The Great Big Article of Blues Covers, Part 1
Over the years, having covered the recent blues revival quite thoroughly, I have come across more than a few covers of old blues songs. Many of today’s bands have done this as a means of paying tribute to the bygone artists whose innovative guitar playing and exceptional singing birthed the blues genre in the first place. So I have decided to write a feature about some of these outstanding renditions of traditional blues songs. I am doing this for a couple different reasons, but mainly to create a sort of bridge between the blues of the past and the blues of the present; and in doing so draw attention to a scene which recognizes that it wouldn’t exist without the commendable efforts of their predecessors.
The bluesman that has been covered more than any other is the one and only Robert Johnson, whose musical contributions and intriguing legend prove even more potent today than ever. In his early days in the blues scene Johnson’s peers didn’t think much of his musical ability, but as the legend goes, he disappeared for a year or so, and when he returned he was able to handle a guitar like no other, and had a voice to match. When asked how he had improved so, Johnson simply stated that he had met the devil at a crossroads one night and traded his soul for the ability to play the blues. To this day, there are some who actually place belief in the tale, saying that Robert Johnson’s music was played too well, perhaps supernaturally so, to be considered normal. Others consider it myth and merely think Johnson went away for that year and practiced like mad, and in doing so found his musical voice and his own take on the blues. Whatever the case, it cannot be denied that Robert Johnson is one of the best bluesmen of all time. And so the legend of Robert Johnson, the blues heretic, was born. And it’s probably worth mentioning this strange bit about Johnson and the devil is an exceedingly well-traveled tale, and as such it has undoubtedly changed somewhat over the years and picked up further embellishments. Still, such a claim, especially for a pre-war bluesman in the insanely religious Deep South, was a bold one indeed. And while many other bluesmen of the era praised the Lord in their songs, like street corner blues evangelist Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson sang about the hell hound on his trail and his deal with the devil in Cross Road Blues.
Sadly, Johnson’s life was a short one. He died after being poisoned by a jealous husband with whose wife Johnson had supposedly flirted that very same night. He was twenty-seven years old. As far as the bands that have covered his songs over the years, there are too many to name here. But to mention a few…The Juke Joint Pimps did I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, Left Lane Cruiser & James Leg did Ramblin’ On My Mind, Big Head Blues Club (featuring Big Head Todd & The Monsters) released a tribute album titled “100 Years of Robert Johnson,” for which they covered ten Johnson songs, including If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, All My Love’s in Vain, and Sweet Home Chicago.
Quite a few of recent history’s popular mainstream artists have also undertaken the task of covering selections from Robert Johnson’s repertoire—a rather limited repertoire due to his untimely passing at the tender age of twenty-seven—finding a place even within the grand stadium rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Cream was known for its version of Crossroad Blues (though they shortened it to just Crossroads), Johnny Winter’s You’ve Got a Friend and Kind Hearted Woman, and the Rolling Stones’ Love In Vain and Stop Breaking Down. In addition to these three, there were many others, such as the British psychedelic blues-rock icons Led Zeppelin, who did their own rendition of Traveling Riverside Blues, the relatively popular rock band The Allman Brothers Band, with Cross Road Blues and Come On In My Kitchen, and the bearded rock trio ZZ Top, with I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom. Being that Cream had paid tribute to Johnson’s songs through covers, it comes as no surprise that former Cream member gone solo, Eric Clapton—who became very successful as such, incidentally—also covered several Robert Johnson songs, like Kind Hearted Woman Blues, Ramblin’ On My Mind, I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man, Malted Milk, and Walkin’ Blues. Country songstress Bonnie Raitt is said to have musically flirted with Johnson’s material, with her cover of Walkin’ Blues. Even contemporary mainstream funk-rock quartet Red Hot Chili Peppers played their version of Johnson’s They’re Red Hot. There are many more, but to list them all wouldn’t just be overkill; it would be next to impossible.
Though Blind Willie Johnson, a street-corner evangelist and exceedingly talented artist out of Texas, considered himself more of a gospel singer, it is undeniable that he was a bluesman as well. Despite his blindness—an unfortunate condition he received in his youth, inflicted by his stepmother after she’d been beaten by her husband—he never lost his faith in God. So while other bluesmen were singing about gambling, bad women, hard times, and the devil, Blind Willie Johnson was singing about the Lord. Putting aside the subject matter of his songs for a moment, it is also true that he played unrivaled slide guitar, and sang in tremendously deep and gravely voice; a performance he put on regularly at certain street corners in his hometown. After his house burned down sometime in the late ‘40s, being too poor to have it repaired, he and his wife slept in the charred remnants, where he eventually came down with pneumonia and passed away. Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t very famous in his lifetime, nor did he record a great deal of material in the scheme of things. What he did put out back then is celebrated today by blues aficionados, music history buffs, and capable musicians and singer/songwriters the world over.
Although Blind Willie Johnson is most known for his song Dark Was the Night (also known as Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground), contemporary artists tend to cover other selections from his repertoire, and understandably so. Those few who have made commendable attempts to capture the beautifully exquisite slide guitar and haunting shouts, grunts and moans of Dark Was the Night have been Ry Cooder and Kronos Quartet. Boxcar Satan covered John the Revelator. Miraculous Mule did an unusual version of Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying. Other bluesmen that have performed Blind Willie Johnson songs include Rev. Gary Davis, who championed Blind Willie Johnson’s music by sharing his songs with the ‘60s New York folk scene, and the very talented Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Charley Patton, one of the originators of the Delta blues, and easily one of the earliest presences on the Mississippi scene, is positively one of the most admired and respected bluesmen in history. While Robert Johnson’s name is synonymous with the blues, Charley Patton was indisputably the foremost bluesman, widely known as “Father of the Delta Blues.” Several notable bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, credited Patton as having been a significant influence on them and their music. Many of today’s blues artists recognize Patton’s role in the history of the blues, and acknowledge it by covering songs from his repertoire.
Massachusetts blues trio Ten Foot Polecats recorded a rendition of Patton’s Peavine Blues (appearing in the album’s tracklisting simply as Peavine) for their debut full-length “I Get Blamed For Everything I Do.” American blues rock outfit Canned Heat covered Patton’s Pony Blues, Shake It and Break It, and Yellow Bee. In fact, like the Big Head Blues Club’s Robert Johnson tribute, there was recently a Charley Patton tribute released. That was back in July of 2011 on SideOneDummyRecords. It consists of latter-day blues trio Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band doing thirteen Charley Patton songs…well, actually eleven songs, since there are three different versions of Some of These Days I’ll Be Gone. The tribute is titled “Peyton on Patton.” And a few other Patton songs on it are Jesus Is a Dying-Bed Maker, Mississippi Boweavil Blues, Elder Greene Blues, and A Spoonful Blues.
Last year I had both the opportunity and pleasure of attending a Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band performance, when he was touring the U.S. in support of Reverend Horton Heat’s 25th Anniversary Tour—a night of two reverends. It was hands-down one of the best shows I’ve attended since the Bob Log III and Molly Gene One Whoaman Band show in Brooklyn sometime back, and before that the Mosquito Bandito and Goddamn Gallows show in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And though I cannot recall which song he performed any longer, Reverend Peyton did play a Charley Patton cover…and it was absolutely brilliant.
Eddie Son House, one of the Delta’s most favored artists, has been covered by several bands and singer/songwriters over the years. Though he eventually became a respected bluesman, Son House started out as a dedicated preacher with absolutely no interest in secular music. What transpired in his life that he retired as a church pastor and embraced the blues at the age of twenty-five isn’t clear. Whatever the case, the circumstances surrounding his departure from the church and entrance into the blues had certainly led him to his calling. And by listening to House’s style and repertoire, with his emotional singing and phenomenal slide guitar, one can easily tell that he infused his playing and singing with the same qualities that had formerly made him a passionate servant to the sacred. At one point in Son House’s music career—if indeed it could have been labeled such at the time—things were temporarily put on hold due to his stint at Parchman Farm Penitentiary. Eventually, though, he became such an accomplished musician and songwriter that he caught the attention of the great Charley Patton, with whom he performed and shared a recording session in 1930.
Because of the hardships of the Great Depression, Son House’s records failed to sell, and consequently he didn’t achieve much recognition outside of the Delta. In the Delta, however, Son House was something of a blues celebrity, so much so that his playing and singing influenced the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Then, in the early ‘40s, House and his band members were recorded by none other than Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Still, sometime around ’43, House gave up music altogether and left the Delta, and didn’t resume his career in music until the mid-1960s. From that point until his death in ’74, Son House experienced the most successful years of his career, with plenty of black and white fans from all over the world. And his music still influences artists today.
Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, a blues ensemble out of Canada, has probably covered as many Son House songs as any other contemporary roots outfit. On their debut album “Fighting and Onions,” Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir covered House’s Preaching Blues, and on its follow-up titled “Ten Thousand” they did Empire State Express. And to further express their appreciation for the bluesman, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir included Son House’s likeness on the “Ten Thousand” album cover, gracing the center of a Hell Bank Note. Kenny Brown, the white-boy guitarist from the late R.L. Burnside’s blues trio, released a two-disc solo album on Devil Down Records a while back, “Can’t Stay Long,” for which he did a cover of House’s Walkin’ Blues.
There are just so many master bluesmen whose songs have been covered by some of today’s better artists, certainly too many to mention in a simple feature article on the worldwide web. And there are a fair number of ambitious compilations for which various contemporary artists have covered specific blues standards. In 2009, for instance, Hillgrass Bluebilly Records released a double tribute—one disc dedicated to the country repertoire of the legendary Hank Williams, Sr., and the other dedicated to the celebrated folk-blues of Leadbelly—titled “Hiram and Huddie.” As far as the blues disc is concerned, ten artists, all of them of the who’s who of today’s roots music scene, are featured, each doing a version of a Leadbelly song. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band took part in this tribute as well, recording a rendition of Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line. Other than Reverend Peyton and Co, William Elliot Whitmore did The Gallis (Gallows) Pole, C.W. Stoneking did In New Orleans, Scott H. Biram did Go Down Old Hannah, Possessed by Paul James did Bourgeois Blues, Tom VandenAvond did Ha Ha This Way, Wayne “The Train” Hancock did Goodnight Irene, Jawbone did Bottle Up and Go, Soda did Old Riley, and Flathead did Pick a Bail of Cotton.
To prevent this article from getting too terribly long, I will dedicate this paragraph to mentioning other worthwhile blues covers. On her “Folk Blues and Booze” album, Molly Gene One Whoaman Band recorded a cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s When the Train Comes Along. Speaking of train songs, on Little Joe Ayers’ “Backatcha” album on Devil Down Records, he recorded a cover of Muddy Waters’ Two Trains Running. On The Devil Makes Three’s “Do Wrong Right” album, the trio recorded a version of Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. German rockabilly and blues punk artist Reverend Elvis also recorded a cover of a Blind Willie McTell song, Dying Crap Shooter Blues. On Ten Foot Polecats’ “I Get Blamed For Everything I Do” album on Hillgrass Bluebilly Records (2010), they recorded a small handful of covers, including the late T-Model Ford’s Chick Head Man and R.L. Burnside’s See What My Buddy Done. From Alive Naturalsound Records, Left Lane Cruiser and James Leg partnered up for an album of covers, including Jr.Kimbrough’s Sad Days Lonely Nights and John Lee Hooker’s Shake It. In addition to their Eddie Son House covers, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir recorded versions of Stop That Thing by Sleepy John Estes, Death Don’t Have No Mercy by Rev. Gary Davis, and Special Rider by Skip James. Delaney Davidson did covers of Jelly Roll Morton’s version of Dirty Dozen (“Self Decapitation,” 2009, Voodoo Rhythm Records) and Abner Jay’s version of I’m So Depressed (“Bad Luck Man,” 2011, Voodoo Rhythm Records)—while neither song is your typical blues standard, both possess elements vital to blues compositions, hence their mention here. And Scottish bluesman Sleepy Eyes Nelson has performed and recorded covers of Blind Boy Fuller’s Step It Up and Go and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Walkin’ the Streets.
Without a doubt I could go on and on. There are just so many blues covers worthy of this article. But, alas, I must end it here. Who knows, maybe I will turn this into a series at some point. We will just have to wait and see.