“Snooks has got it all, including possibly the coolest name in blues history”
(Slide guitarist Martin Harley)
Snooks Eaglin was born Fird Eaglin Jr. around 1936, and lost his sight shortly after his first birthday. Nevertheless, he taught himself to play guitar as a child by listening to the radio and by the time he was 10, he was singing and playing in local Baptist churches. When he was 11, he won a talent contest at a radio station with his version of 12th Street Rag and then dropped out of school three years later to become a professional musician.
He was a talented guitarist, singer and performer, being dubbed the “human jukebox” for his ability to play a vast range of songs, rarely sticking to a set list and regularly taking requests from his audience. Eaglin often claimed his repertoire included 2,500 songs!
On the guitar Eaglin could play finger-picking blues, jazz, R&B or Hendrix-like rock. He’d amaze people by playing melody, bass and chords, seemingly all at once. Keyboardist /producer Ron Levy said, “He can play any song just off the top of his head. If he can think about it and hear it in his head, he can play it perfectly.” Levy goes on to recount how at a party “Snooks was sitting in the corner playing, and he sounded great. But after a while I noticed that he was missing a couple strings on his guitar but it didn’t seem to make any difference. He still sounded great!”
Eaglin recorded and toured inconsistently over his long 50-year career, but his first recordings, released by Folkways in 1959 as New Orleans Street Singer, showcase Eaglin’s prodigious talent both in terms of his guitar chops and his vocal performance.
These recordings were made by folklorist Harry Oster, who had found the 22-year-old Eaglin playing in the streets of New Orleans. If club or studio work was sparse, Eaglin would often would play on the street for tourists in the French Quarter. Although Eaglin had played in a band for many years, in these recordings he plays in an acoustic blues style, just him and his guitar. Eaglin proves himself to be an exceptionally accomplished guitarist, with a sophisticated, metronomic strumming style perforated by complex and fast runs. His singing, although a bit reminiscent of Ray Charles, is all his own – it’s laid back, a bit throaty, a bit soulful and thoroughly captivating.
There are 16 tracks on the album, a combination of traditional blues songs and covers of R&B songs of the period. It kicks off with a jaunty version of Careless Love, followed up by the slow blues of Come Back Baby, written and recorded by singer and pianist Walter Davis in 1940, but made popular shortly before Eaglin recorded this album by Ray Charles on his debut album in 1956.
The album has a lovely balance with slow songs and songs you could dance to, and throughout, even with songs like St. James Infirmary or Trouble in Mind, there’s a positive, upbeat feel to it all, fuelled by Eaglin’s much-to-be-admired guitar work.
His guitar chops are especially on display on the instrumental number High Society, which features some amazingly fast runs up and down the fretboard.
There’s one serious song on the album. I Got My Questionnaire, later covered as Uncle Sam Blues by Jefferson Airplane, about a man called up to go to a war not of his own choosing. Pretty topical then – and now.
Said Uncle Sam ain’t no woman
But he sure can take your man
Well, they got him in the service
Doin’ somethin’ he don’t understand
The album finishes with the upbeat Look Down That Lonesome Road. Eaglin’s rhythmic strumming and nicely phrased vocals will leave you with a smile on your face.
Eaglin’s Seventh Day Adventist faith loomed large in his life. His seventh day observance kept him from playing on from Friday evening to Saturday night, and he wouldn’t perform on religious holidays either, winning him admirers for sticking to his convictions. He recorded and performed gospel songs throughout his life – check out the moving I Must See Jesus.
By all accounts, he was both a delight and a marvel to see perform. New Orleans guitarist Camile Baudoin has said, “When Snooks plays, that’s all I can do is laugh, makes me feel so good. Nobody plays like Snooks Eaglin. Nobody.”
Snooks Eaglin passed away in 2009, so we don’t have the privilege of seeing him perform live. But we have recordings like The New Orleans Street Singer where we get to hear his musical genius.
Track Listing (Folkways FA-2476, 1959)
01 Careless Love
02 Come Back Baby
03 High Society
04 Let Me Go Home Whiskey
05 Trouble in Mind
06 St. James Infirmary
07 I Got My Questionnaire
08 The Drifter Blues
09 Rock Island Line
10 Every Day I Have the Blues
11 Sophisticated Blues
12 See See Rider
13 One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer
14 A Thousand Miles Away From Home
15 I’m Looking for a Woman
16 Look Down That Lonesome Road