We’re here today with the penultimate installment in our “10 Essential Delta Blues” series. To reiterate: this list is not intended as the 10 essential Delta blues tunes, but rather a list that might be used as a starting point to appreciate this music. I’ve also tried to show that there was more diversity in the music played in this region than simply the “deep” or “heavy” sound associated with the Charlie Patton & Son House circle.
But we’re only talking 10 songs, so there are bound to be omissions. In fact, I debated a good deal between “Roll & Tumble Blues” & some song coming out of the “Sitting on Top of the World” family of tunes—in addition to “Sitting on Top of the World” itself (as recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks & later by Howlin’ Wolf), the latter also includes Tampa Red’s “You’ve Got to Reap What You Sow,” Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” & Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You’ve Got to Move.”
But I finally decided on “Roll & Tumble Blues” as recorded in 1929 by Hambone Willie Newbern. The fact is, you could easily do a whole series on songs that have been based on this tune. Here’s a partial list:
- Minglewood Blues: Cannon’s Jug Stompers
- Roll & Tumble Blues: Hambone Willie Newbern
- Rolling & Tumbling: Muddy Waters
- Louisiana Blues: Muddy Waters
- Rollin’ & Tumblin’: Elmore James
- If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day: Robert Johnson
- Traveling Riverside Blues: Robert Johnson
- Brownsville Blues: Sleepy John Estes
- The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair: Sleepy John Estes
- Goin’ Back to Memphis: Sunnyland Slim
- Down in the Bottom: Howlin’ Wolf
- Gravel Road Blues: Mississippi Fred McDowell
- Red Sun: Johnny Shines
- Fireman Ring the Bell: RL Burnside
Interestingly, these artists & others claim copyright not only on the words (which differ from song to song) but also on the music!
What makes “Roll & Tumble Blues” so musically distinctive? Here’s a pithy quote from Wikipedia:
The chordal structure…departs significantly from that of twelve-bar blues. The defining feature of the song is that each verse begins on the IV chord, which after two measures resolves to the I chord.
Now if the song is played in G (& open G is a common tuning for “Roll & Tumble,” which is typically played slide style), this means the song starts on a C chord rather than on a G chord. What Wikipedia says is essentially true, tho as is often the case with blues songs from this region, the “chords” are fragmentary. The way many players articulate that “C” chord is only partially recognizable as a C major triad, simply because the note C often isn’t played, just G & E!
In any case, Hambone Willie Newbern recorded the first version of the song in 1929 for OKeh records. Newbern, who was from Brownsville, Tennessee (hence, not from the Delta region as it’s usually defined) & played with Sleepy John Estes & Yank Rachell, only recorded six songs, all waxed at one session for OKeh in Atlanta in March 1929.
Hope you enjoy the song, & stay tuned for the final installment in this series, which is scheduled to post on September 5th. If you’ve been following along & are familiar with Delta blues, I suspect you can guess who the artist will be for that song!