Check out this episode of Meet the Music: A Capella to Zydeco.
If you happen to be new to the blues, then here’s your way in. Seven classic songs to get you started on what will be a life-ling appreciation!
“Dr. Burnett shares a little history of the Blues and his deep love for the Blues. In our conversation, we discussed the impact of women blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Memphis Minnie. Listen as Dr. Burnett lists his suggested artists and songs for new listeners.”
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And here are my seven recommendations for getting started in listening to the blues:
Robert Johnson: Kind Hearted Woman, recorded in 1936, just a couple of years before he died as a young man of 27, poisoned, it seems by a jealous husband. Johnson was a jaw-droppingly good guitarist and a fine singer. He only recorded 29 songs, but Johnson has probably been the most influential blues artist on the whole of rock and roll. Eric Clapton says Johnson was his most formative influence and he has a great version of Kind Hearted Woman on his Me and Mr Johnson album from 1996. Keb’ Mo’ who is one of today’s great blues artist also has a fine version on his 1994 Keb’ Mo’ album.
Blind Willie Johnson: The Soul of A Man recorded in 1930. Willie Johnson was an exponent of gospel blues, and his slide playing, which he did with a penknife, was just outstanding. He’s a remarkable singer, at times a sweet tenor, at other time utterly raw. His music is making its way around the universe on the Voyager space probe launched in 1977 on a golden disk containing a sample of earth’s music. Quite what aliens might make of Johnson’s eerie slide playing and moaning on his song Dark Was the Night, is anyone’s guess! (Check out Tom Waits’ version of Soul of a Man on the 2016 tribute album, God Don’t Never Change, with various artists including Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Lucinda Williams, and Luther Dickinson.)
Mississippi John Hurt: Louis Collins John Hurt was a sharecropper who recorded some songs in 1928, which were not terribly successful. He was then rediscovered in 1963 and recorded a number of albums and performed on the university and coffeehouse concert circuit before he passed away. By all accounts he was a lovely man, and his guitar playing is just delightful. (The version here is Lucinda Williams with Colin Linden on guitar on a tribute album called Avalon Blues. Check out also Rory Block’s tribute album – just her and her guitar, also Avalon Blues)
Memphis Minnie: In My Girlish Days. Before the men began playing the blues, it was the women who were the big stars – women like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey. Memphis Minnie was a performer, a guitar player and singer, mostly in the 1930s and 40s. The poet Langston Hughes described her electric guitar as “a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill” – but she was quite a talent. I’ve gone for her In My Girlish Days. You can hear a great version of this on Rory Block’s 2020 album, Prove it on Me, where she plays tribute to the women of the blues. Rory Block is an outstanding acoustic guitar player, and check out also her tribute to these women in her 2018 album, A woman’s Soul: a Tribute to Bessie Smith.
B.B. King: The Thrill Has Gone. This is B.B. King’s signature tune. King was a great singer, but an outstanding guitarist – one of those guitar players where you can tell who it is from just hearing a single note. The song is on a number of albums, but you can find it on a 2006 album of the same name, along with other great B.B. King numbers.
Muddy Waters: Hootchie Cootchie Man.Recorded in 1954. Muddy Waters is known as the father of Chicago blues. He was a Mississippi sharecropper who moved to Chicago in the 1940s and popularized electric blues. He has been a hugely influential figure on rock’n’roll, and the insistent riff that drives Hootchie Chootchi Man is one of the most famous in all blues music. Eric Clapton has a great version on his 1994 From the Cradle album.
Allman Brothers Band: Statesboro Blues on At Fillmore East from 1971 is an old Blind Willie McTell song. Bob Dylan has a famous song which says, nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell. The Allman Brothers’ version has become a classic version of the song and rightly so, featuring Duane Allman’s fabulous slide guitar playing.
Larkin Poe: God Moves on the Water, on 2020’s Self-Made Man. Larkin Poe are two exceptionally talented sisters, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, both amazing guitarists and wonderful singers. They really bring the blues up to date with their own compositions and the way they cover old blues songs. And they are one of the most exciting bands you’d see live. God Moves on the Water is an amended version of an old Blind Willie Johnson song.
Christmas is coming, and if you’re a music fan, you’ll want to drop a few hints to Santa. Here are seven books you’ll definitely want in your stocking:
Michael Corcoran, Ghost Notes: Pioneering Spirits of Texas Music
What a sumptuous feast of a book this is. Coffee table sized, lavishly illustrated, and utterly engaging, it oozes quality from the standard of the writing to the beautiful quality of paper. With Corcoran’s engaging stories highlighting the careers and contributions of a wide variety of pioneering Texas musicians, you begin to realize how important and formative Texas is for American music. Top of your Christmas list. Read our review. Buy it here.
Annye C. Anderson, Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson
Memories of Robert Johnson from Annye Anderson, Johnson’s almost sister, which introduce us to the Robert Johnson we never knew. A wonderful evocation of a time and place. For any music fan, and particularly if you’re a blues fan, this book is a must-read.
Adam Gussow, Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and the Future of Music
Blues harp master and professor of the blues, Gussow, asks an important question of every blues fan – who do the blues belong to? Expertly and sensitively written by a man who has spent his musical career learning from and playing with black musicians.
Ian Zack’s biography of Odetta is masterful, as he charts the life of this seminal cultural figure who helped spark the folk revival and became a vital part of the protest movements of the 1950s and 60s. She was on the front line of the struggle for equality in America, combatting racism through her music and actions. An important book and a great read. Full review to come.
Check out also Ian Zack’s excellent biography of Rev. Gary Davis, Say No to the Devil. Here’s our review.
Freeman Vines, Hanging Tree Guitars
Freeman Vines, born in 1942 in Greene County in North Carolina is the focus of a quite remarkable book, written by Zoe Van Buren and featuring a stunning set of photographs of Vines, his guitars and his environment by Timothy Duffy. The focus of the book is on one particular aspect of Vines’s life – his crafting of guitars from a tree near where he lived that had been used for lynching. Don’t miss the companion music album. Read our interview with Freeman Vines. Buy it here.
Gary Golio & E.B. Lewis, Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars
Another beautifully illustrated book (by E.B. Lewis), and cleverly written by Golio, guaranteed to engage the interest of small children. That’s no small feat, given the harshness of Willie Johnson’s life, a man blinded as a child, who lived in poverty and died penniless in the ruins of his burnt-down home. For parents who’d like their children to encounter something of America’s musical heritage, this, really is a must-buy. Highly recommended. Read our review. Buy it here.
Gary W Burnett, The Gospel According to the Blues
It’s been out for a while, but no matter – it’s mine and I’m gonna recommend it! “The Gospel According to the Blues is at once a primer in American music, culture, and race and religious history. Gary Burnett moves deftly from lyrics to theory and back again, from Blind Lemon Jefferson to the insights of contemporary scholarship. Highly readable, thoroughly researched, and with deep respect for the art form on every page. For best results, read with scratchy vinyl recordings of the masters as accompaniment.” An interview with the author and more details here.
I’ve been listening to the latest album by Larkin Poe, Self-Made Man, and there’s a great track on it called Holy Ghost Fire. You tend to get a few references to the Bible in a Larkin Poe album, not doubt reflecting the sisters background in the Southern Bible Belt.
“Who’s gonna help me carry my load
Burn, burn baby burn with that Holy Ghost Fire
From your fingers to the frets…gonna testify.”
It’s raw, apocalyptic sounding stuff, conjuring up images of wild Pentecostal exuberance. Exuberant joy, is of course, the mark of the Spirit moving – it seeps through the Bible’s pages, even though you wouldn’t think it when you attend most churches today. Kenny Meeks’s song, When Jesus Takes You Dancing, catches the exhilaration of all this on his 2016 bluesy Americana album, New Jerusalem. “When Jesus takes you dancing…the Holy Ghost takes over you and sets you all on fire…”
You get the same holy dancing in Beth Hart’s Spirit of God from her 2012 album, Bang Bang Boom Boom which takes us on a rockin’ journey from Beth’s house to the house of God where she goes “hip shakin’ down the aisle”, then “breaking bread with my own special style”. Spirit of God worship is clearly not the sombre sit-in-your-pew, be quiet and sleep through the sermon version which is served up in too many churches. In Beth’s church, it’s a “soul celebration,” where the preacher’s “goin’ crazy…knocking devils down on the floor,” the choir is “giving it up to the Lord,” and Beth knows she’s sure “feeling something!”
The Holmes’ Brothers Speaking in Tongues from their eponymous 2001 album, gives us more Pentecostal action:
“You got me speaking in tongues, speaking your name,
Lord let me understand you
You got shaking my head, lifting my hands…”
Think it’s strange? Sister Rosetta Tharpe was singing in 1944 about the strange things that happened every day when God’s on the move. People might get healed:
“There are strange things happening everyday
He gave the blind man sight
When he praised Him with all his might
There are strange things happening everyday.”
Songs about the Holy Spirit in the blues go back to Blind Willie Johnson, with his Latter Rain. The lyrics of this are often misunderstood. You need to appreciate that for Willie Johnson’s Pentecostal church, the latter rain was the rain of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophet Joel had prophesied. Joel was quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit fell on the first group of Jesus followers – “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” But Joel also talked about the early rain and the latter rain. The early Pentecostal believers like Willie Johnson believed that what they were experiencing was a fresh shower of the Spirit’s blessing – the latter rain, as opposed to the early rain that had fallen on the first believers. “It’s for you, it’s for you, it’s for you and your children too,” go the lyrics, reflecting the prophet Joel’s word.
Spin forward another 25 years and you have the Rev. Gary Davis singing I Heard the Angel Singing, where the “Holy Ghost on fire” fell on him, and he “got in the Spirit and began to shout.” The devil tries to stop him praying, but the singing of the angels spur him on. Eric Bibb has a great version of this song. [check out, too Eric’s Spirit and the Blues album]
Larry Norman, father of Jesus rock in 1972 wondered “why should the devil have all the good music?” He’d been filled with the Spirit, he sang, “I feel OK, because Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away.”
And bang up to date, we have the Mason Creek Project’s Holy Spirit Blues. “Everytime I feel the Spirit, I feel like dancin’ in my shoes.”
Giving a slightly different different angle is this great Kelly Joe Phelps song, The Holy Ghost Flood. There are no fireworks in Kelly Joe’s beautiful song, featuring his characteristic and wonderful guitar picking, just a recognition of his own need: “Oh Lord a sinner I am, Asking you to forgive me.” He needs a “flood” of the Holy Spirit, of God’s presence which means:
“Blessing us in kind,
Leaving not a soul behind.”
According to Pew Research, Pentecostalism and related “charismatic movements” represent one of the fastest-growing segments of global Christianity, with around a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians. They celebrate the gift of the Spirit in exuberant worship and a keen sense of God’s Spirit at work in their everyday lives.
Actually, this pretty much reflects the early Christian movement that we read about in the New Testament. These early communities were communities of the Spirit where the speaking in tongues, healing and prophesying we’ve seen in the songs above, were a regular feature of their worship. As were other Spirit inspired ways of life like love, patience and kindness.
Maybe it’s time to let the Spirit move and go with Beth Hart “hip shakin’ down the aisle.” Something to try next Sunday morning you’re at church!
There have been a lot of excellent tribute albums to blues artists over the past twenty years. We’ve chosen 16 excellent albums, some by just one artist covering the music of another artist from the past, and some with various artists covering the songs. In each case, the new artist has both re-interpreted the songs and kept the spirit of the originals intact, honouring the legacy of the original artist.
Billy Boy Arnold, Sings Big Bill Broonzy (2012)
Veteran blues harp player Arnold turns in a very fine acoustic guitar driven tribute album to the great Bill Broonzy. Broonzy had a very long and varied career as a musical artist, after life as a sharecropper, preacher and soldier. He copyrighted more than 300 songs along the way and had a wide range of songs in his performing repertoire including ragtime, country blues, urban blues, jazz, folk songs and spirituals. Arnold gives us 15 classic Broonzy country blues numbers.
Rory Block Avalon, A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt (2013)
Rory Block is one of the world’s greatest living acoustic blues artists, whose talent has been recognized many times by WC Handy and Blues Music Awards. She has lovingly recorded a number of tribute albums to some of the major country blues artists, including Skip James, Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Son House and Rev. Gary Davis. All of them are terrific, featuring Block’s outstanding guitar chops, but we’ve gone with her tribute to the wonderful John Hurt, whose guitar picking style underpins the technique of so many acoustic artists that have come after hum.
Rory Block, A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith (2018)
Block turns her attention to the Empress of the Blues, after her set of 6 tribute albums to the founding fathers of the blues. Everything on the album is played by Rory Block, and as ever, the guitar picking and slide work are masterful. The songs, clearly, are very differently treated to the originals, Block cleverly translating the big band arrangements into guitar accompaniment. It makes for a fine and hugely enjoyable tribute to Bessie Smith. [Check out our interview with Rory here]
Eric Clapton, Me and Mr Johnson (2004)
Hugely successful album, selling over 2m copies. Clapton said he’s been driven and influenced all his life by Robert Johnson’s work. It was, he said, “the keystone of my musical foundation…now, after all these years, his music is like my oldest friend. It is the finest music I have ever heard.” The album, consisting of 14 of Johnson’s songs, sees Clapton in fine form, and features, as you’d expect, top-notch lead and slide guitar. A companion album and video release entitled Sessions for Robert J was released also released, featuring different versions of each of the songs from the studio album.
Fabrizio Poggi and Guy Davis, Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train (2017)
As fine an acoustic blues album as you will hear. Two top modern-day artists, Davis on guitar and Poggi on harmonica, both at the top of their game and channelling two of history’s greatest acoustic bluesmen. There’s a warmth, feeling and joy in the way these songs are presented that draws you in and puts a big smile on your face. The album was nominated for a Grammy. [check out our review here]
Marie Knight, Let Us Get Together: A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis (2007)
Recorded by the late Marie Knight two years before she passed away, aged 89. Knight toured widely with Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the 1940s, but left to become a successful solo gospel and R&B singer. Davis was an incredible guitarist and Larry Campbell’s blues picking and guitar work more than does justice to the reverend’s genius. Knight’s soulful, gospel vocals in these 12 gospel blues songs pay a handsome tribute to the often overlooked artistry of Rev. Gary Davis. Superb. [check out our take on Rev Gary Davis here]
Mark Miller, Ain’t It Grand: The Gospel Songs of Blind Willie McTell (2010)
Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, sang Bob Dylan. True, but McTell also left us a fine collection of gospel blues songs, and Americana/Country artist Mark Miller’s gospel tribute has 10 songs which McTell regularly performed. Lovely old timey feel to the album, with some fine acoustic finger picked and slide guitar.
Various Artists, God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson (2016)
“Eleven stirring renditions which replicate the soul of the songs, not just the sounds.” Has earned plaudits from all quarters and Grammy Award nominations for Best Roots Gospel Album and Best American Roots Performance for the Blind Boys of Alabama’s recording of Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time. The album was produced by Jeffrey Gaskill of Burning Rose Productions. The album features a star-studded cast which includes Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek and Susan Trucks, Luther Dickinson and the Cowboy Junkies. [check out our conversation with album producer Jeffrey Gaskill here]
Various Artists, First Came Memphis Minnie (2012)
Maria Muldaur was the driving force behind this excellent set of Memphis Minnie’s songs, featuring Rory Block, Ruthie Foster, Bonnie Raitt, Koko Taylor and others. Dave Bromberg, Bob Margolin and Billy Branch all contribute to the music. Memphis Minnie was a towering blues figure and a gifted singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose recording career spanned more than 40-plus years, during which she recorded around 200 songs.
Various Artists, Muddy Waters: All Star Tribute to a Legend (2011)
A recording of a Kennedy Centre concert from October 1997 with an impressive all-star cast of blues musicians, including Muddy’s own son Bill Morganfield, Kok Taylor, Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, John Hiatt, Keb’ Mo’ and Robert Lockwood Jr. Songs include Muddy Waters favourites like Hoochi Coochie Man, Can’t Be Satisfied, Got My Mojo Working, Rollin’ and Tumblin’. A DVD is also available.
Various Artists, Shout Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (2003)
18 Sister Rosetta songs by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Joan Osborne, Janis Ian, Marcia Ball, Maria Muldaur, the Holmes Brothers and others. Born in 1915, Rosetta Tharpe was a major star during the 1940s and 50s, sensationally filling arenas. Her trail-blazing rock ’n’ roll tinged gospel performances, driven by her exceptional electric guitar work, sent audiences wild and made her a major celebrity. She inspired the early generation of rock ‘n’ roll artists, and Johnny Cash called her his favourite singer and biggest inspiration. This stirring album has a contribution by Marie Knight, who toured and sang with Sister Rosetta. [check out our piece on Rosetta Tharpe here]
Various Artists, Things About Coming My Way: A Tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks (2009)
The Mississippi Sheiks were a popular and influential American guitar and fiddle group of the 1930s. They only lasted for about 5 years, but had a prodigious output and, while adept at many styles of popular music of the time, were notable mostly for playing country blues. Artists featured include North Mississippi Allstars, Bruce Cockburn, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Madeleine Peyroux. Kelly Joe Phelps and others. 17 classic 1930s songs in a sunny, feel good production.
Various Artists, ZZ Top: A Tribute from Friends (2011)
Eleven great ZZ Top tracks like Sharp Dressed Man, Gimme All Your Loving, and La Grange by artists from country to heavy metal, including Grace Potter, NickelBack, Jamey Johnson and Daughtry. It’s great rockin’, head banging fun all the way.
Various Artists, Avalon Blues: The Music of Mississippi John Hurt (2001)
John Hurt is the ideal entry point to introduce anyone to country blues. His guitar work is mesmerizing and has been the foundation for many of today’s acoustic guitar players. The story goes that Andres Segovia, after hearing John Hurt’s guitar playing for the first time, demanded to know who the second guitarist was. This loving tribute by a high-class cast covers 15 of Hurt’s best loved songs. There are contributions from Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Bruce Cockburn, John Hiatt, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and Lucinda Williams. A joy.
Walter Trout, Luther’s Blues: A Tribute to Luther Allison (2013)
Ace guitarist Walter Trout pays tribute to his great friend Luther Allison with 13 songs, including one written by Trout, When Luther Played The Blues. Allison was a wonderfully talented guitarist, who died in 1997 at the age of 57. He had been discovered by Howlin’ Wolf in 1957 and then mentored by Freddie King. His live performances were quite a thing, sometimes lasting four or more hours. In Trout’s song, he highlights a great quote by Allison “Leave your ego, play the music, love the people.” [check out our interview with Walter here]
Joe Bonamassa, Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks (2015)
A recording of Bonamassa’s concert from August 2014 at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Colorado. The show celebrates the music of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, featuring many of the two blues legends’ greatest songs as well as a few of Bonamassa’s own songs. It is probably one of the best live blues albums of recent years. As usual, Bonamassa’s guitar work in incendiary, but his singing in the show is exceptional. Available in either 2-CD or DVD formats.
On Good Friday, we are thinking again about a couple of Blind Willie Johnson songs. And in case you’ve ever wondered why this day which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ could possibly be called good – the Oxford English Dictionary says that “good” refers to a day of religious observance, noting that the term first appeared in the 13th century; so it effectively means “holy”: i.e. Holy Friday.
Perhaps Willie Johnson’s most famous song is Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground. Of his 29 recorded songs, it’s the one that made it into the illustrious company of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Stravinsky on the “Golden Record” on board the 1997 unmanned Voyager space probe, intended for the ears of any intelligent extraterrestrial life form who might come upon it.
The song is an old sacred hymn, which, In Johnson’s hands, becomes an evocation of Christ’s solitary experience in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, where his anticipation of what was likely to lie before him produced sweat which “became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” The Gospel of Luke is describing a condition we know as hematohidrosis, where capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, causing them to exude blood, which occurring under conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress.
Despite the fact that you really can’t hear the words in Johnson’s recording of the song, it is quite graphic. Johnson, more so than on other songs, moans and groans his way through the song as he plays his eerie slide guitar. Johnson was something of a master on slide guitar, was able to get great tone out of simply using a pocketknife as his slide, and the combination of his guitar work and the moaning are enough to take us into that moment of anguish with Christ in the Garden, prior to his impending execution.
Crucifixion was a brutal means of execution, used widely by the Romans to punish offenders and dissuade others from law-breaking. The victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang, perhaps for several days, until eventual death from exhaustion and asphyxiation. It was slow, painful, gruesome, humiliating, and public. Anticipation of such a death would certainly account for the extreme anxiety that brought on hematohidrosis.
The lyrics of the song are sombre and challenging (see this post), but Johnson clearly felt that the music and his mournful moaning were enough to take us into that moment of anguish with Christ in the Garden, prior to his impending execution.
The other Willie Johnson song relevant to Good Friday is (I Know) His Blood Can Make Me Whole, a traditional spiritual song he recorded in 1927. Barbecue Bob had recorded the song earlier in the year. The song talks about “touching the hem” of Jesus’s “garment,” a reference to the gospel story of the woman who had suffered from haemorrhages for many years who was healed simply by touching Jesus’s clothes. The song, though, is about how faith in Jesus’s death can bring redemption and healing. Johnson does not shy away from presenting the challenge of what he felt was the central element of his faith.
Slide guitar – it’s sweet, it’s gritty, it’s sensual, it reaches right inside and grabs your innards. In the hands of an expert exponent, it’s a thing of wonder. And it’s got a long tradition in the history of the blues, reaching back to Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, when those glissando and vibrato notes were squeezed out by a penknife or a broken bottle neck caressing or, at times, attacking the guitar strings. It was the sound of the slide guitar that first alerted W.C. Handy to the blues when he heard the solitary guitar player on the station in Tutweiler, Mississippi in 1903 – “The effect,” he said, “was unforgettable.”
We’ve chosen 25 terrific blues songs that feature slide guitar, from Willie Johnson to Derek Trucks. They’re in chronological order so there’s no attempt here to judge these against each other. They’re just here for you to explore and enjoy – I hope they give you as much pleasure as I had in researching, choosing and listening to them. (actually 25 has become 26!!)
Blind Willie Johnson: Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (1927)
Willie Johnson’s slide playing is widely admired. Ry Cooder said, “Blind Willie Johnson had great dexterity, because he could play all of these sparking little melody lines. He had fabulous syncopation; he could keep his thumb going really strong. He’s so good – I mean, he’s just so good.” Eric Clapton’s view was that Johnson’s slide work on It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine was “probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear.” So there’s a number of songs we could have chosen. We’ve gone with Dark was the Night, where Johnson’s exquisite slide playing takes you right into the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane, negating the need for sung lyrics, and is just augmented by Johnson’s moaning. [Check out our post about Willie Johnson here.]
Blind Willie McTell: Mama ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day (1928)
Willie McTell was an accomplished slide player as well as being an adept Piedmont style and ragtime finger picker and had a significant recording career in the 1920s and 30s. His 1928 Mama ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day lets you appreciate the depth of his skill and musicality.
Charlie Patton: Mississippi Boweevil Blues (1929)
Along with Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton was arguably the most important and formative voice of the early sound of the blues in the Mississippi Delta. He recorded Boweevil Blues in 1929 as “The Masked Marvel.” It’s primal blues, with one chord accompaniment, three basic notes in the vocal melody, and a high-note bottleneck accent after the vocal phrase, with the slide often finishing the last word in the phrase. Patton bewails the devastation caused by the invasion of the Boweevil beetle which fed on cotton buds and caused huge problems for the cotton industry and in particular for African American tenants.
Robert Johnson: If I Had Possession (1936)
Robert Johnson was hailed as the “king of the Delta blues,” and described by Eric Clapton as “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” His short life ended in 1938 at the age of 27, but his songs have become standards of the blues canon, and he’s recognized as an outstanding guitarist and a songwriter who pushed the boundaries of the genre during his lifetime. Despite that crossroads myth, Johnson’s prodigious guitar chops likely came from finding a tutor and working hard as a student. Guitar players still marvel at Johnson’s dexterity, the complexity of his playing and the intensity of his songs. He was a skilled slide player, amply demonstrated here on this 1936 recording. [You’ll find our piece about another Johnson song here.]
Muddy Waters: I Can’t Be Satisfied (1948)
The “father of modern Chicago blues” moved to Chicago in 1943 and began recording for Aristocrat Records, a newly formed label run by the brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. He recorded, I Can’t Be Satisfied and I Feel Like Going Home in 1948, both of which became hits, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the recording session for the two songs, they were preparing to wrap up, and Muddy asked if they could do the song without the piano. Leonard obliged and Muddy did the songs on the electric guitar, giving the songs a completely new feel. The single, with its raw electric sound and Muddy’s slide playing sold out on its first weekend. Buddy Guy said Muddy was “one of the slidingest people I’ve ever heard in my life. He got it from the Mississippi players playing the Saturday night fish fries, and he took it home.” [We look at another Muddy Waters song here.]
Elmore James: Dust My Broom (1951)
Known as “King of the Slide Guitar” and noted for his use of loud, reverb-heavy amplification, Elmore James is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the influence behind many rock musicians. That full octave slide riff in the opening to his 1951 adaptation of Robert Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, has become a classic riff. The song became James’s signature song and has been re-recorded many, many times, usually with James’s riff intact.
Mississippi Fred McDowell: You Gotta Move (1965)
Originally recorded by The Gospel Keys in 1948, McDowell’s version is the most famous and was picked up by the Rolling Stones and included on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album. Fred McDowell’s version is raw and bluesy, never misses a beat and has a nice slide vibrato. It was from McDowell that Bonnie Raitt learned her slide guitar. [More on You Gotta Move here.]
Son House: Death Letter Blues (1965)
House’s 1965 performance was on a metal-bodied National resonator guitar using a copper slide. Death Letter Blues is a revision of House’s earlier recording My Black Mama, Part 2 from 1930. The guitar playing is raw, almost rough, but the passion of the performance and the subject matter make listening to it a dramatic experience.
Johnny Winter: Broke Down Engine (1968)
Winter was a Grammy winning inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame, the first non-African-American performer to be inducted, and one of the first blues rock guitar virtuosos. His version of this Blind Willie McTell song appears on his album The Progressive Blues Experiment from 1968. Winter is probably better known for his high energy electric blues rock guitar, but he played this song on a resonator, with an approach that has echoes of Robert Johnson.
Allman Brothers: Statesboro Blues (1971)
The Allman Brothers’ 1971 concert at New York’s Filmore East is legendary, and the album represented the band’s commercial breakthrough. This cover of Blind Willie McTell’s famous song opens the set and showcases Duane Allman’s fabulous open-E slide playing. His approach to the song is clearly modelled on Taj Mahal’s1968 version of the song.
Rory Gallagher: McAvoy Boogie (1972)
Rory Gallagher never attained star status in his short life (he died aged 47) but he is a cult figure in the blues-rock world because of his incredible guitar skills – he was, for example, voted Melody Maker’s 1971 International Top Guitarist of the Year, ahead of Eric Clapton. Gallagher’s McAvoy Boogie was in honour of Gerry McAvoy, a great Northern Irish blues rock bass guitarist. Recorded around 1972, the song appears on the DVD, Rory Gallagher, Ghost Blues: The Story of Rory Gallagher and the Beat Club Sessions. Gallagher was equally at home on electric, acoustic or resonator guitars, and on McAvoy Boogie he lets loose on his Fender Telecaster.
Ry Cooder: Feelin’ Bad Blues (1986)
Multi-Grammy award winner Ry Cooder has been making music and recording for the past 50 years. He’s a songwriter, film score composer, and record producer. A multi-instrumentalist, he is maybe best known for his slide guitar work. Rolling Stone magazine’s ranked him eighth on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Feelin’ Bad Blues is on his 1986 Crossroads album and is an instrumental slow blues, which demonstrates Cooder’s exquisite slide technique and emotive playing. [Check out our post on Ry Cooder here.]
Eric Clapton: Running on Faith (1992)
Clapton originally recorded this on his 1989 Journeyman album, but we’ve chosen the Unplugged version of 1992, where Clapton plays a wooden resonator. He’s played a lot of electric slide during his career, but this performance puts the musicality of his skill in the spotlight, as well as his excellent vocals. [Check out our appreciation of Eric Clapton here.]
(Sadly WMG has blocked the YouTube video of this 28 year-old song)
Bonnie Raitt: I’m In the Mood (with John Hooker) (1991)
Bonnie Raitt has won 10 Grammys and sold millions of albums. The same year as her big 1989 breakthrough with Nick of Time, she recorded this duet with Hooker, which was included on Hooker’s album The Healer. Playing her Stratocaster with the slide on her second finger, and picking with her fingers, Raitt gets the right amount of sass and moan into this reprise of Hooker’s 1951 hit.
Joanna Connor: Walkin’ Blues (1992)
Joanna Connor is so much more than her self-description as “that middle-aged lady with the scorching guitar.” She’s a tremendously talented and original guitar player, whose incredible slide guitar, complete with mushy guitar-player face from 2014 has been seen by around 1.5m people. She is a guitar-playing tour de force. Walkin’ Blues from her second album aptly illustrates her jaw-droppingly good slide guitar. [You’ll find a review of Connor’s Rise album here.]
Bryn Haworth: Will You Be Ready (1995)
Bryn Haworth is an outstanding slide guitarist and songwriter from the UK who has been making records and performing for the past 50 years. He’s appeared on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test and the John Peel show, was a major figure in the explosion of Jesus Rock in the 1970s and 80s, and been the guest guitarist on many albums by rock and folk artists. [Don’t miss this great interview with Bryn here.]
Kelly Joe Phelps: When the Roll is Called Up Yonder (1997)
There’s scarcely a better acoustic slide player on the planet than Kelly Joe Phelps, aptly demonstrated by this superb old hymn which appears on Roll Away the Stone. At this stage in his career Kelly was playing slide on a lap steel guitar. By 2012, he had moved to a more regular bottleneck slide style – and produced similarly outstanding playing on Brother Sinner and the Whale. Check out the interplay between the slide guitar and Kelly’s vocals in this song, particularly in the chorus. Quite remarkable. As for the beautiful solo… [More on Kelly Joe Phelps here.]
Rory Block: Cross Road Blues (2006)
Rory Block is one of the world’s greatest living acoustic blues artists. Her talent has been recognized many times by WC Handy and Blues Music Awards in the US, as well as gaining accolades and awards in Europe. She has won Acoustic Artist of the Year in the 2019 Blues Music Awards. She’s done a number of albums paying tribute to the great blues guitarists of the past, and her 2006 Lady and Mr Johnson sees her taking on Robert Johnson and delivering the songs such that they take on new life, and at the same time showcasing Johnson’s outstanding guitar expertise. Block plays Cross Road Blues on her Martin guitar with incredible attack, accuracy and groove – quite wondrous. [Check out our great interview with Rory here.]
Johnny Dickinson: Ocean Blues (2006)
Northumberland-born slide-guitarist/singer/songwriter, Johnny Dickinson sadly passed away in 2019. He was widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s finest exponents of acoustic slide guitar. And a thoroughly nice guy. Ocean Blues, from 2006’s Sketches from the Road is a fine example of Dickinson’s technique and musicality.
Brooks Williams: Amazing Grace (2010)
Brooks Williams is one incredible acoustic guitar player. He’s a gifted songwriter and singer too. His versatile guitar chops include some tasty slide playing. You’ll scarcely hear a better version of Amazing Grace than Brooks’s from his 2010 Baby O! album. Playing the strings on either side of the slide and moving masterfully all round the fretboard, Williams coaxes each ounce of bluesiness from this old tune. [Check out our interview with Brooks here.]
North Mississippi Allstars: Let It Roll (2011)
Luther Dickinson is a guitarist, songwriter, singer and record producer who grew up in the hills of North Mississippi. Influenced by R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, he and his brother formed the North Mississippi Allstars. Their 2011 album, Keys to the Kingdom, features Dickinson’s characteristic raw singing style and his style of electrified, fingerstyle slide guitar that he calls Modern Mississippi. It’s sounds traditional but bang up-to-date all at once. [Check out our interview with Luther here.]
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Midnight in Harlem (2011)
When you see Derek Trucks live, you’d be forgiven for calling him the world’s best living electric slide guitarist. His guitar and slide just seem to be part of the man. Trucks was something of a child prodigy, playing slide from a young age and by the age of 13, he had shared a stage with Buddy Guy. He was a guest musician for several years with the Allman Brothers and has toured as part of Eric Clapton’s band. The fabulous band formed with him and his wife, Susan Tedseschi, released Revelator in 2011 which features a cover of Mike Mattison’s Midnight in Harlem. It’s quite wonderful, as much for Tedeschi’s vocals as for Truck’s slide work. But his slide work is top drawer and we like the live version on Everybody’s Talkin’ from 2012.
Keb’Mo’ & Taj Mahal: Diving Duck Blues (2017)
There may be better examples of Keb’ Mo’s slide guitar style, but this duet with blues legend Taj Mahal from their excellent 2017 Tajmo album is one of the most enjoyable. Mo’s metal resonator slide playing accompanies Taj Mahal’s rhythmic acoustic picking, rather than taking centre stage. But, of course, it’s the combination of these two wonderful artists playing together that is best of all. [Check out our piece on Keb’ Mo’s Put a Woman in Charge here.]
Sonny Landreth: Key to the Highway (2017)
One of the world’s best, but most under-appreciated guitarists, said Eric Clapton of slide guitar specialist, Sonny Landreth. Landreth has incredible slide guitar technique, able to play notes, chords and chord fragments by fretting behind the slide while he plays. As with nearly all these artists, it’s hard to choose a song from Landreth’s considerable back catalogue, but his version of this blues standard normally credited to Big Bill Broonzy, on his 2017 Live in Lafayette, is a real treat.
Larkin Poe: Mississippi (2018)
Larkin Poe are the Lovell sisters from Atlanta, Georgia with a unique blues-based Americana rock. Adept at taking traditional blues and bringing them bang up-to-date at the same time, the pair are exceptional musicians, wonderful singers and high-powered performers. Both terrific guitarists, it is Megan who is the slide guitarist, trading licks with her sister. Standing up – and occasionally walking through the audience – she plays her lap steel guitar with incredible energy. Mississippi from 2018’s Grammy nominated Venom and Faith album evokes the spirit of the Delta while channelling a modern, fresh approach to the blues. Superb. [Be sure and check out our great interview with Larkin Poe here.]
Martin Harley: Roll With the Punches (2019)
When it comes to slide guitar, England’s Martin Harley really is the business. With eight albums to his credit, he delights audiences wherever he plays in the UK and US with his hugely enjoyable brand of Americana and blues. His Roll With the Punches from 2019 finds Harley with a new, more electric sound, now coaxing those trademark slide guitar licks from an electric guitar rather than simply the Weissenborn lap steel he is usually to be seen with. The title track showcases his great slide technique and is just a great song – so positive: “don’t let nobody drag you down, keep your head high, put your good foot on the ground.” [You’ll find our review of Martin Harley’s Roll with the Punches here.]
Acoustic guitar blues goes back a long way to the early Delta pioneers like Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown – and, of course, Robert Johnson, who followed them around and eventually outstripped his mentors. Blues musicians like Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller, Willie Mctell and Willie Johnson were all skilled exponents of the art before, eventually, the blues would go electric. People like Josh White and Big Bill Broonzy kept the acoustic tradition which was revitalized in the folk revival of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with the rediscovery of artists like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elizabeth Cotton and Rev. Gary Davis.
The legacy was taken on by those who learned from these artists, like Rory Block, John Sebastian, Jorma Kaukonen and others, and acoustic guitar blues has continued to flourish in the capable hands of artists like Taj Mahal, Eric Bibb, Keb’ Mo’, Hans Theessink, Chris Smither, Mary Flower, Guy Davis and many others. And, of course, Rory Block is still going strong. We have to mention, too, Eric Clapton, whose massive selling 1992 Unplugged album put acoustic blues back on show and paved the way for an increase in popularity of the genre ever since.
We’ve chosen a selection of 20 of the best acoustic guitar blues albums from the last 10 years. Check them out and enjoy!
Billy Boy Arnold: Sings Big Bill Broonzy
Veteran blues harp player Arnold, turns in a very fine acoustic guitar driven tribute album to the great Bill Broonzy.
Lurrie Bell: The Devil Ain’t Got No Music
Sparse, stirring 2012 album of gospel blues from Chicagoan Bell, with help from Joe Louis Walker and Billy Branch.
Eric Bibb: Blues, Ballads and Work Songs
We could easily have plumped for any one of Bibb’s recent albums – Blues People (2014), Lead Belly’s Gold (2015) and Booker’s Guitar (2011) all come to mind – but have gone for this 2011 album of traditional blues songs all featuring Bibb’s expert picking and dulcet singing tones. Check out our recent interview with Eric here.
Rory Block A Woman’s Soul
Again, we could easily have chosen one of Block’s fine tribute albums of the last ten years – to Mississippi John Hurt or Rev. Gary Davis, amongst others – but have plumped for her 2018 album of Bessie Smith songs for the clever way in which she has translated the big band arrangements into guitar accompaniment and her fine vocal performance. Check out our interview with Rory here.
Michael Jerome Brown: Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
Canadian Brown is an incredible musician and guitarist, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the blues. This 2015 album of forgotten largely pre-war blues songs is quite wondrous.
Paul Cowley: Just What I Know
I guess most people reading this will not be aware of Paul Cowley, an English musician living in France. This 2018 album of 7 classic blues songs mixed with 5 originals ought to out him on the map. Very fine album. Check out our review of the album here.
Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi: Sonnie and Brownie’s Last Train
This 2017 album ought to have earned the artists a Grammy. Two top modern-day artists at the top of their game channelling two of history’s greatest acoustic bluesmen. See our album review here.
Luther Dickinson: Blues and Ballads
Brilliant album of timeless-sounding, original songs from the North Mississippi Allstars front man and top-notch album producer, Luther Dickinson. Lovely gospel vibe throughout and a welcome contribution from Mavis Staples. You’ll find our interview with Luther here.
Mary Flower: Misery Loves Company
Fingerstyle guitarist and music educator, Flower is a master of intricate syncopated Piedmont style finger picking. This 2011 album produced by Colin Linden with half of the 12 songs originals features Flower’s outstanding guitar work.
Mark Harrison The Panoramic View
A hugely enjoyable treat of modern acoustic blues from 2018, full of wondrous finger-picking and slide playing, and giving full vent to Harrison’s compelling story-telling and wry humour. You can find our review here.
Bottleneck John: All Around Man
Again, you may not know of Johan Eliasson aka Bottleneck John, but this 2013 album is an absolute treat. Eliasson has an amazing collection of vintage guitars and resonators and can play them to great effect. Our review can be found here.
Ernie Hawkins: Whinin’ Boy
Hawkins is a masterful guitarist in the blues and ragtime vein pioneered by the legendary Rev Gary Davis. This is a fine album of early jazz and blues songs, with Hawkin’s guitar work augmented by a little clarinet, trombone and trumpet.
Harrison Kennedy with Colin Linden: This is From Here
Canadian singer-songwriter and bluesman, Kennedy’s 2015 album of soulful and authentic blues won a Juno award.
Taj Mahal & Keb Mo: TajMo
Fabulous collaboration album from blues masters Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ in 2017. This is an adventurous, joyous take on traditional blues from two musicians oozing class and mutual respect. It won a Grammy in 2018. Check out our review of the two in concert here.
Doug MacLeod: There’s a Time
An album of original songs which sound like well-worn acoustic blues classics. Bass and drums accompany MacLeod’s ever tasteful guitar work and excellent vocals. MacLeod is known as the “storytelling bluesman,” and these songs draw you in to their engaging narrative. Superb.
Chris Smither – Still on the Levee
A two-CD retrospective featuring Smither’s own new recordings of a selection of songs from his vast back catalogue to celebrate his 50th year of making music. Witty, intelligent songs, driven by Smither’s metronomic guitar picking. Catch our interview with Chris here.
Hans Theessink & Terry Evans: Delta Time
Hugely enjoyable 2012 acoustic blues album from two of the finest blues singers you’ll hear (sadly Terry Evans passed away in 2018). Great chemistry from the combination of these two contrasting voices with a wonderful gospel sound and lovely harmonies throughout. Also check out their 2008 Visions. You can find our interview with Hans here.
Brooks Williams: Blues
The album is a gem, featuring just Brooks’ voice and guitar – acoustic, resonator and cigar box, and was recorded live in the studio. The result is a very fine album of traditional and classic blues. Worth checking out, too is Brooks’ Baby O! from 2010. Take a look at our interview with Brooks here.
Jontavious Willis: Spectacular Class
Spectacular Class is an album of timeless acoustic blues, released in 2019 by a young man hailed by Taj Mahal as a “great new voice of the 21st century in the acoustic blues.” It’s an album that sounds at once traditional but at the same time entirely fresh, with an outstanding set of songs driven by his top-notch guitar picking and his hugely entertaining vocals. You can find our interview with Jontavious here.
Various Artists: Things About Comin’ My Way – A Tribute to the music of the Mississippi Sheiks
Terrific tribute album from a variety of artists, including Bill Frisell, John Hammond and Bruce Cockburn.
Blind Willie Johnson: “The ferocity he brought to the guitar was unheard of previously.”
Michael Corcoran is an award-winning Austin, Texas-based journalist who has been a serious music critic since he was a teenager. He’s plied his trade in Hawaii and California, and since 1984 has written for the Austin Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman, Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone. He’s won numerous awards, and has been nominated for two Grammys in the album notes and historical album categories for Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams(Dust-to-Digital). Music has been a life-long passion – he told me, “I was 8 when the Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. A little too young to start a band the next day, but the perfect age to start listening. Some of my younger friends had Kiss, I had the Beatles. Then I got completely into the Monkees, who were less a band than a vehicle for great songs from Carole King, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, Boyce & Hart and so on.”
Corcoran has written a number of books, including, notably his 2017 All Over the Map, (University of North Texas Press), which has been described as a “musical waltz across Texas and is an illustrated collection of profiles of Texas music pioneers, most underrated or overlooked. “It started,” he says, “as a newspaper article for the Chicago Tribune in advance of South by Southwest. The assignment was to describe what makes Texas music special. I’m not from Texas. I came here from Hawaii in 1984, so I had a lot of catching up to do. But sometimes an outsider gets a clearer picture than the folks who’ve been entrenched. Texas has a lot of swagger. It’s where the cowboy movies – popular with blacks as well as whites – were set and so the music tapped into that Old West pioneer spirit.”
Why, I asked him, is Texas so formative for American music? Is it the geography, the people, the history, just what is it?
“Texas was the first state to have large populations of both African-Americans and Hispanics. They worked side by side in the fields, along with whites. Guitars came up from Mexico. It was a musical melting pot. Also, the Czech and German immigrants, who started coming in the 1850s, built these huge dancehalls like back home. Musicians had to play loud to get the people dancing, so Texans were the first to play electric guitars in blues (T-Bone Walker), jazz (Charlie Christian) and country (Bob Dunn of the Musical Brownies). More than anything else, the dancing culture influenced the music.”
Corcoran suggested a while ago, provocatively, that Texas, not Mississippi, is the true home of the blues. What, I asked him is the case for that? He told me that this observation was based on the birth of boogie-woogie in the lumber camps of East Texas after the Civil War. “Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first star of guitar blues, recording three years before Charlie Patton and the other Mississippi Delta guys. A lot of things happened in Texas before anywhere else. But re-thinking this “home of the blues” claim, I’d have to say that the blues were born wherever black people were slaves – which was all over the south. The blues, like gospel, grew out of the Negro spirituals that the slaves would sing in the fields to lift their spirits.”
He has also suggested that maybe 90% of the music that came after the 1920s can be traced back to three Texas artists – Blind Willie Johnson, Arizona Dranes, and Washington Phillips. In support of this, Corcoran told me, “Blind Willie was the first true guitar hero, like the first basketball player who could dunk. Jimmy Page is a direct descendent. Eric Clapton, Duane Allman. Blind Lemon, a lively guitarist and singer, was playing house party dance music, when Johnson was making his guitar the star. Dranes brought a rhythmic, secular pound to gospel music. That’s the original R&B, which became rock n’ roll. Then, Washington Phillips can be credited with introducing introspection to song-writing on gospel songs that were often more about the realities of life. Gospel music was not known for honesty until Denomination Blues or The Church Needs Good Deacons.
Corcoran is currently researching and writing a book coming out in Spring 2020, entitled Ghost Notes, which is basically a sequel to All Over the Map, but with more context. “I’ve woven my research on Johnson, Dranes and Phillips to better reflect what it was like being poor and black in Texas in the 1920s. The church was not just a spiritual sanctuary. I have a section on blues piano, featuring Amos Milburn and Charles Brown, plus Milton Brown and the birth of Western Swing, Roky Erickson, Sippie Wallace. That’s the beauty of Texas music – so many styles and genres, but with the same underlying purpose of coming up with some new stuff that’s going to blow people away.”
Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson is one of the artists about which Corcoran has written extensively. Johnson recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 until 1930, thirty tracks in total, with ten each recorded in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta. Johnson’s recordings were very successful, outselling even Bessie Smith, and his guitar playing was the inspiration for a many of the Delta blues artists, including Robert Johnson, whose songs and playing style became foundational for later electric blues and rock’n’roll. So Blind Willie casts a long shadow.
Johnson, however, restricted his singing to gospel songs, unlike, say, Blind Willie McTell, who sang the blues along with sacred songs. “His raspy evangelical bark and dramatic guitar,” says Corcoran, “were designed to draw in milling, mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.”
Corcoran contributed extensive liner notes for the 2016 Alligator Records Blind Willie Johnson tribute album (God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson), and he has more to offer in his forthcoming book. But it’s fair to say that he feels that there have been more than a few misunderstandings and false stories about Willie Johnson’s life.
“Just finding his death certificate cleared up a lot of misinformation, like that he died in 1945, not ’49. Through the years I’ve found that the most unreliable information comes through interviews. The person being interviewed tends to puff up their own importance and that’s what happened when Sam Charters found Blind Willie’s widow Angeline in the 1950s. Almost all the misinformation, including how he died, came from her. She even claimed to be the female voice on her husband’s records, but we later found out it was another wife, Willie B. Harris.”
Corcoran questions, for example, Angeline’s story of Johnson’s death. She said that her husband died from pneumonia in 1949 after sleeping on wet newspapers after a fire had burned down their home. “We didn’t get wet, but just the dampness, you know, and then he’s singing and his veins opened and everything, and it just made him sick.” She says she took him to the hospital but “They wouldn’t accept him. He’d have been living today if they’d accepted him. ’Cause he’s blind. Blind folks has a hard time – he can’t get in the hospital.”
Corcoran quotes blues scholar Mack McCormick, whom he regarded as “probably the greatest music researcher of our time,” as concluding that such a scenario was “highly unlikely.” McCormick worked in a Houston emergency room in the Jim Crow era and has suggested that Johnson wouldn’t have been turned away. In addition, Michael Corcoran makes the point that it would have been almost unthinkable for Johnson and his wife not to have been taken in by the congregation of their church after the disaster of the fire.
I wonder, however, if Angeline’s story of her husband being turned away from a hospital in 1945 is really not to be trusted. A 2014 paper by Kerri L. Hunkele of the University of New Hampshire (Segregation in United States Healthcare: From Reconstruction to Deluxe Jim Crow) highlights the fact that across the South, Jim Crow medical laws hindered access to medical care for blacks. White nurses were not to treat African American males and hospital facilities were segregated, including entrances and waiting rooms. Even by the end of the ‘40s, the ratio of African American physicians to the Black population remained at one to over 3,600, resulting in real problems for African American males, who could be refused by White doctors or would not be able to see certain doctors because of the all-White nursing staffs. In Mississippi, a law also meant that medical treatment would be available to African Americans only after the White patients were all treated.
With all this in mind, Hunkele says that “scholarship on hospital segregation emphasizes the severe health consequences suffered by individuals who could not gain admittance to White-only facilities or overcrowded Jim Crow wards in biracial hospitals…All of these problems arose because of the Jim Crow Laws, which hindered blacks’ abilities to access proper medical treatment.” (On this, further see Karen Kruse, Deluxe Jim Crow: Civil Rights and American Health Policy, 1935-1954, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011). All this, it seems to me, lends veracity to Angeline’s account of Blind Willie Johnson’s death.
But there’s a lot about Johnson’s life that we don’t know. What we do know, says Michael Corcoran, is “that for a brief period of time, Johnson was a recording star, one of the most popular gospel “race” artists of his era.” And that his influence has been enormous, his songs covered down through the years by Rev Gary Davis and Fred McDowell, but also by more recent rock bands like the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and the White Stripes. Eric Clapton called his slide work on It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine “probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear,” and Jack White of The White Stripes thinks Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground is “the greatest example of slide guitar ever recorded.”
And then, of course, there is the small matter of being launched into space. Johnson has the distinction of having one of his songs feature on a special recording sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 to head beyond the outer solar system into deep space – the Voyager Golden Record also contains music by Beethovan, Mozart and Stravinsky.
Willie Johnson’s songs were gospel songs – he sang out of his Christian faith. And yet these songs continued to be covered and are still being sung and performed and appreciated by believers and non-believers alike. I asked Corcoran why this is.
“The ferocity he brought to the guitar was unheard of previously. Plus, his most popular songs – Motherless Children, If I Had My Way, Nobody’s Fault But Mine aren’t overtly religious. Lyrics keep a lot of fans away from gospel, but Blind Willie’s music sounds secular as hell.”
To be fair, however, Johnson’s songs are overtly gospel – you only have to listen to Jesus is Coming Soon, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, Sweeter as the Days Roll By or Latter Rain, to appreciate the depth of religious passion that drove Willie Johnson. Johnson was a Pentecostal – I wondered if that had a particular effect on his music making and singing. “It is interesting,” says Corcoran, “that his natural voice was so good. Every other gravel-voiced singer, like Tom Waits, takes that approach because their regular voice sucks. But since Johnson did almost all his singing on street corners for tips, he needed a gimmick to draw the milling crowds towards him. His mentor Blind Madkin Butler taught him that. Blind Willie recorded more songs without the false bass.” If you listen to Johnson’s songs, you’ll hear that he actually has a fine singing voice as opposed to the gravelly rasping you get on some of his songs – e.g. Let Your Light Shine On Me.
Johnson’s Pentecostalism comes out specifically in his Latter Rain, which is often misquoted, largely because most people don’t understand the origin of the term “latter rain.” This refers to the ancient prophet of Israel, Joel, who talked about God sending the early and the latter rain on the crops (Joel 2:23, 28). Joel 2 was quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost in the New Testament, as foretelling the outpouring of the Spirit, and Pentecostals – whose movement had started in 1901 – went on to interpret the “early rain” as the initial outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in the 1st century and the “latter rain” as referring to their own movement of Spirit blessing.
I asked Michael if he had a couple of favourite Willie Johnson songs, and to name a favourite cover of a Willie Johnson song.
“I think God Moves On the Water is an incredible achievement for one man and a guitar. Mack McCormick said that Madkin Butler wrote it and taught it to Willie. I love the sentiment that arrogance sunk the Titanic, that God should get all the glory. Of course, another favorite is Dark Was the Night, though it’s been used in so many soundtracks it’s become old to me.” Then in terms of a favourite cover: “I don’t think anyone’s done a Blind Willie song better, but Cowboy Junkies came closest with Jesus Is Coming Soon from the God Don’t Never Change tribute album Alligator put out a couple years ago. I like Tom Waits’ version of Soul of a Man a lot, too. I wrote the liner notes, but it was more as an excuse to hit the road for more research. There’s not much out there to be found, so every little new bit of info is precious.”
For my own part, yes, Dark was the Night is an incredible performance by Johnson and the slide playing quite awesome. But Nobody’s Fault But Mine (“and that’s one of the few songs he recorded that he almost certainly wrote,” says Corcoran) is a song I always find remarkable, given Johnson’s circumstances of being blind, black and poor in the early decades of the last century in the American South. Life was unremittingly hard, so the sense of personal responsibility, despite all the adverse circumstances, is quite remarkable. But then, Willie Johnson is a quite remarkable man and musician, whose influence, as Michael Corcoran has emphasized for us, has been immense and still continues to this day.
“It’s easy to love this duo’s brand of barnstorming blues.”
Larkin Poe are the Lovell sisters from Atlanta, Georgia. “I’m not Larkin, and she’s not Poe,” quipped Rebecca Lovell during their sold-out gig at Inchyra Arts Club near Perth, Scotland. Larkin Poe, rather, is an ancestor of the sisters and relative of the famed author Edgar Allan Poe. Rebecca and Megan, formally trained musically, got into bluegrass in their teens and, after forming the band, have developed their own distinctive sound which is a unique blues-based Americana rock. Adept at taking traditional blues and bringing them bang up-to-date at the same time, the pair are exceptional musicians, wonderful singers and high-powered performers. And, as we discovered in an interview with Larkin Poe before the gig – thoroughly nice people, who give thoughtful consideration to the roots tradition that underpins their music.
Photo: Robbie Klein
The band played at a most unusual venue – a refurbished cattle byre in a sprawling country estate in Scotland, Inchyra Arts Club. With a vaulted timber roof, hard wood floors and original wood used wherever possible, it’s got great acoustics and can pack in around 600 people. It’s a unique, welcoming space and made for a great atmosphere to welcome the Lovell sisters and their band.
This was a performance full of energy, passion and joy from the opening Trouble in Mind (not the traditional version, by any means!) to the glorious Robert Johnson Come On In My Kitchen The Lovell sisters and the two other members of their band didn’t hold back throughout the whole captivating set. They seemed to be enjoying it just as much as the packed crowd, with smiles aplenty from the duo and plenty of chit-chat to engage the audience from live-wire Rebecca.
Walking through the audience while playing scorching lap steel slide guitar is quite a trick and one which Megan Lovell pulled off with some aplomb, much to the delight of the Inchrya fans, who quickly whipped out their mobile phones to record and photograph. I’ve only seen this done a few times, most notably Buddy Guy – and it sure is a crowd pleaser.
As I listened to Venom and Faith (the band’s latest acclaimed album) in the safe confines of my car, I tried to categorize it – is it blues, Americana, rock or even at times pop? In the full throttle, ear-bending cauldron of Inchyra Arts Club, with the hair-flinging, guitar-slinging, leather-jacketed Rebecca, and the searing sounds of Meghan’s slide guitar, there was no doubt that this was rock music. Blues-infused, genuine, old-fashioned, full-bodied, head-banging, modern rock. Glorious.
The banjo can hold its head up in a rock concert. Yes, really. It featured in two songs, fully amped up, California King and John the Revelator, with a banjo solo taking pride of place in the latter. In the middle of all this high-energy, full-throated rock concert, we get a banjo solo!
Megan Lovell is a terrific slide guitarist. A classically-trained violinist, she took up playing slide guitar as a teenager and, boy, she can make that thing sing. Nothing like some lap steel slide to conjure up the ghosts of the old Delta blues masters.
You can successfully talk about something serious in a rock concert. Before launching in to Mad as Hatter, Rebecca Lovell appealed for a more sympathetic attitude toward mental illness, and dementia in particular, talking about her own family experience. For those of us who have seen the devastating effects of dementia in their family, it was really something to hear:
Time is a thief It’ll steal into bed and rob you while you sleep You’ll never feel it It pulls off the covers, and rifles through your head Then you’ll wait to find you can’t remember what you just said.
Larkin Poe is firmly underpinned by the blues. They played Leadbelly’s Black Betty, Son House’s Preachin’ Blues, Willie Johnson’s John the Revelator and the superbly reworked Hard Time Killing Floor Blues from Skip James. The band is respectful of the tradition, but not bound by it and their versions of these classic songs are some of the very best I’ve heard.
If you can ever get to Scotland, be sure and make you way to the Inchyra Arts Club. More importantly, check out the incredibly talented Larkin Poe.
Gospel blues has a long history reaching back to the likes of Blind Willie Johnson and Rev Robert Wilkins right through to recent work by Kelly Joe Phelps and Ry Cooder. It’s not surprising, given the close relationship between the spirituals and the blues. It’s a genre rich in musicality, spirituality and inspiration. Here are 16 gospel blues songs that are really worth listening to.
Blind Willie McTell: I’ve Got to Cross the River of Jordan
Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, sang Bob Dylan. True, but McTell also left us a fine collection of gospel blues songs, including River of Jordan, which focuses our attention on the inevitable journey we all must take across Jordan – on our own, facing the consequences of our lives. There’s some fine slide playing on the song and McTell’s vocal performance is strong and compelling. The song is essentially another version of Nobody’s Fault but Mine.
Arguably Willie Johnson’s masterpiece, it is making its way across the universe as part of the musical offering on the Voyager space craft. Recorded in 1927, it features Johnson’s inspired slide playing which creates an incredible other-worldly, eerie effect and his agonized moaning. You really cannot hear the words of this old spiritual which focuses on Christ’s trial in the Garden of Gethsemane, but Johnson’s vocals and slide work more than evoke this terrible hour. Click here for our more detailed look at this song.
Rev. Robert Wilkins: Prodigal Son
Wilkins’ compelling retelling of the gospel story of the prodigal son was recorded in 1935, six years after he had recorded the same song with secular lyrics. Now, having turned his back on the blues and an ordained minister, he re-recorded the song, and eventually performed it at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. For more on the song, go to here.
Skip James: My God is Real
The music of Skip James, the most enigmatic of all the Delta blues figures, was ominous, bleak and mysterious, made primarily for his own emotional release. James was an exceptional guitarist, with a trademark E-minor tuning and an eerie falsetto vocal delivery. After making some seminal blues recordings, in 1931 he moved to Dallas, where he served as a minister and led a gospel group. His My God is Real, speaks of a deep, very personal experience of faith.
Josh White: My Soul is Gonna Live with God
White was a prolific blues artist and civil rights activist in the first half of the twentieth century. He took a clear anti-segregationist and international human rights political stance and recorded a number of political protest songs. He also recorded gospel songs under the moniker, The Singing Christian. His 1935 My Soul is Gonna Live with God puts his guitar playing chops and his fine singing on display and focuses on the Christian hope for after death.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Rock Me
Rosetta Tharpe was a major star during the 1940s and 50s and was an inspiration to the early generation of rock’n’roll artists. She grew up immersed in the church and her faith was a constant inspiration to her music throughout her life. Rock Me, one of her most loved songs, was written by Tommy Dorsey and first recorded by her in 1938. An instant hit, the song contains various Biblical and hymn references. Isaiah 41 comes to mind: “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.” The song was also another of Blind Willie McTell’s gospel recordings, under its original title, Hide Me in Thy Bosom, in 1949.
And check out this fine recent version by Brooks Williams, accompanied by Hans Theessink:
Mississippi Fred McDowell: You Got to Move
Fred McDowell’s song was brought to prominence by the Rolling Stones on their Sticky Fingers album. It’s essentially a song about the Christian hope of resurrection – “when the Lord get ready, you got to move!”
For a great recent version, check out Paul Thorn’s take on his Don’t Let the Devil Ride album. Check out our conversation with Paul, including his comments on the song here
Sister Fleeta Mitchell & Rev. Willie Mae Eberhard: Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Most people are more familiar with Robert Plant’s version of this old spiritual, but Fleeta Mitchell and Willie Mae Eberhard’s stripped down version which appears on Art Rosenbaum’s 2007 album of traditional field recordings is well worth checking out. The song is based on Jesus’s words in Luke’s gospel when he said, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.” For Christians, the power of evil personified by the “Adversary” is under judgement because of the coming of Christ and ultimately we are not to despair, because good will triumph under the Lordship of Jesus.
Mississippi John Hurt: Here Am I, Oh Lord, Send Me (Don’t You Hear My Saviour Calling?)
John Hurt is renown for his blues and his rhythmic, alternating bass guitar style, with fast syncopated melodies. Reputed to be a gentle soul, his music is quite transcendent, whether blues or gospel. Here Am I, Oh Lord Send Me is a fine example of his technique and is based on Jesus’s words in John’s gospel about the fields being ready for harvest. The song has a devotional feel about it, with the singer offering himself for God’s service.
Rev. Gary Davis: I Am the Light of this World
Born blind, black and in the American South, Davis had little going for him, and yet he became a master of the guitar, ending up in New York City where he was recognized for the musical genius he was. Davis stayed faithful to his calling as a minister of the gospel until he died and only in the last decade of his life was he persuaded to sing blues songs publicly. His ragtime, blues and gospel performances are all outstanding. I Am the Light of this World recalls the words of Jesus in St. John’s gospel.
Check out Ian Zack’s riveting biography of Gary Davis – reviewed here.
Larry Norman: Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?
Blues-based rock, rather than strictly blues, but this song from Only Visiting this Planet in 1972 puts to rights the misconception that the blues is the devil’s music. Norman, the father of Christian rock, takes up the line from Salvation Army founder William Booth almost a century earlier and then proclaims loudly, “there’s nothing wrong with playing blues licks.”
And in a similar vein, check out Lurrie Bell’s The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, from his 2012 album with the same title.
Eric Bibb: I Want Jesus to Walk With Me
Often played by Eric Bibb in his concerts, he captures completely the dual nature of this old spiritual – on the one hand mournful about the trials and tribulations of life, and yet hopeful about the reality of the presence of Jesus in the midst of those trials. As Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
From the 2012 album, Blues for the Modern Daze, Walter Trout’s dazzling technique, intensity and emotion seizes you, along with the hard-hitting lyrics. The song recalls the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and calls for more neighbourliness in our relations. Trout reminds us that “Jesus said to feed the hungry, Jesus said to help the poor,” and finishes he song with a searing criticism of modern “so-called Christians” who “don’t believe in that no more.” For more on the song go to here.
Ry Cooder: Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right
Ry Cooder has produced one of the best gospel albums ever in Prodigal Son, reviving and updating a number of old gospel songs as well as a couple of his own. We could have picked almost any song from the album for inclusion, but his excellent version of Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger right is surely a song for our times, with xenophobia at an all time high. Strangers, sojourners and immigrants were all to be treated with care and welcome according to the Hebrew bible – “And if a stranger dwell with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God,” (Leviticus 19:33-34). And reflected in the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 – “I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me … When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? … Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”
Phelps’s 2012 album, Brother Sinner and the Whale, is arguably the best gospel roots album ever. Phelps’s guitar work and slide playing, as always, is immaculate, and the songs are a remarkable testament to Phelps’s rediscovered faith. They brim with creativity, inspiration and spirituality. His reworking of the old hymn, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah is masterful, but we’ve chosen his own Goodbye to Sorrow here, which is simply a wonderful song and packed with theology:
“My God came to earth a humble man
As part of a divine and master plan
When they crucified our Saviour He set the captives free
That death would lose dominion over you and over me
I have said goodbye to sorrow as I lay before the cross.”
Click here for Down at the Crossroads’ comments on this album here.
Blind Boys of Alabama: Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Singing together since 1944, the Blind Boys have been singing blues tinged gospel for an awfully long time and you’d be hard pressed to pick the best of. For a good list, check out Paste’s take here. We’ve gone with this sparse arrangement of another Blind Willie Johnson song, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, which is full of the personal regret and heartache. The plaintive harmonica, the slide guitar and the tight harmonies combine to make this an outstanding version of the song.