3/30: Dark Was the Night, Cold Was on the Ground

I’ve wanted to play the blues on WZBC for awhile now. Knowing that there is no regular blues show at the station and that only one or two other members ever broadcast the stuff just made the desire stronger. Following Jack Rose’s death I read about his fascination with pre-WW2 blues and folk music and decided to dig out all the blues records I could find, many of which were compilations suggested to me or made for me by friends. I started putting my playlist together by focusing on something Jack had said about “old-time music” in this NPR feature:

“A lot of people, when they view old-time music, they view it as gentle or nostalgic, which I don’t get at all,” Rose said. “It was totally bizarre-sounding to me, and messed-up.”

I guess I’d never really thought about the blues as strange or particularly weird. I don’t think I’d ever thought about them as gentle or nostalgic either, but I wanted to see if I could find what Jack was talking about. To that end my best bet seemed to lay in playing older, acoustic performers. Of the 13 songs played in the first hour none were recorded after 1969. A majority of them are from the 20’s and 30’s, there are a few choice cuts from the 40s and 50s, and almost none of them feature an electric guitar. Anyone familiar with the style will probably recognize all of these names. But without diving into ultra-obscure blues that only collectors and full-time musicologists know about I think I achieved my goal. Songs like “Prayer of Death – Part 1” and “Cypress Grove Blues” probably defy popular notions about the blues, and “Louis Collins” might be one of the most haunting and sadly beautiful songs I know. All of them are far from being gentle, even if the music itself is familiar and soothing. As for subject matter, some readers might be interested in the fact that Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stack o’ Lee” is one of the earliest known renditions of a song that eventually became Nick Cave’s “Stagger Lee.” So much for quaint and nostalgic, eh? And I can’t forget about Henry Thomas, whose “Bull Doze Blues” was the source for Canned Heat’s famous “Going Up the Country.” If strumming a guitar is the standard and most familiar method for singing the blues, then the sound of Thomas’ quills (basically a pan flute) will probably strike most listeners as a little unusual. In any case, his melodies and rhythms are also unique and maybe sound less “bluesy” than other songs on the playlist.

The second half of the show featured a lot more electric blues, with cuts from guys like Taj Mahal and Howlin’ Wolf. I also tossed in some Otis Rush tunes for good measure, because if the Taj and Wolf songs I played featured a style familiar to most listeners, Otis provided all the darkness, strangeness, and drama anyone could want. The way he arranged his band, the sound of his voice, and the quality of his recordings together create a kind of scary, almost violent-sounding blues. It’s pretty clear to me that Creedence Clearwater Revival and other like bands weren’t just borrowing from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins when they played the blues. Their cover of “I Put a Spell On You” is practically stolen from the book of Otis Rush.

The show ended with a return to the older, acoustic stuff, including “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was on the Ground,” a blues song that has the distinction of being included on the Voyager Golden Record launched into space in 1977. Also included is Leadbelly, Son House, and a Bukka White song about Parchman Farm, the infamous Mississippi State penitentiary where White served time and Alan Lomax recorded many of the work songs, field hollers, and interviews that would make him famous. I completely neglected a lot of musicians due to time constraints. I would have loved to have included Blind Willie McTell (see Bob Dylan’s song “Blind Willie McTell” too), Bessie Smith, Mance Lipscomb, Blind Blake, and many others. It would have been nice to get to recordings of old spirituals and prison songs too. Perhaps on another show.

Before going into the studio I’m not sure I had many preconceived notions about the blues. I guess I associated them with their namesake, but also with dancing, the history of the south, and with being the source for rock ‘n’ roll. Coming out of the studio it wasn’t hard to see what Jack meant by strange or bizarre, especially when listening to the lyrics and considering how desolate solo guitar and voice can sound. I could mention a thousand other instances of how influential the blues were for folk and rock musicians, but I don’t think that’s as interesting as how well all these songs have held up or how religion, cultural norms, politics, and regional quirks found their way into the songs. We’ve all heard that the blues constitute one of America’s only original contributions to the history of music, but I think we’ve all heard that so much that we’ve become numb to it. Sometimes you just have to listen closely and feel the music for yourself.

Information about all these performers and styles is all over the internet. If you’re interested, I suggest checking out Wikipedia first, and then maybe looking into all the books out there that cover the history of blues and folk music. Or you could check out the Alan Lomax and Harry Smith collections that are out there. I’m not exactly sure which books are the best sources of information, so if anyone has suggestions, please post them in the comments or send me an email so I can post them here.

I’ve also posted a mix of blues music in the update below this one. It features some of the same songs from the show, but includes a ton of stuff that didn’t make it. If you want to know more, just scroll down.

Next week I’ll be playing newer music, including songs from the latest Will Oldham record. Thank you for listening and for the correspondence! Please keep your emails and comments coming! I hope you’ll all tune in next week.

DOWNLOAD: Hour 1

DOWNLOAD: Hour 2

01. Mississippi Fred McDowell “Baby Please Don’t Go” from I Do Not Play No Rock n’ Roll (2001) on Fuel — originally released in 1969

02. Lightnin’ Hopkins “Sail On, Little Girl, Sail On” from Blues in my Bottle (1991) on OBC — recorded in 1961

03. Big Joe Williams “Shake Your Boogie” from Shake Your Boogie (1993) on Arhoolie Records — not sure of recording date

04. Robert Johnson “Cross Road Blues” from The Complete Recordings (1990) on Sony — recorded sometime between 1930-1937

05. Clifford Gibson “Tired of Being Mistreated – Part 1” from Clifford Gibson (1929-1931) (2005) on Document Records — recorded in the early 30s, maybe late 20s

06. Tampa Red “Detroit Blues” from Tampa Red Vol. 12 1941-1945 (2005) on Document Records — recorded between 1941-1945

07. Charlie Patton “Prayer of Death – Part 1” from Primeval Blues, Rags, and Gospel Songs (2005) on Yazoo — recorded in 1920s

08. Skip James “Cypress Grove Blues” from Blues Images Presents: 1920s Blues Classics Vol. 3 (2006) on Blues Images — recorded in 1931

09. Mississippi John Hurt “Louis Collins” from Avalon Blues – The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (1996) on Columbia/Legacy — recorded in 1928

10. Elizabeth Cotten “Shake Sugaree” from Shake Sugaree (2004) on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

11. Casey Bill Weldon “Believe I’ll Make a Change” from The Essential Casey Bill Weldon (2001) on Classic Blues

12. Odetta “Easy Rider” from Sings Ballads and Blues (2006) on Ryko/Rhino — originally released in 1956

13. Henry Thomas “Bull Doze Blues” from Sings The Texas Blues 1927-28 (1962) on Origin Jazz Library

14. Mississippi Fred McDowell “Goin’ Down to the River” from Mississippi Blues (1996) on Orbis

15. Otis Rush “My Love Will Never Die” from Essential Otis Rush – The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-1958 (2000) on Fuel 2000

16. Taj Mahal “Checkin’ Up on My Baby” from Taj Mahal (1968) on Columbia/Legacy

17. Elmore James “Cry for Me Baby” from The Sky Is Crying (1993) on Rhino — recorded in 1953

18. Howlin’ Wolf “Spoonful” from Howlin’ Wolf (1984) on Chess — recorded 1961

19. John Lee Hooker “Whiskey and Wimmen’” from The Early Years Volume One (2003) on Tomato

20. Otis Rush “Double Trouble” from The Essential Otis Rush- The Classic Cobra Recordings 1956-58 (2000) on Fuel 2000

21. Barbecue Bob “Barbecue Blues” from Greg’s Real Folk Blues (2001) on none

22. Leadbelly “Irene” from Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy Vol. 1 (1996) on Smithsonian Folkways — recorded sometime around 1943

23. Blind Willie Johnson “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was on the Ground” from Greg’s Real Folk Blues (2001) on none

24. Bukka White “Parchman Farm Blues” from Parchman Farm Blues (1963) on Columbia — recorded in 1940

25. Son House “Walking Blues” from Southern Blues, Vol. 1 (2007) on Acrobat — recorded 1942

26. Blind Lemon Jefferson “War Times Blues” from Blues Images Presents: 1920s Blues Classics Vol. 3 (2006) on Blues Images

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