Friday, April 29, 2011

Roots of Rock

Blues is often called the "roots of rock" by many people, and with good reason.  Every so often, Living Blues will publish a list of songs with origins in the blues that have been covered successfully by rockers....a list that gets longer and longer each year.  Of course, this has been going on since the days of "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" in the mid 50's.  Today, Friday Blues Fix looks at three rock songs with blues roots.

Blind Willie McTell

First up is a song that many 60's rock fans will certainly remember, since a pair of groups took a shot at it in the late 60's.......Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues."  McTell was one of the more prolific blues recording artist, making records during the pre-war and post-war eras, and he's one of the few artists whose recordings have actually survived in pretty good shape soundwise, so listening to his songs is not as challenging as, say, Charlie Patton or Blind Blake or other Paramount artists.  He played for tips on the streets of Atlanta, playing a 12-string guitar in both a ragtime style (similar to Blind Blake or Blind Boy Fuller) and also bottleneck.  He was exceptional in both styles and rarely recorded songs the same way twice.  He was a major influence on Bob Dylan, who has paid tribute to McTell on several albums, including a song called "Blind Willie McTell."  McTell recorded several standards over his career, such as "Broke Down Engine," "Mama T'aint Long For Day," "Southern Can Is Mine," and "Georgia Strut," but the song he is best known for is "Statesboro Blues."

Taj Mahal

"Statesboro Blues" has been recorded by many different artists, but there's actually a story within a story in this particular case.  Taj Mahal recorded the song in 1968 for his debut recording, which is considered a masterpiece of modern blues.  At a time where many blues artists were leaning toward soul and even the psychedelia that was permeating rock music during this period.  Taj Mahal's debut was seemingly a perfect mix of looking back at classic blues sound and looking ahead at the same time to where the blues were going.  With able support from a sterling pair of guitarists (Ry Cooder on rhythm guitar and the amazing Jesse Ed Davis on lead), Mahal employed a basic approach quite different from the norm, and provided exuberant harmonica, guitar, and vocals.  The album is still great listening today, and their version is "Statesboro Blues" is one of the reasons why, with a powerful vocal by Mahal and some incredible guitar work by Davis.

The Allman Brothers Band

A couple of years later, the Allman Brothers Band recorded "Statesboro Blues" for their self-titled debut album.  They largely copped the melody of Taj Mahal's version, with the major difference being the presence of Duane Allman, whose astonishing slide work was beginning to attract a lot of attention.  Allman's mastery of the slide guitar was a direct effect of seeing Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis perform a couple of years earlier, when the Allmans were part of the Hour Glass.  The song Duane Allman heard them perform was "Statesboro Blues," and from that point, Allman practiced playing slide guitar almost non-stop.  The first song he ever played slide on with the Hour Glass was "Statesboro Blues."  When the Allmans recorded their classic live set at the Fillmore, one of the highlights was their version of the song.  From this point on, it's safe to say that "Statesboro Blues" was considered the Allman Brothers' song, but it really traveled an interesting path from Willie McTell's mournful version in the 1930's to the Fillmore East in 1971.

Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller)

Of course, the Allman Brothers have taken several other blues standards and made them their own during their storied career.  Another example is Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out."  Rice Miller's version (originally recorded, but not released by Elmore James) featured Buddy Guy on guitar, Jack Meyers on bass, Lafayette Leake on piano, and the great Fred Below on drums, and was recorded in 1964 during one of Rice Miller's final Chess sessions.  Williamson orignally recorded it in 1961, but the '64 version with Guy and Below's rhythmic vamp is the most memorable one.  The Allmans' version that became famous was recorded at the same Fillmore East show that produced "Statesboro Blues" (but released on their Eat A Peach album), and basically keeps the melody of the '64 version intact.  However, it exudes desperation, sweat, and fear, courtesy of Gregg Allman's breathless vocal and Duane Allman's manic slide guitar.

Lead Belly

In 1939, Huddie Ledbetter (also known as Lead Belly), one of the most prolific and enduring blues/folk artists of the early part of the 20th Century, recorded an acapella version of an old prison work song called "Black Betty."  It had been recorded in the early 30's as well by prison group and was subsequently recorded by several others, including folk singer Odetta, Dave "Snaker" Ray, and Alan Lomax, who was involved in recording the 1930's versions.  However, Lead Belly's performance remains the best known of the early recordings.

Ram Jam

In 1976, a rock group from Cincinnati called Starstruck recorded a version of "Black Betty," with some modified lyrics, but it didn't do that much and the band split.  The next year, it was revived by one of the members of Starstruck, who was now in a band called Ram Jam.  The re-release became a Top 20 smash in 1977 and has actually been remixed and reworked several times since then. 

Even though the song was boycotted by the NAACP and other civil rights groups, it is unclear what the song is actually about.  It dates back to the 18th Century, when a certain flint lock musket was called "Black Betty" (the Bam-a-Lam referring to the sound of the gun firing).  It's  been associated with a bottle of whiskey, a bullwhip, and a prisoner transfer wagon used in a penitentiary.  It's also been associated with a motorcycle and a hot rod.  Whatever your views on where it originated, it's obvious that the Ram Jam version has been wildly successful, having been covered by other bands, featured on movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks.

These three songs are just the tip of the iceberg.  Stay tuned for more rock tunes with blues origins in the near future.


Simon.H said...

Good choices!...'One Way Out' is my second favourite track of the AB Band, trumped only by the live version of 'Whipping Post', was that also a cover?

Graham said...

"Whipping Post" was written by Gregg Allman. He nailed that one, didn't he?