Sunday Blues Verificationism

by John Holbo on October 26, 2008

Yesterday I linked to an archive of free Leroy Carr mp3s. All well and good. Then I noticed that they are part of a much larger collection. Very nice. (Scroll down, down, little farther. There.) Today I listened to dozens of those tracks, while messing about in Photoshop. Dum de dum. Perfect Sunday, really. Turned out the one I liked best was Blind Willie McTell (two great, free mp3s). Interesting. It had never occurred to me that Bob Dylan’s claim that “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” was a proposition subject to empirical confirmation. Also, I hadn’t realized that the White Stripes “Your Southern Can Is Mine” was a cover.



tristero 10.26.08 at 3:14 pm

Blind Willie McTell is truly a wonderful performer. And there are many more from his era to explore. Look for Son House (the old recordings) and Tommy Johnson.


John Holbo 10.26.08 at 3:49 pm

Hey tristero, funny you should say. Because it is baffling to Belle that I’m listening to all this old blues stuff all of a sudden, because usually that’s her stuff and I’m wanting to listen to some new whitey-white shoegazer alt rock or old Sparks album instead. So, when I told her how much I was enjoying this stuff she basically told me that now I have to listen to all our Son House albums I’ve never seriously listened to. And, it’s true – they’re great.


tristero 10.26.08 at 4:06 pm

Yes, especially the older material. Sonhouse is one of the connections to the earliest blues. He may have predated Charley Patton, who is considered by many the founder of the Delta Blues. I think the more you explore this repertory the more you will find incredibly great music.

Be sure to check out Skip James. Brilliant stuff.


4degreesnorth 10.26.08 at 4:35 pm

I purchased a CD of Blind Willie Mctell over ten years ago in London. It sems that, following Bob Dylan’s song, his few recordings still in existence have been remasterised.


md 20/400 10.26.08 at 5:55 pm

You are Ogged and I claim my 5 pounds.


ben wolfson 10.26.08 at 7:11 pm

Ogged was already wise to McTell, md.


jbd 10.26.08 at 7:44 pm

It’s a sign of the times, and not a particularly positive one, that both times you posted “Leroy Carr” and my mind went directly to Leeroy Jenkins.

(Count me in as preferring Robert Johnson, though. It’s just one of those things.)


roy belmont 10.26.08 at 10:35 pm

Bukka White > Panama Limited

Sleepy John Estes > Floating Bridge


Jeff Rubard 10.27.08 at 12:24 am

This is well and good, John, but I will point out to those welcoming our new Highway 61 overlords that one Obama-Biden ad entitled “Can’t Explain”: sounds like a dogwhistle to me.


Josh in Philly 10.27.08 at 1:43 am

John, you should head over to pseudopodium, where Ray did a series of posts about Willie McTell a few years back. As with Carr, there’s a good collection on the Indigo label (that Ray doesn’t mention).

I don’t quite understand “It had never occurred to me that Bob Dylan’s claim that ‘no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell’ was a proposition subject to empirical confirmation.” Maybe I’m thinking too hard about it.


salientdowns 10.27.08 at 1:50 am

I don’t quite understand “It had never occurred to me that Bob Dylan’s claim that ‘no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell’ was a proposition subject to empirical confirmation.” Maybe I’m thinking too hard about it.

Compare two statements:
#1 Nobody makes as delicious a pumpkin pie as my grandmother.
#2 Nobody plays the cello as eloquently as Yo-Yo Ma.

The second statement could be reasonably discussed, disputed, reinforced with evidence, etc. On the other hand, it would seem silly and irrational to try to engage statement #1 that way, because it’s so clearly an expression of personal preference.


Delicious Pundit 10.27.08 at 1:51 am

“Very nice”?! (I just learned that “?!” is called an “interrobang.”) There’s one hundred Fats Waller mp3s! Plus Albert Ammons! And 100 mp3’s from Murray Kempton’s favorite artist, Bessie Smith!

Plus Angela Davis. And Louis Armstrong in 1929. Nobody work for a month, there’s gold to explore.


Luther Blissett 10.27.08 at 3:21 am

John, thanks for the links. I have hours of grading to finish tomorrow, so now it’ll have a soundtrack.

Skip James’s vocal performances are my favorites of the rural blues tradition: haunting, bone-chilling stuff. (I wonder if John Jacob Niles ever heard James and Johnson, or if that high, train-whistle moan has some other, common artistic source in the South and the mountains?)

Do check out Marybeth Hamilton’s *In Search of the Blues* for a thought-provoking questioning of the existence of a “Delta Blues” tradition.


Henry (not the famous one) 10.27.08 at 4:45 am

Elijah Wald’s book on Robert Johnson, “Escaping the Delta,” also makes the case against the Johnson as primitive genius myth (and all the hokier versions, including the Ralph Macchio movie) by describing a music scene in which radio and records brought all sorts of influences and styles to the Delta. Wald isn’t trying to dethrone Johnson, but to give us an appreciation of a much more sophisticated culture than the myth permits as well as of The Mississippi Sheiks, Kokomo Arnold and lots of other artists out there in plain sight.

And since I have the floor: leaving the Delta to head west, don’t forget Blind Willie Johnson. Which might lead you to Arizona Dranes, Thomas A. Dorsey, R. H. Harris and beyond. There’s no end to the riches out there.


Aquariumdrinker 10.27.08 at 5:54 am

FYI, my anti-virus software stepped in and terminated the connection when I surfed up to the parent page (, saying that my browser was trying to download a “Virus/Worm” going by the name of “HTML:Iframe-gen”.


John Holbo 10.27.08 at 3:05 pm

Aquariumdrinker, that doesn’t sound so good. Possibly just a misdeployed fram HTML tag triggering something on that page? I dunno. Sorry if I sent people somewhere toxic. Anyone else have an opinion about that?


Mark van Roojen 10.29.08 at 4:01 am

I second nonfamous Henry’s Blind Willie Johnson recommendation. Ry Cooder got most of the Paris Texas soundtrack from his “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.”

Also related to Henry’s main point but off to the side of it, you can hear with Robert Johnson and some of the others (Son House, for sure) how the record format changed the music. Many early blues records have little thematic unity, which figures since live blues was often performed for long stretches as dance music. They thus often consisted of sets of standard verses thrown together in no particular order. Many early records just collected verses thrown together in this way, though shorter than the typical number would be at a live date due to the format. Records put a relatively short limit on how long a song could be – around 3 minutes. From the internal evidence of the records themselves, it is reasonable to think that some of the more savvy musicians (of whom Johnson was one) responded by constructing roughly 3 minute songs that were more unified in the themes of their lyrics.

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