Happy Monday &, coincidentally, happy July 4th. I’m kicking off a new Monday Morning Blues ongoing series that will join with 10 Essential Delta Songs & Any Woman’s Blues. Over the next year, I’ll be running a series of monthly posts featuring different versions of the song “Poor Boy Long Way from Home,” AKA “Poor Boy Blues,” AKA “Poor Boy” (with variant spellings.)
Why select this song as a focus? Well, for starters, the 1928 Ramblin’ Thomas version is one of my all-time favorite songs. But in addition to that, there’s a fair body of scholarship that considers “Poor Boy,” in some manifestation, to be one of the oldest blues songs—& I’ve found a dozen distinct versions on YouTube with release dates between 1926 & 2004. Now that covers some musical history, & will show off various ways that blues songs have been approached almost since the first days of commercial recordings. I believe the series will be fun & maybe even instructive. The different versions will post in chronological order by recording date.
The first recording of “Poor Boy” that we know about was made by Bo Weavil Jackson for Paramount Records in 1926. Paramount was a major “race records” label & is responsible for producing some big hits by major 1920s stars like Blind Lemon Jefferson & Ma Rainey. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Paramount was renowned for poor production & even poor materials, & the sound quality on the old Paramounts typically is poor. Marybeth Hamilton writes about this (& many other topics of interest) in her excellent In Search of the Blues (Basic Books.)
Bo Weavil Jackson was discovered as a street musician in Birmingham, Alabama & brought to Chicago to make the recordings (he also recorded some sides for Vocalion under the name Sam Butler.) These recordings were made thru an acoustic horn—not thru microphones!—& so the sound quality is poor. But—in addition to some excellent guitar playing that's not completely overshadowed by the audio quality—there are interesting things to note about Bo Weavil Jackson’s version of “Poor Boy.”
For example, it surprised me a bit that the chord changes of what became known as a typical 12-bar pattern are so clearly articulated. Some later versions of “Poor Boy” are much more one-chord modal pieces, & a fair number of early recorded blues slide songs follow that pattern. Some blues historians tend to draw an almost evolutionary development from the single chord song thru songs that contained both the tonic chord & the V chord (or sol chord) on thru to more & more "modern" sounding 12-bar patterns, which have at least three chords & sometimes add additional ones when the song "turns around" from one verse to the next.
But the more one reads of blues history the more one realizes assumptions & generalizations—even ones that have been accepted as “fact” among blues fans & even blues musicians for the past 50 years—are often gross over-simplifications, & sometimes simply manufactured out of whole cloth! In this case, even tho the chord changes are indicated by fragments, the 12-bar pattern is present on a version that pre-dates at least one famous modal version!
Hope you enjoy this, & please stay tuned for more “Poor Boy Long Ways From Home!”
Photo at the top of the post shows James Jackson, AKA Bo Weavil Jackson, AKA Sam Butler