A happy Monday to you! Let’s get right to it, because I’ve got a great song for you in the 10 Essential Blues series, plus several links to other versions for the curious & adventurous.
As I’ve mentioned before, the way we conceptualize “Delta blues” is problematic—music historians who’ve written about this such as Elijah Wald & Mary Beth have each made a strong case that earlier musicologists & blues enthusiasts tended to romanticize the music from the Delta & the musicians who made it. Still, given that, we still find images in our mind conjured up by the term “Delta blues.” For me, one of the first images is a National guitar—a visual & aural image, because I hear that guitar being played with a slide. In fact, I hear that guitar being played by Son House.
If we are speaking of “the Delta blues” in terms of the concept formalized by the early record collector enthusiats or by Robert Palmer’s seminal (if now contested) book, Deep Blues, Son House is certainly one of a small handful of musicians most closely associated with the music, along with Charlie Patton & Robert Johnson. So there was no question about a Son House song being on the list.
& since these are “essential” songs, I decided on “My Black Mama,” recorded in two parts at a session for Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin in 1930. The song was recorded in two parts simply because recording technology at the time limited the time on a single performance to under four minutes—thus, a number of old blues songs took both sides of a 78 & were recorded as separate takes. Of the five songs House recorded during that session, three were two-part recordings.
Why is “Black Mama” essential? I’d consider it so because at least three other great blues songs are closely based on its musical setting & lyrics. These are: Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues,” Muddy Water’s “Country Blues,” & Son House’s own later re-working of the song, “Death Letter Blues.” Clicking on each song title will bring you to a YouTube version. You can also hear a wonderful version of “Walking Blues” by R.L. Burnside here.
As is the case with many of Son House’s songs, “My Black Mama” is simple. It follows a basic Delta blues pattern in that it only hints at the changes to the IV & V chords. For non-musicians, blues songs often follow a specific chord change pattern in which there are regular changes from the root or “Do” chord (for instance, if a song is in G, as is the case with “My Black Mama,” the G chord) to the corresponding chords four & five tones away—the “Fa” & “Sol” chords—in this case C & D. It’s worth noting—if not stressing—that this pattern in fact was variable, especially in earlier blues songs, & particularly in blues songs played slide style.
There are particular licks associated with the “My Black Mama/Walking Blues” set of songs—among other things, these involve a particular “bent note” on the guitar’s fifth string (a bent note occurs when the guitarist stretches a string with sideways finger pressure to raise the pitch; the pitch may be raised a full step or more or—especially in the blues—raised a partial interval); there’s also a characteristic slide up to the tonic note on the first string on an “offbeat” (in other words not on “1, 2, 3 or 4” but on an “and” in between the main beats.)
From a lyrical standpoint, “My Black Mama” is a jumble of images & narrative fragments that never seem to really cohere. The derivative songs are all more focused in terms of their lyrics—because of this, I’d originally thought of using “Death Letter Blues” as the Son House song. But I decided that the “original” was the way to go. Of course, calling any old blues song “an original” is reckless. There were other contemporary songs dealing with similar themes: for instance, Ishman Bracey’s "Trouble Hearted Blues," Ida Cox’ "Death Letter Blues", Robert Wilkins’ "Nashville Stonewall," & Blind Willie McTell’s "On The Cooling Board." & it’s also worth noting that House recorded a song titled “Walking Blues” at the same Grafton session, but the song was never released. Was this song itself closely related to “My Black Mama” (perhaps so close in sound that Paramount decided not to release both?)
Great music! Hope you enjoy it.