Monday, June 6, 2011

Candy Man (revisited!)

Happy Monday, folks!  If it’s Monday, this must be the Monday Morning Blues.

Last week, I wrote about Mississippi John Hurt’s song “Candy Man Blues” as part of the 10 Essential Delta Blues Songs series.  As regular reader Roy pointed out, there is another well-known “Candy Man” song in the tradition (& we’re not talking Sammie Davis, Jr or James Taylor here!), one that was either composed by or is at very least closely associated with the great ragtime/gospel guitarist & singer Reverend Gary Davis.  There was some question about connections between the songs, so I decided I’d do a bit of “dime store” ‘net research.

One thing is clear: Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candy Man Blues” is a copyrighted song—not even close to public domain, as it was copyrighted during Hurt’s “second career” in the 1960s.  The provenance of Reverend Gary Davis’ song is more ambiguous: some sources say it is “by” him, but give no copyright information (tho of course there are copyrights on various published arrangements & actual recordings), while other sources (the Sing Out songbook, for example) list the song as “traditional.”

I’m more familiar with the Davis’ tune myself simply because I’ve performed & even recorded that one, while I’ve only played around with Hurt’s song.  It’s also my impression (& I don’t have any “stats” on this) that there are more cover versions of the Davis’ song.  Musically, there are notable differences: Hurt’s song uses only two chords, with a variation on the tonic chord that "suspends" it at certain moments—for those not familiar with guitar chord lingo, that means substituting the “Fa” note of the scale for the “Mi” note of the scale when playing a major chord (in this case, substituting the note D for the note C#).  Hurt played the song in A, & in addition to A & A suspended (which change happens quickly), there is also an E chord, typically a “dominant seven,” which means that the note D is included in the chord.  There is a characteristic “break”—an instrumental passage—in which Hurt plays the same two chords “up the neck.”

Davis’ song is a three-chord song, & like the typical three chord song, it contains the tonic chord (the chord that harmonizes the Do note of the scale, also called the I), as well as the IV & V chords (which harmonize the Fa & Sol notes of the scale).  Davis played the song in C.  One characteristic of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Candy Man” is that the 6th note of the respective scales (the “La” note) is played frequently against both the tonic chord & the V chord.  A lot of the song’s particular sound comes from this.

The underlying subject matter is the same in both songs: a “Candy Man” is a gigolo, & both songs are clearly about such a person.  Hurt’s song is fairly graphic, & discusses the Candy Man’s physical endowment in some detail; Davis’ song (depending on which set of lyrics is being used) can get positively surreal. 

Of course, the whole point of this ultimately is what great songs they both are!  You can hear Hurt’s version of his song here on last week’s post, & I’ve also posted three (count ‘em!) versions of the Davis tune here.  The first is a short instrumental version by Davis himself (I’ve read that he didn’t like to sing his more “profane” songs later in life, tho other sources say that was only true when his wife was present); the second is a wonderful cover version by a great guitarist & singer in his own right (who was at one time a student of Reverend Gary Davis), the late Dave Van Ronk.  Finally, there’s the sublime Taj Mahal version from his Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home double album.  Taj Mahal plays it on the banjo, which I love (I’ve also started performing the song on the banjo), & interestingly, while he stays reasonably close to the Davis’ melody, he does insert one verse based on Hurt’s lyrics.



  1. Great stuff, John! It was interesting to hear the three different takes on the song.

  2. Hi Roy: Thanks! Glad you liked it, & thanks for the comment that started it off!

  3. Another half-hour plus . . . this time exploring Von Ronk on YouTube. What a gift. Thanks.

    I'm afraid I still prefer Hurt's version of Candyman, maybe just because it's the first I ever heard (and because I'm charmed by Miss Pizzuti's version at

  4. Hi Banjo52: Wow, I'll have to check out the banjo version of Hurt's song--that sounds really interesting! More banjo here tomorrow!


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