Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready”

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

When Muddy Waters came to Chicago in 1943, musicians looking for a bit of money would set up all along the Maxwell Street Market. The Market had stores of all kinds, dry goods, fresh produce, meat and fish, textiles and garments, jewellers and barbers, pharmacies, pawn shops, the back rooms of these stores devoted to card games and dice. Muddy met guitarist Jimmy Rogers there and they became fast friends, both being from the Delta, both raised by their grandmothers. Rogers introduced Muddy to Little Walter, a young fireball who wore the scars of many knife fights on his face. Muddy said that Little Walter “could think twice to your once” and took the blues harp into uncharted territory. They formed a band with Baby Face Leroy on drums and played clubs like the Zanzibar, the Chicken Shack, the Purple Cat, Silvio’s and the Du Drop Inn. The clubs were very violent, recalls Rogers. “Some guy would get mad with his old lady and they’d fight. Somebody would get cut or get shot.”

Muddy Waters Blues Band circa 1954

Muddy Waters Blues Band circa 1954

When drummer “Elgin” Edmonds joined the band with pianist Otis Spann, Muddy had a real blues band on his hands. The photo on the right shows Muddy, Henry Armstrong, a sign painter who helped the band make posters, Otis Spann at the piano, Henry “Pot” Strong on harp, drummer Elgin Edmonds in the background and Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Henry Strong was nicknamed “Pot” because of his fondness for reefer. Sometime after this photo was taken, Jimmy Rogers gave Pot a ride home. Muddy had gone on before and was already there. A scuffle broke out between Pot, a ladies man, and his jealous wife Juanita, who stabbed him through the lung. Muddy found Pot bleeding on the lobby’s marble floor, wrapped him up in a quilt and drove him to the hospital but Pot died on the way. He was 25 years old.

It was at this time that blues music, previously rural, became urban. The electric instruments, and especially the drums, conquered the unruly crowds and the solid beat sent everybody to the dance floor. The blues was now dance music and its popularity skyrocketed.

Harmonica player Willie Foster recalls visiting Muddy’s apartment and Willie Dixon answered the door. Muddy was shaving in the bathroom and stuck his head out, asking Foster “Are you ready?” to which Foster replied “Ready as anybody can be.” Muddy and Willie Dixon looked at each other and the song “I’m Ready” was written in a few days. A little later on, pianist Sunnyland Slim introduced Muddy to the Chess brothers. On the first of September 1954, they cut their first session at the new Chess studios, yielding the hit “I’m Ready.” The recording features Little Walter on chromatic harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Fred Below on drums, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, with Muddy signing. The song hit number 4 on Billboard’s charts.

In an article titled “Pop Music Rides R&B Tidal Wave,” Billboard wrote that rhythm and blues was no longer restricted to a black audience. Used juke box records were being snapped up by white neighborhood kids, in particular records by Muddy Waters, Ruth Brown and Willie Mabon. The popularity of the blues was crossing over to white audiences. Down in Memphis, record producer Sam Philips started Sun Studios and the talent he recorded was stellar : Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and, of course, Elvis Presley. A disc jockey named Alan Freed (1921-1965) came to the forefront of the “crossover” music he played on the radio, calling it “rock and roll,” a phrase originally used in Billboard magazine as early as 1946. By the time I was five, I had a front-row seat to this new music, thanks to my talented and generous brother Gabriel. He patiently introduced me to the music of his time. It was by listening to this music that my obscure world solifified into something clear and so real.

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

I’m Ready

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“Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters

Muddy en 1950

Muddy in 1950

In February of 1950, one month after I was born, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield, 1913-1983) stepped into a Chicago studio to record his composition called “Rollin’ Stone.” The recording was odd because it featured Muddy singing and playing an electric guitar, nothing else. It marked the start of the transition from acoustic rural blues to electric urban blues, now universally known as Chicago Blues. The song spoke of rootlessness, independence and post-war angst. Like existentialist thinkers, bluesmen of the 20th century explored issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

Muddy was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and his parents never married and never lived together, as was common in the South at that time. Raised by his grandmother, she named him “Muddy” because he frequently carried the Mississippi River mud into the house as a boy. The “Waters” part was added on later by some friends. His grandmother saw that he was raised in the Baptist tradition, singing spirituals, an important part of Muddy’s development as a singer. Big for his age, he started working on a plantation when he was eight years old. He picked cotton, beans, corn, plowed behind a mule and, on good days, drove a truck. As a result, Muddy was illiterate all his life, the kind of forced illiteracy that was the fate of most black men and women in the South at the turn of the 20th century.

Muddy worked at Stovall’s plantation, which was, by most accounts, one of the better places to work in Mississippi although the surrounding region knew its share of lynchings. Stovall’s was 4,000 acres, no running water or electricity and they paid their employees in scrip or tokens, exchangeable for goods sold only at the company store. The same belittling practice was adopted by the Edwards lumber mill during the early days of Rockland, my home town.

Stovall’s was a regular stop for many musicians and Muddy remembers learning how to play the guitar by watching Son House, Charley Patton and the Mississippi Sheiks, a local string band. By the time he was seventeen, Muddy was a fixture at Stovall’s plantation, as a bootlegger and as their most popular musician.

In August of 1941, Muddy got word that a white man was looking for him. This was never good news and he immediately thought that they had come to arrest him for selling whiskey. When he met the white man, Muddy, like any southern black man who knew his place, said “Yassuh?” to which the white man replied “Hey, hey, don’t yassuh me. I want to hear you play guitar.” This white man was Alan Lomax (1915-2002), who was scouring the South to record songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress in Washington. But Alan Lomax was no “ordinary” white racist. At one point, he asked Muddy for a drink of water and drank out of the same cup Muddy used. Nobody had ever heard of anything like that in the segregated South.

Muddy avec Son Sims

Muddy with Son Sims in 1941

Lomax hooked up his portable recording equipment, ran a microphone into the house and recorded Muddy, occasionally backed by other plantation musicians like Son Sims, a fiddler who had played with many bluesmen, including the great Charley Patton. Lomax came back in 1942 and recorded some additional songs and both sessions were released in 1966 on an album entitled “Down On Stovall’s Plantation.”

Down On Stovall's Plantation

Down On Stovall’s Plantation

That record became a mainstay of my collection as a young man. The sound of Muddy on those recordings reveals an able guitarist and certainly one of the most powerful, moving singers I’ve ever heard. Also, consider some of the lyrics to Muddy’s “Country Blues No. 1”: on fate and its inevitabilities, he wrote “Brooks run into the ocean/ and the ocean runs into the sea.” On the drudgery of daily life on the plantation, he wrote “Minutes seem like hours/ and the hours seem like days.” Plain, natural country poetry.

Muddy thought his recordings were something of a modern miracle and wanted to record more songs but he realized he would have to go up north to do so and for that, he needed money. He began to do odd jobs, playing blues all night for 50 cents and a sandwich, even trapping furs, like my father did when our family was young. When cotton was not in season, Muddy moved around to other harvests, rambling all the time. It was a dangerous business. At the time, the police arrested all blacks travelling alone and charged them with vagrancy. These men ended up as free labour on penal farms – this is how southern highways were built. It was during this period of restlessness and constant motion that Muddy wrote “Rollin’ Stone” and indeed, he gathered no moss.

After a brief and unsuccessful stint in St. Louis, Muddy finally moved to Chicago in 1943. New York and Los Angeles were also popular destinations for southern black men searching for their place in a world where they had previously been chattel. By the end of the forties, the average annual wage for blacks in Chicago was $1,919. In Mississippi, it was $439. Muddy started working in a paper factory and a glass factory, driving a delivery truck. At night, he played the South Side clubs but it was still the jazz era and nobody wanted to hear blues singers. In fact, no one could hear Muddy and his acoustic guitar in a room full of dancing, liquor, arguments and fights. Musicians often played behind a curtain of chicken wire to protect themselves from flying beer bottles. The solution came with technology and the newly developed electric guitar. Muddy soon added bass, drums, piano and harmonica and his band, one of the best ever assembled, could now be heard above the shouting, yelling and ruckus of any crowd.

The 1942-1944 musicians’ union strike with the record companies over royalty payments had three major consequences: the rise of small independent record companies, the decline of the Big Bands and the rise of the vocalists. This made it possible for several creative artists to forge the exciting new sounds of rhythm ‘n blues (R&B) and it also opened the door for singers like Muddy Waters.

The Chess brothers, Leonard (1917-1969) and Phil (1921-2016), who were to play an integral part in the recording and distribution of past-war blues, were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in Chicago. The brothers started the Macomba Club and bought an interest in Aristocrat Records, a struggling venture. Aristocrat became Chess Records in 1950 and Chess started to record the new electric blues becoming more and more popular in clubs all over the South Side. Nobody knew anything about the electric guitar or how to record it but it was a period of beautiful experimentation and surging popularity. Every porter, Pullman conductor, beauty salon and barbershop was selling records. Simultaneously and silently, events convened like clouds on the horizon and the perfect storm that was to be Rock ‘n Roll loomed inevitably.

Muddy’s 1950 recording of “Rollin’ Stone” for Chess is loosely based on “Catfish Blues,” an old song they’d been singing for years in the Delta, but it never sounded like this. If I had to choose a single song as the embodiment of post-war blues, it would be “Rollin’ Stone.” The song gave its name to the influential sociopolitical magazine “Rolling Stone” and, of course, the name of the rock group The Rolling Stones. The song also provided a well of dissonant tonalities that Jimi Hendrix visited often during his career. A year later, Muddy recorded the song with added instrumentation and released it as “Still a Fool.” My arrangement of “Rollin’ Stone” borrows from both recordings.

Richard Séguin – voice and electric guitar

Rollin’ Stone

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“Swimming Song” by Kate and Anna McGarrigle

Kate & Anna McGarrigle

Kate and Anna McGarrigle

The McGarrigle sisters, Kate (1946-2010) and Anna (b. 1944) are Canadian singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists from Montreal, Quebec. Although associated with Montreal’s anglophone community, they grew up in the Laurentian Mountains village of Saint-Sauveur-des Monts and are perfectly bilingual. Born of French-Canadian and Irish parents, the sisters studied piano at the local convent. Elder sister Jane completed the family singing sessions around the living room piano, a regular occurrence.

Kate studied engineering at McGill University, and Anna painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. Kate learned the banjo after watching Pete Seeger and joined Anna and two friends in 1962 to form the Mountain City Four, a group specializing in roots music, particularly the songs of the Carter Family. After earning an engineering degree from McGill, Kate moved to New York to continue her musical career while Anna stayed in Montreal. Kate performed in the clubs of Greenwich Village and in 1971 married singer Loudon Wainwright III, who wrote “Swimming Song.” They have two children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, both well established musicians.

Over the years the McGarrigles’ songs have been recorded by Judy Collins, Marianne Faithful, Emmylou Harris and Nana Mouskouri, among others. The sisters also performed and recorded with the world-renowned Irish group The Chieftains, folk music icon Joan Baez and Quebec’s legendary songwriter Gilles Vigneault.

Kate et Anna McGarrigle

Kate and Anna McGarrigle

In 1975, the sisters released their first album, simply titled “Kate and Anna McGarrigle.” Thanks to their songwriting skills, the close ties they had cultivated throughout the North-American music industry was repaid with the participation on this recording of some of the world’s best musicians, including bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel), guitarist Lowell George (Little Feat) and studio professionals like drummers Steve Gadd and Russ Kunkel, saxophonist Bobby Knight, guitarists David Spinozza, Hugh McCraken, Tony Rice, Amos Garrett and Andrew Gold, and the extraordinary mandolin of David Grisman. The album won Melody Maker’s Album of the Year Award.

The McGarrigles recorded 13 albums during their career. In 1980, they permanently endeared themselves with the entire Quebec population by releasing the album “Entre la jeunesse et la sagesse” (Between Youth and Wisdom), which was sung entirely in French. In 2003, they released a second entirely French album titled “La vache qui pleure” (The Crying Cow). They have appeared in concerts and festivals in all parts of Canada and the United States, in England, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. They were appointed Members of the Order of Canada in 1993 and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2004.

In 2006, Kate became progressively ill with clear cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. She died in 2010 and, in gratitude for the care she had received, she endowed a fund at McGill University to support cancer research and care in Montreal. Emmylou Harris, a very close friend, wrote and recorded the ballad “Darlin’ Kate” in her memory.

La fille en skis

Ski girl

Kate’s tombstone is, not surprisingly, a work of art. The front is embellished with one of Kate’s most famous drawings, never titled, but known affectionately as “ski girl.” The back is engraved with the image of a banjo and the words to one of the sisters most moving songs, “Talk To Me Of Mendocino.”

Let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I’ll rise with it till I rise no more

Situated on the shores of the Pacific Ocean in California, the community of Mendocino is known for its natural beauty and its artist colony.

Anna McGarrigle is married to Canadian journalist and author Dane Lanken. The couple have two children, Lily and Sylvan, and live in North Glengarry, Ontario, just west of the Quebec border.


Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, electric bass guitar

Swimming Song

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Son House’s “John The Revelator”

Son House

Son House

The folk and blues revival, one of the most important cultural phenomenons of the 20th century, started in the 1950s in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, a bohemian district of New York City. The first showcased artists were the so-called “beat” poets, who would occasionally complement their verse with the rattlings of a drum kit or the low rumblings of an upright bass. Local musicians followed, including now famous names like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Josh White, Lead Belly, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, the Kingston Trio and the Reverend Gary Davis. In the 1960s, young, white musicologists also searched the southern rural areas, looking for the great bluesmen whose careers were mostly cut short by the Great Depression. Some had died but many were found and came to New York City to play in front of young, white, educated audiences in the coffee houses, colleges, universities and folk festivals throughout the eastern United States. For the first time in their lives, these artists were revered and praised like they never had been in the South, where segregation still ruled.

When Eddie James “Son” House (1902-1988) came to New York City in 1964, he brought with him a repertoire of songs that straddled the sacred and the profane. A Baptist minister in his early years, Son House devoted himself to religious music and openly rejected the blues as “the Devil’s music.” Things changed with the Great Depression and House’s friendship with bluesman Charlie Patton (1891-1934) led him to the bars and roadhouses of the South to earn a living.

I heard Son House and saw him on TV in the late 60s and was completely conquered by his immense talent. I was especially moved by his masterpiece, “Death Letter,” which I recorded in 2019 with Roch and Alrick. To hear the results, click here.

House was a door to the past and the pure fire of his religious songs left no one indifferent. Chief among these, for me, was “John the Revelator.” an apocalyptic text and the final book of the New Testament, secured by seven symbolic seals, the opening of which brings on the Apocalypse. The identity of the author of the Book of Revelation has been in much dispute throughout history but is often attributed to John of Patmos. The song was described by critic Thomas Ward as one of the most powerful songs in all of prewar music.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945), himself an evangelist, recorded “John the Revelator” during his fifth and final session for Columbia Records in 1930. Son House recorded several powerful a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment) versions of “John the Revelator” in the 1960s. House’s lyrics, very different from those sung by Blind Willie Johnson, reference important theological events like the Fall of Man, the Passion of Christ and the Resurrection.  I added the last verse about Moses, which comes from the Blind Willie Johnson version.

The Book of Revelation contributed vastly to our popular culture through the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, viewed as harbingers of the Last Judgment. They are said to bring with them war, infectious diseases, famine, economic collapse and death. Over the centuries, the Book of Revelation was interpreted by many sects and I would caution that they be taken with a grain of salt. One interpretation insisted that the First Horseman was the Antichrist, specifically Napoleon Bonaparte. We see the influence of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in all aspects of our culture, including movies, literature, music, comic books, television and video games.

Alrick Huebener

Alrick Huebener

My arrangement of “John the Revelator” was inspired by the “beat poets” and Peggy Lee (1920-2002), and her famous recording of “Fever,” a song originally recorded in 1956 by the great R&B singer Little Willie John. Lee’s version (1958) featured only her voice, an upright bass (played by Joe Mondragon, who probably played on every jazz album issued on the West Coast in the 50s and 60s), finger snaps and very limited drums. In my arrangement of “John the Revelator,” I handle the vocal and finger snaps but the star of the show is Alrick, whose outstanding upright bass has elevated the sophistication of this site for a number of years.

Richard Séguin – voice and finger snaps
Alrick Huebener – upright bass

John The Revelator

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Doc Watson’s “Cypress Grove Blues”

Doc Watson

Doc Watson

“Cypress Grove Blues” was part of Skip James’ 1931 recordings for Paramount Records, a session which yielded 18 songs, many of which became blues standards. I learned the song from a 1976 recording by Doc Watson, accompanied by his son Merle and a full band. My arrangement is closer to Doc’s version but I play it in the more traditional blues style. Just as Doc changed the lyrics used by Skip James, I’ve changed Doc’s lyrics, adding the “jumper” (overalls) verse, which I took from Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside (1926-2005).

Doc Watson et Gaither Carlton

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton

Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born in 1923, in Deep Gap, North Carolina and became blind before the age of two due to an eye infection. His nickname comes from the literary character of Doctor Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick in the novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He was exposed to the music of the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers at an early age and demonstrated a natural musical talent. While still young, he played with Gaither Carlton, a banjo and fiddle player also from Deep Gap. Doc married Gaither’s daughter Rosa Lee and they had two children, son Merle and daughter Nancy. Doc also played with Clarence Ashley, whose 1928 recordings of “The Coo Coo Bird” and “House Carpenter” for Gennett Records were featured on the Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection that played a major part in the folk and blues revival of the 1960s. Ashley also played with the Carolina Tar Heels, a famous roots music string band. The “Tar Heel” nickname comes from the tar, pitch and turpentine production in North Carolina but was also applied to NC troops during the Civil War, who, it was said, never retreated.

By 1960, Doc was a master of the guitar and banjo, with a powerful clear voice. As a solo artist, he became one of the stars of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. Watson recorded his first solo album in 1964 and began performing with his son Merle, who was then 15, the same year.

Doc et Merle Watson

Doc and Merle Watson

I saw Doc and Merle in concert in Ottawa sometime in June of 1980. Their musicianship was off the charts but what shone through was their love and respect for each other and for the music of those who came before. As a teenager and a young man, my musical sensibilities were molded by four people – my style of playing came mostly from Mississippi John Hurt; Ry Cooder revealed to me the music of different cultures with his remarkable talent on numerous instruments; Doc Watson taught me to respect the music of the past; everything else came from Dylan.

Merle Watson died in a farm accident in 1985 at the age of 36. He was driving a tractor to a nearby house when it slipped down an embankment and crushed him. Merle was widely recognized as one of the best guitarists of his generation. MerleFest, one of the world’s largest and most-prestigious folk music festivals, is held annually in Wilkesboro, North Carolina and is named in his honor. Doc soldiered on after Merle’s death and performed until 2012, when he died of complications following surgery at the age of 89. Doc’s wife died the same year and is buried with Doc and Merle in the Merle and Doc Watson Memorial Cemetery in Deep Gap.

Doc Watson recorded over 50 albums, won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and received the National Medal of Arts. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 2000.

Festival folk de Newport, 1964

Newport Folk Festival, 1964

From left to right, the Reverend Robert Wilkins, Gaither Carlton, Skip James, Arnold Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon and Doc Watson. Arnold is Doc’s oldest brother. Yank Rachell (mandolin), Hammie Nixon (harmonica) and Sleepy John Estes (guitar and vocals) played together for many years. Sleepy John was a major influence on several bluesmen and many of his songs are blues standards.

For more information on the Reverend Robert Wilkins and his music, click here; for Skip James and his music, click here; for Mississippi John Hurt and his music, click here, here, and here.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, percussion (foot)

Cypress Grove Blues

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The Bentonia Blues – Jack Owens’ “It Must Have Been The Devil”

Le fameux disque de Jack Owens et Bud Spires

The famous LP by Jack Owens and Bud Spires

Sometime around 1975, I found myself in Treble Clef Records on the Sparks Street mall in Ottawa, the only significant record shop in the area at that time, which unfortunately went out of business a few years later. I had money in my pocket and was leafing through their collection of “long-playing” (LP) records lined up against the wall when I came across the LP pictured at the right. It said “Mississippi Country Blues by Jack Owens and Bud Spires” and had a nice photo of Jack Owens and his horse on the cover! I had no idea who Jack Owens or Bud Spires were but Mississippi Country Blues was right down my alley. The title was enough to stop me right
there – “It Must Have Been The Devil.” I was raised Catholic and I knew many dreadful tales about “the Father of Lies”, more so since I was an avid horror movie enthusiast, where Mephistopheles frequently showed up uninvited. I couldn’t resist and bought the album on the spot.

When I listened to the LP at home, I loved the laid-back sound of the songs but the title song, “It Must Have Been The Devil”, stood apart from all the others. Its tonalities, harmonies and resonance were haunting. For more than nine minutes, the guitar kept weaving hypnotic patterns and Jack Owens’ powerful, all-out vocal was like a force unleashed, unlike any other singer I knew. This was some of the eeriest, loneliest and deepest blues sounds I’d ever heard.

Of course, I tried to learn the song but all I could get was that it’s in the key of E! At that time, I knew just about every open guitar tuning that existed, thanks to Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, John Renbourn and all those tremendously talented guitarists that had spearheaded the British Celtic Revival. I tried and tried but I could not play the notes Jack Owens played in any tuning that I knew! Facing a brick wall, I eventually discarded the song, extremely disappointed that I had failed at discovering its secrets. Years went by and my Jack Owens/Bud Spires LP remained stored in my voluminous collection, out of sight and out of mind.

Fast forward many years to the digital age and the seemingly endless amount of information available to us at the click of a mouse. I had heard Skip James during the 60s Folk and Blues Revival and I learned that he was from Bentonia, Mississippi and played his guitar in an open D Minor tuning (sometimes called “crossnote tuning), which was extremely odd since the songs he sang were all in major keys! To hear me play Skip James’ classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in crossnote tuning and to learn more about Skip James, click here.

Crossnote tuning originally came from Henry Stuckey, an unrecorded bluesman who had learned it from Bahamian soldiers while stationed in France during World War I. He brought it home to Bentonia after the war, a town of less than 500 people located on the edge of the Delta, between Jackson and Yazoo City, Missisippi. All the bluesmen from Bentonia eventually ended up playing their guitars in this crossnote tuning. Henry Stuckey taught the tuning to Skip James, who taught it to Jack Owens who, more recently, taught it to Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Skip James was certainly the most famous of these artists and it is fairly certain that he also taught the tuning to Robert Johnson, who used it to play his composition “Hellhound On My Trail.”

“It Must have Been The Devil” has a chronology of its own and the song changed over the years. It was first recorded by Skip James in 1931 under the title “Devil Got My Woman.” These early recordings, made in the midst of the Great Depression, sold poorly and drifted into obscurity, as did James himself. James was rediscovered in 1964 and made new recordings of most of his repertoire, including ‘Devil Got My Woman.” He died in 1969 at the age of 67 and the following year, musicologist David Evans met Jack Owens during a field trip to Bentonia. In 1970, he recorded Owens and blues harp player Bud Spires playing a number of songs on Owens’ porch, including the landmark recording of “It Must Have Been The Devil”, a song about isolation, betrayal and the supernatural. Evans was later quoted as saying “Hearing Jack Owens singing out across the fields late at night is one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.”

Jack Owens et sa guitare "12 cordes"

Jack Owens and his “12 string” guitar

Owens did not seek to become a professional recording artist. He farmed, sold bootleg liquor, and ran a weekend juke joint in Bentonia for most of his life. Originally set in Owens’ home, the juke joint became so popular that it moved to a separate and larger house across the street. Festivities lasted from Friday evenings until Sunday mornings, with non-stop barbecue, bootleg, music and dancing. Sometimes the music came from Owens’ own juke box, but it was mostly played by Owens and Spires themselves. Jack Owens learned to play especially for the raucous dancers at his juke point, using a thumb pick to be heard above the din of the celebrations, stomping his boots on the floor for rhythm. He played on any battered instrument he could find, even an old 12-string guitar body fitted with the usual six strings, sometimes using a pencil clamped over the strings with elastics for a capo. Over the years, Evans recorded Owens playing in seven different guitar tunings.

Jack Owens died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 92, a tribute to the restorative qualities of bootleg, barbecue and the blues.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, percussion (foot)

It Must Have Been The Devil

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Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now”

When I was a teenager, a lot of guitarists hated country music – I know I sure did. Harlan Howard (1927-2002), a popular songwriter, was asked in the 1950s what constituted country music, to which he famously replied “Three chords and the truth.” I had no problem with the truth but I hated those three chords. Three chords is what guitarists played if they couldn’t play anything else. Three chords was a capitulation. In all fairness, country music at that time featured some horrible songs – Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”, on its own, set women’s rights back 100 years. I eventually changed my mind when a few artists started writing true, honest songs like Merle Haggard’s (1937-2016) “Mama Tried” or Kris Kristofferson’s (b. 1936) “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”

Mary Gauthier

Mary Gauthier

These days, artists from diverse backgrounds are writing credible songs that resonate with very diverse groups. One such artist is Mary Gauthier (b. 1962), who chose a very circuitous route to end up where she is now. Born in New Orleans to a mother she never knew, she was adopted at the age of one but struggled with many demons growing up. Drug and alcohol addiction ruled her life. At 15, she ran away from home and spent the next several years in drug rehab centres, halfway houses or living with friends. She spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell. She eventually opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston but was arrested for drunk driving on opening night in 1990. However, she has been sober ever since. She wrote her first song at the age of 35, sold her share in the restaurant, and used the money to finance her second album. From then on, her career has climbed steadily – she appeared at many folk festivals, was nominated for three Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards and named new artist of the year by the American Music Association in 2005.

Her most famous song is “Mercy Now”, which she wrote at a time when she felt that she wasn’t getting the artistic attention she deserved. One of her friends reminded her that, considering her life up to now, what she deserved was perhaps the last thing to hope for. Her friend suggested that she might pray for mercy instead.

My version of “Mercy Now” only uses the first two verses of the song. I wrote the last two verses myself to avoid singing Gauthier’s last verses, which glorify America, her Church and State, among other things. I am not an American and I look at America from beyond its borders. What I see is the genocide of the American Indian (First Nations), the systemic racism, segregation and murder of African Americans, the large scale adoption of slavery, and state-sanctioned hand guns and assault weapons which contribute to an endless stream of mass murders. As for the Church, there are over 4,000 religions, churches, denominations and faith groups in the U. S., which dilutes any notion of faith. We should also all keep in mind the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, where the FBI and the sect clashed for 51 days in 1993, leading to the deaths of nearly 80 people. Not to be outdone, Jim Jones founded the Peoples Temple which ended on November 18, 1878, when 909 people died in a mass murder/suicide at its remote settlement of Jonestown, Guyana.

All this being said, I find that “Mercy Now” is the perfect song for this time of year and for all those who have witnessed the pandemic. We all need a little mercy now.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitars, electric guitar, electric bass guitar
Roch Tassé played and recorded the drums at Howlin’ Huskies Studio, Ste-Cécile-de-Masham, Que.

Mercy Now

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Murder ballads and Dick Justice’s “Henry Lee”

In the early twentieth century, the invention of recording technology, the phonograph and the phonograph record made music available to the common people for the first time. In previous centuries, music was very much entertainment for the rich and affluent, symphony theaters and opera houses being beyond the means of everyone else. However, a different, more rural music was emerging, particularly in the British Isles, thanks to composers like Robert Burns (1759-1796) of Scotland and the Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). These new ballads, reels and jigs came over to America with the European settlers, especially those who settled in the Appalachian Mountain region.

In Appalachia, a particular type of ballad, which singled out tragedies, came to the front. Train wrecks, mining disasters and murders became the subject of many popular songs – dozens were written about the sinking of the Titanic alone. Murder being a purely human venture, both aberrant and alluring, those particular songs became very popular and were known as “murder ballads.” For a brief look at Appalachian music and to hear Alrich, Roch and I play my interpretation of “Little Sadie”, a well-known murder ballad, click here.

Dick Justice

Dick Justice

The song “Henry Lee” is of Scottish origin with Scandinavian relatives and has several distinct versions with different titles, melodies and lyrics. For me, the definitive version was recorded by Dick Justice (1906-1962), a coal miner from West Virginia. At a time when Blacks and Whites seldom associated, Justice learned guitar from a black bluesman from Virginia named Luke Jordan (1892-1952). Both were able fingerpickers but Justice’s “Henry Lee” is delivered in the most basic of styles. He only recorded ten sides for Brunswick Records in 1929 and they never sold well because of the Great Depression. Afterwards, he went back to the coal mines and an early grave, like so many other miners. His recording of “Henry Lee” is the first song in the Anthology of American Folk Music, eighty-four songs published in 1952, which became the Bible for the Folk Revival.

“Henry Lee”, a quintessential murder balled, is divided into five verses – Lee’s rejection of a potential lover, the girl’s murder of Henry Lee, the gruesome disposal of the body, the murderer’s menacing of a bird who witnessed the murder, and the bird’s retribution.

Part of the charm of the old ballads are the terms and speech patterns left over from an earlier time. In “Henry Lee”, I’ve chosen to “modernize” a few of the expressions used by Dick Justice – “bend and bow” becomes “bended bow”, “wobble” becomes “warble”, etc. Some may wonder how a murder could be committed with a “little pen-knife” but it was originally a “weapon knife,” pronounced “weepin’ knife,” from whence “wee pen-knife,” and an easy verbal jump to “little pen-knife.”

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin

Henry Lee

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Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day”

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

By the time I first heard John Hurt, he had already died, passing away in 1966 at the age of 73. I saw him around 1968 on CBC reruns of Pete Seeger’s American TV show, “Rainbow Quest”, which featured many of the blues and roots artists which the American Folk Revival had brought into prominence. The camera work gave us close-ups of Mississippi John’s fingerpicking right hand, where all the intricate and interconnected movements of all his fingers were revealed as they struck the guitar strings and created a full and harmonious arrangement. This was a true revelation for me and it changed my life. Before I heard John Hurt, I was a guitar strummer, like millions of others. After I hear John Hurt, I willed myself into becoming a guitar player, like him.

In the 60s, this was no easy task. Now, there are many didactic videos freely available on the internet, teaching guitar arrangements for any song imaginable. Back then, there were books, especially those published by the Stephan Grossman Guitar Workshop, out of New York City. I was very skeptical about sending a postal money order to New York City from Rockland, but I took a chance and, a few weeks later, I received my instructional booklet in the mail. The songs were presented in tablature, a more pictorial representation of musical notation that I knew nothing about! However, I eventually figured everything out.

I started with simple songs like “Pay Day.” I learned how to create a bass pattern with my thumb. I gradually brought in the four other fingers of my right hand, used for melody, harmony, counterpoint and syncopation. Before I knew it, I understood all these basic elements of composition and was able to use them freely. It was a very powerful lesson in self-worth, especially for a kid who had always thought of himself as inept. So I grew as a musician and I grew as a person, thanks to John Hurt.

John Hurt and his disciples

John Hurt and his disciples

I always loved the relaxed pace of “Pay Day”, its amusing lyrics and its almost child-like spirit, a characteristic found in much of John Hurt’s music. He was everyone’s grand-father, a benevolent smiling friend in a felt hat, so beloved by his young, mostly white audience.

“Pay Day” was not part of John Hurt’s original 1928 recordings but his tremendous popularity in the 1960s led to additional recordings. “Pay Day” was recorded in 1965.

For a more detailed narrative of Mississippi John Hurt’s life and artistry, click here.


Richard Séguin – voice and acoustic guitar


Pay Day

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Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”

Dylan in 1964

Dylan in 1964

In 1964, Bob Dylan released “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, which he sang while playing only an acoustic guitar. The lyrics read like a newspaper account of an incident that occurred at the Emerson Hotel, in Maryland, on February 9, 1963, where a 51-year-old black servant named Hattie Carroll was struck with the cane of a drunken William Zantzinger, a 24-year-old rich white patron of the hotel. Carroll died eight hours after the assault. Zantsinger was subsequently found guilty of assault and sentenced to six months in the county jail, a verdict that incensed many.

In 1965, Bob Dylan released “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, which he sang while playing an electric guitar, backed by Mike Bloomfield (electric guitar),

Dylan en 1965

Dylan in 1965

Al Kooper (electric piano) and session musicians Paul Griffin (piano), Harvey Brooks (electric bass) and Bobby Gregg (drums). The lyrics describe a hallucinogenic vision of Juarez, Mexico, where the narrator encounters poverty, sickness, despair, prostitution, indifferent authorities, alcohol and drugs before finally returning to New York City. The lyrics make reference to works by celebrated authors like Malcolm Lowry, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack Kerouac and Arthur Rimbaud.

So what happened? How did Dylan change so completely in one short year?

Of course, some superficial manifestations of change like hairdos and clothes can be discounted. However, the change from acoustic to electric instruments was extraordinary and provided Dylan with many more colours to his palette. Electric instruments were a very important means of expressing the nuances of his new and obviously expanding world. He no longer sang about the politics that were corrupting and tearing American society apart. Afterward, Dylan sang of the whole world, with all its magic and all its aberrations.

From my point of view, throughout his early “protest” period, Dylan sang of things that happened in a foreign country. However righteous that I found his cause (and I did), I was aware that he had nothing to do with Canada. With a few and far between exceptions like Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1868), George Brown (1880) and Pierre Laporte (1970), we don’t assassinate politicians in Canada. Our restaurants serve all people, our motels welcome everyone and black people can even drink at public water fountains in Canada. It has always been so, as far as I know. We are not Americans and, starting in 1965, Dylan’s compositions left America to explore roads previously left untraveled.

Alrick Huebener

Starting in 1965, Dylan sang words that defy the logic of the material world. He gave us unforgettable words like:

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun

or incredibly romantic phrases like:

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

Gone are the common words expressing bigotry and hatred. Here was a poet trying to describe the ineffable. The lyrics to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” have caused much confusion to many people, beginning with the title itself. Tom Thumb is never mentioned in the lyrics and many believe the reference comes from Arthur Rimbaud’s Ma bohème (My Bohemian Life), where he refers to himself as a stargazing Tom Thumb. I believe the logic of the title can be found in the original book of The History of Tom Thumb. Tom’s story was originally intended for adults, but it was amended over the years and relegated to the nursery by the middle-19th century. Published in 1621, it was the first fairy tale printed in English. It relates a story from the days of King Arthur, where old Thomas of the Mountain wants nothing more than a son, even if he’s no bigger than his thumb. He sends his wife to consult with Merlin the magician and in three months time, she gives birth to the diminutive Tom Thumb. Several outlandish adventures befall our tiny hero – he proceeds to fall into a batter and gets cooked into a Christmas pudding, which he eats his way out of. Tom gets swallowed (and excreted) by a cow, carried away by a raven, and swallowed once again by a giant and a fish. I rather believe that Dylan makes an analogy between these fantastic hardships of Tom Thumb and the demoralizing situations related in the song’s lyrics.

Roch Tassé

Towards the end of my arrangement, I give a wink to The Beatles by incorporating their composition, « I’ve Just Seen A Face, » into our playing. I must also recognize the inspired contributions of Alrick and Roch, two of the finest musicians of our region.

Richard Séguin – voice, 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

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