippi Fred McDowell: Goin’ Down to the River
Mississippi Fred McDowell is probably the least well-known of the three artists represented in today’s offering, but his powerful slide guitar work is some of the best you’ll hear. McDowell’s playing is interesting in that it has a more modal, droning sound than the “standard” 12-bar blues, which is very much based on the pattern of tonic, subdominant & dominant chord changes. Of course, the more one looks into the old acoustic blues, the more one realizes that the 12-bar pattern was just one of many followed by these artists; &, as I pointed out in one of the Blues Xmas Train posts, McDowell isn’t alone in favoring the drone over the chord change—Robert Wilkins & Howlin’ Wolf (among others) both have one-chord songs built on a modal riff.
But enough music theory—this song is just too good to pass up!
Available on: Mississippi Fred McDowell: Mississippi Fred McDowell (Rounder)
Robert Johnson: Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the early blues knows that Robert Johnson has a reputation as one of the very best guitar players in that style; & among his many fine songs, it would be hard to choose one that outdoes “Preaching Blues” for sheer pyrotechnics. After a brief introductory turnaround, Johnson launches into the sort of slide & shuffle performance that caused many folks, on first hearing his recordings, to believe that two guitarists were playing. Johnson’s singing always is first-rate, but in my opinion, this is one of his very greatest vocal performances.
“Preachin’ Blues” is unquestionably a re-working of Son House’s “Preachin’ the Blues,” but it’s a very thorough re-working both in terms of music & lyrics. House’s song explores the way in which he’s torn between religion & the blues. He sings: “Oh, I'd-a had religion to this every day, but the women whiskey, they would not let me pray.” House also suggests that blues has supplanted organized religion for him: “I'm a-preach these blues, and I, I want everybody to shout.”
Johnson takes this at least one step further—in his case, there’s no explicit comparison between the blues & organized religion—for him, the blues is a supernatural force that’s controlling his life:
“The blues, is a low-down shakin' chill
(spoken: Yes, preach 'em now)
Is a low-down shakin' chill
You ain't never had 'em I, hope you never will”
This is further personified in the great opening line: “I was up this mornin', ah, blues walkin' like a man.”
“Preachin’ the Blues” is one of Johnson’s best songs—do check it out!
Available on: Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (Sony)
Skip James: I’m So Glad
If you only know “I’m So Glad” thru Cream’s cover version, you must listen to Skip James’ original version. Not only is the original quite different in feel from the Clapton-Bruce-Baker cover, but it’s undoubtedly one of the premier fingerstyle guitar performances by any blues artist. Period. James’ playing on this song will leave you reeling—the fact that his guitar accompaniment provides a backdrop for a brilliantly powerful vocal just makes the song that much more—what’s the right word? Intense—James’ music is always intense & complex & edgy, & this is one of his greatest songs. I can listen to his
Available on: Skip James: The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (Yazoo)
Pic shows Skip James (with guitar) & Mississippi John Hurt