It’s in the passenger, not the train, where the journey resides.
It’s in the passenger, not the train, where the journey resides.
Who knows when these were stacked? The action of one is felt by another at a different moment of time. Were these here for one day? Two? A week? A year?
“There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” – Anthem by Leonard Cohen
I remember telling my friend in high school that the reason I loved the Beatles was because all of their recordings were good, there were none that I didn’t like.
Now I would change this statement to:
Some of their recordings weren’t good–
some of their recordings were great–
and some are bad.
Later, when I started listening seriously to the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, I realized there were quite a few tracks I didn’t like at all. A couple examples is this copy of Stagger Lee by the Dead or this song from Leonard Cohen.
Despite these examples’ clear badness as songs, I thought they were good because I was unable to divorce the artist from their work.
There are a lot of arguments you can make about how art is a representation of the artist. To critique art is to critique the artist.
However, to truly understand the art you love, you have to realize that an artist can create a lot of duds. These artists we love are just mortals like you and I, no matter how much we deify them.
Let’s take Robert Johnson as a prime example of this effect.
Johnson had a short career. He died at age 27 in 1938 from being poisoned. If dying from poison isn’t enough proof that Johnson wasn’t a god, I don’t know what is (sorry Clapton fans).
Later rock-and-roll and blues fans claimed Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and was given incredible musical skills. If you listen to his tunes like Me and the Devil Blues or Crossroads Blues you can see how this myth perpetuated:
In truth, Robert Johnson was just a great musician who played a lot of other styles besides blues. We even have a recording of his hokum tune They’re Red Hot. He lived a hard life, traveled around the south to play music, and then died violently. In his life he recorded 29 different songs, with 13 surviving alternate takes of these songs.
I don’t like the song They’re Red Hot, but I still think Robert Johnson was a great musician. A lot of people, who deify Robert Johnson do not accept that any of his work could possibly be bad.
To really appreciate music, we have to be able to discriminate against certain recordings and understand that they are not good. This outlook is especially important for old recordings because there wasn’t really any post processing, we got an honest view of an artist’s performance at the time.
At the same time, we can always be grateful we have these recordings to formulate these opinions.
Blind Boy Fuller is another example of a prolific artist who made some poor recordings. There a lot sociological reasons why these recordings were bad, but the point is that we can separate artists from their work.
We shouldn’t assume that because we love an artist, everything they produce is gold. Realizing this improved my own musicianship, as I became able to understand that some sounds will appeal to people for a longtime, and some sounds are relics of a time, or simply bad.
As a final comparison, check out these three songs by 12-string wizard Blind Willie Mctell. I think the first song is bad, the second song is good, and the last is great.
What songs do you think are bad, good, or great?
Almost every country blues song uses the same vocabulary of chords. Most songs use basic open position chord forms or a limited group of simple inversions.
Most country blues songs are played in the basic keys of A, C, D, E, or G.
What they are playing is not as important as how they play it. If you watch footage of the masters of this style of music you will notice that they are almost always holding down a chord.
These players are barely moving their left hand, but somehow produce amazingly complex sounding music.
The secret behind this complexity is in understanding the many sounds you can get out of holding down a single chord. The secret to the master’s playing isn’t in their fretting hand, but in their picking hand. The thumb of their right hand is always keeping time while his other fingers play something else.
An aphorism that sums up this idea is: ‘your left hand is what you know, your right hand is who you are.’
If you can get the left hand down, then you can focus on mastering right hand techniques, which is where the soul of the music resides.
If you think this type of playing sounds interesting then check out my instructional video of Catfish Blues to see how much mileage you can get out of a 1st position E chord (and that video just scratches the surface!).
Next let’s explore the basic knowledge you need to play this music.
A front porch gem.
This song’s droning and persistent bass line reminds me of blues music from the Northern Mississippi Hill country.
You can sit on the groove of this song all day, spinning up variations and just playing the main riff. The underlying groove is just a template for you to experiment upon.
But the best part of this whole song is that you can play it with only your thumb!
This song is a perfect way to practice varying the bass movement in an alternating bass setting (but you also learn an amazing song in the process).
The basic song is structured around a E chord. The E chord should look like this:
I would suggest holding down the full E chord while you play the song instead of just the relevant notes. A lot of times you’re hitting more than just the note tabbed out. Making sure those extra strings harmonize with what you are hitting is key.
For the verse, use your pinky to grab the 3rd fret on the 6th string. Begin to see if you can bend it with just your pinky to get that nice slurred sound that is essential to the blues.
It may be best to start this song by learning the verse. Getting the groove into your hands will prepare you for tackling the bass runs.
When you’re mastering the underlying groove, think about it like a drum beat.
Once you’ve gotten the song under your hands and can play it in your sleep, throw in some bass line variations or treble runs.
If you need some ideas, check out Lightnin’ Hopkins’ or Corey Harris’ version.
This song was recorded by Robert Petway in 1941. Here’s the version mine is based on. Catfish Blues is also a master class in blues vocals:
A lot of really great songs are based around 1 chord. If you can master this one, check out Rolling Stone Blues by Robert Wilkins:
If you’ve got your alternating bass technique locked in, try adding melody notes on top.