Archive for February, 2019

Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom”

As with many blues songs, “Dust My Broom” arrived in its present form through various other songs, the earliest of which has been identified as “I Believe I’ll Make a Change”, recorded in 1932 by identical twins Aaron and Marion Sparks under the names “Pinetop and Lindberg.” Aaron chose the name Pinetop in honour of Clarence “Pinetop” Smith, the famous boogie-woogie blues pianist, while Marion called himself Lindberg because he could really dance the Lindy Hop! This dance, named after the aviator Charles Lindberg, was a huge sensation during the “Big Band” era of the late thirties and early fourties.

Marion Sparks

The Sparks brothers only managed to record a handful of songs since Aaron was poisoned before he turned 30. Marion spent a lot of time running afoul of the law for bootlegging, gambling, fistfights and even manslaughter. The only available picture of the Sparks brothers is the one on the right, a 1934 mug shot of Marion, courtesy of the St Louis Police Department! In spite of their short stint with music, the Sparks brothers managed to give us the classic blues songs “61 Highway Blues”, made famous by Mississippi Fred McDowell, and “Every Day I Have The Blues”, forever linked with B.B. King and Count Basie vocalist Big Joe Williams.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

In 1936, Robert Johnson, one of the greatest bluesmen who ever lived, recorded “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, a Delta Blues reworking of the Sparks brothers’ version that captured the drive and intensity of the song. Johnson added some new lyrics and introduced the repeated triplet guitar phrasing that Elmore James later transformed into the most recognizable guitar riff in the history of the blues. Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27, supposedly poisoned by a jealous husband. He only had time to record 29 songs in his short life, all of them very influential in the development of the blues and Rock ‘n Roll.

Elmore James

Elmore James

Elmore James was born in Richland Mississippi on January 27, 1918, the son of 15-year old Leola Brooks, a field hand, taking the James name from Joe Willie James, a sharecropper and perhaps his father. A musician by the age of 12, James toured throughout rural Mississippi with Sonny Boy Williamson and encountered Robert Johnson, from whom he probably learned “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” After a stint in the U.S. Navy during the war, James joined Williamson on the famous King Biscuit radio show performances and, in 1951, the duo auditioned for the small Trumpet Records. James was signed to a recording contract but the only song he recorded at that time was “Dust My Broom.” The single, with a rendition of “Catfish Blues” by Bobo Thomas as the B-side, listed the performer of both pieces as “Elmo” James. The1951 recording of “Dust My Broom” happened when electric amplification was still in its infancy and is one of those rare recordings that changed the course of blues music. The driving dance rhythm, the overwhelming amplified slide guitar and James’ magnificent vocal make it pure lightning in a bottle. Regional record charts show that “Dust My Broom” gradually gained popularity across the U.S. It eventually entered Billboard magazine’s national Top R&B singles chart in April 1952 and peaked at number nine. The success of the single by the relatively small Trumpet Records led other record companies to pursue James in the hope of landing his follow-up hit. Thus, many re-workings of “Dust My Broom”, all with small variations, were recorded by James for different record labels during his career. My personal favourite is a 1959 recording for Fire/Fury records.

Beginning in 1952 James divided his time between Mississippi and Chicago. His backing musicians were known as The Broomdusters and featured his cousin, “Homesick” James. The band was so powerful that people often showered the stage with dollar bills. The Broomdusters rivalled the Muddy Waters group that included Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, and Otis Spann. While “Dust My Broom” remained James’ signature song on stage and on record, he also composed the enduring blues standards “The Sky Is Crying,” “Madison Blues,” and “Done Somebody Wrong.” Ever since the war, Elmore James knew he had a serious heart condition. He died of a heart attack in Chicago in 1963, as he was about to tour Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. Elmore James was 45 years old.

NOTES: The expression “dust my broom” is understood to mean “move out” of a rented room, sweeping up before you go. Over the years, it has generally been used to mean leaving any unwanted situation behind. “No-good doney” is seldom heard these days and refers to a woman of low standards.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars
Alrick Huebener – electric bass
Roch Tassé – drums

 

Dust My Broom

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“In The Pines”, a simple song that lives beyond time

Leadbelly

Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) (1888-1949)

“In The Pines” is a traditional American folk song which dates back to at least the 1870s. It is generally believed to be Southern Appalachian in origin (Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia) but it might have an even older Irish history. Like numerous other folk songs, it was passed on from one generation and locale to the next by word of mouth.The first printed version of the lyrics was published in 1917 and a version was also recorded onto phonograph cylinder in 1925. Starting in 1926, commercial recordings of the song were made by various folk and bluegrass bands. In her 1970 Ph.D. dissertation, ethnomusicologist Judith McCulloh found 160 permutations of the song. It was recorded with titles as various as “Black Girl”, “My Girl”, “In The Pines”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “The Longest Train.”

Bill Monroe (1911-1996)

Bill Monroe (1911-1996)

Writing in the New York Times in 1994, Eric Weisbard called “In The Pines” “a simple song that lives beyond time.” It also lives beyond styles. Over the years, the song was recorded as blues (Leadbelly, Leroy Carr), bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Doc Watson), country (Dolly Parton, The Oak Ridge Boys), rock (Link Wray, The Grateful Dead), traditional (Roscoe Holcomb, Ralph Stanley), folk (Pete Seeger, Odetta), even grunge (Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson) and pop (Connie Francis and Tiny Tim). Also dear to my heart is a Cajun version recorded by Nathan Abshire, sung in French and released under the separate titles of “Pine Grove Blues” and “Ma négresse” (My Black Girl). It was Abshire’s greatest hit.

Nathan Abshire (1913-1981(

Nathan Abshire (1913-1981)

Of all these different versions, three elements are common to most if not all : the train, the unfaithful girl and the pines themselves, variously seen as sexuality, loneliness or death. In the song, the “longest train” is said to come from Georgia, where Joseph Emerson Brown, a former governor, operated coal mines in the 1870’s, using prisoners as labourers. It is often suggested that the captain throwing his watch away indicates that the train is an eternal passage from life to death. The “decapitation verse” that I’ve included is often omitted.

Doc Watson (1923-2012) & David Grisman

Doc Watson (1923-2012) & David Grisman

These days, “In The Pines” is mainly associated with Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) and Bill Monroe, who both recorded several highly influential versions of the song in the 1940s. For my recording, I relied heavily on Leadbelly’s haunting recordings and decided to include a mandolin as a tribute to Bill Monroe. I also listened ceaselessly to the live recording of the song played by Doc Watson and David Grisman, one of the best mandolin players in the world, in concert in Watsonville, California, in 1998. It is an arresting example of human artistry of the very highest order.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, 12-string guitar, mandolin

 

In The Pines

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