Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Tuesday Top Ten: Rock and Roll Covers of Delta Blues Songs

As you know, I'm in the middle of reading a book about the history of the Delta blues. So far, it's fantastic, and while reading it, there have been several times where I've seen a familiar song title and thought, "I had no idea that was originally a Delta blues song." Of course, there are other Delta blues songs that I knew were covered by rock and rollers. Either way, it inspired me to do this list.

To understand rock and roll, you have to understand and appreciate where it came from. The Mississippi Delta spans from Memphis to about halfway down Mississippi, along the river, stretching out up to 40 or 50 miles inland in some parts. In the first forty years of the last century, this region gave birth to the most important native American (not to be confused with Native American) form of music, and maybe the most important cultural gift America has ever given the world: the Delta blues.

The number of early Delta blues songs have been covered over the years by rock and roll musicians is a testament to the influence and importance of the Delta blues. The Delta blues was ahead of its time in its content (like music often is). It was introspective, blunt, and, for lack of a better word, real -- generally created by a repressed socioeconomic group (poor, black musicians, who often worked as sharecroppers or otherwise in manual labor), largely during the Great Depression. It dealt with topics like floods, famine, drinking, death, murder, sex, adultery, religion, good, evil, and, of course, milk cows.

When I was compiling this list, I limited myself to pre-World War II songs by Delta blues artists. It's somewhat difficult because so many artists started out in the Delta and migrated north to Chicago or other cities, and had many successful post-Delta, electric years (like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, to name a few). Of course, many of the songs have changed over the years or were adaptations of Delta blues songs, as electric instruments became the norm and as instruments other than guitars (and maybe the occasional piano or harmonica) were added. I also didn't include cover versions by other blues artists. To the extent the originals and covers are available on Playlist.com, I am including them in the embedded Victrola below.

Here are my top ten rock covers of Delta blues songs, in alphabetical order:

1. "Baby, Please Don't Go" by Them (Big Joe Williams, 1935)
In 1964, Northern Irish rockers Them (led by Van Morrison) put out a fantastic single, with their cover of "Baby, Please Don't Go" as the A-side and "Gloria" as the B-side. While "Gloria" has since become more popular, their version of "Baby, Please Don't Go" is just as great. It's frantic and dark, just as it should be. And of course, Van Morrison's voice is fantastic.

2. "Catfish Blues" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Robert Petway, 1941)
In case you hadn't heard, Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all-time, and I would say that moniker applies both to rock & roll and the blues. Hendrix was hugely influenced by the blues, and while the Jimi Hendrix Experience's three studio albums did not contain any blues covers, there are blues covers on many compilations, live performances, and BBC sessions. Hendrix's cover of Robert Petway's "Catfish Blues" was one of the first blues songs I really listened to. It's about wishing you were a catfish, which made a lot of sense to me when I was in junior high. The song is on the Radio One album, which included a bunch of songs recorded for the BBC, as well as the Jimi Hendrix Blues album.

3. "Crossroads" by Cream (originally "Cross Road Blues" by Robert Johnson, 1937)
The most legendary, well, legend from the Delta blues involves Robert Johnson. He was apparently view as a rather mediocre guitar player, when he came to the crossroads of two highways with his guitar in hand. A being -- believed to be Satan -- appeared and tuned Johnson's guitar, in exchange for Johnson's soul. After that, Johnson was a guitar wiz. Thirty years later, another guitar wiz, Eric Clapton, breathed new life into Johnson's "Cross Road Blues." The now-unmistakable riff from Cream's fast-paced version is almost synonymous with Clapton.

4. "Death Letter" by The White Stripes (Son House, 1930)
Jack White is huge fan of the blues, and the blues have a pretty obvious influence on a lot of The White Stripes' songs. On their 2000 sophomore album, De Stijl, Jack and Meg covered Son House's "Death Letter," a dark tale of a dude who finds out his lady is dead. "I got a letter this morning / What do you reckon it said? / It said the gal you love is dead." Pretty hardcore. Jack White plays some mean slide guitar on the cover version.

5. "On the Road Again" by Canned Heat (an adaptation of "Big Road Blues" by Tommy Johnson, 1928)
Psychedelic blues rockers Canned Heat reworked an old Delta blues song in 1968 and added some Eastern influences to give it an especially trippy feel. The '60s must have been fun.

6. "Stack Shot Billy" by The Black Keys (an adaptation of "Stack O'Lee" by Mississippi John Hurt, 1928)
The murder of Billy Lyons by Stagger Lee Shelton has been an often-reworked theme throughout the history of the blues, coming in various forms ("Stagger Lee," "Stack O'Lee," "Stagolee," "Stackerlee," and "Stack-a-Lee," to name a few), but it was Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 version ("Stack O'Lee") that really put all the elements together (which is why I'm including that version, as opposed to earlier versions). The Black Keys did their version on 2004's Rubber Factory as "Stack Shot Billy," and it is as solid a blues rock cover as you can get.

7. "Stones in My Passway" by John Mellencamp (Robert Johnson, 1937)
In 2003, John Mellencamp released an album of folk and blues covers called Trouble No More. For me, the highlight of the album is his cover of Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway," with a jagged, repeating slide guitar riff to complement Mellencamp's voice.

8. "Sweet Home Chicago" by The Blues Brothers (Robert Johnson, 1936)
Johnson, by all accounts, never went to Chicago. In fact, in his original version, he implied that Chicago was "in the land of California," although that appears to be more of a metaphor for a far-off land of plenty than an error. Over time, other blues artists covered this song, but none more popularly than Jake and Elwood Blues for their 1980 biopic, The Blues Brothers. This song has become an anthem for Chicago, and rightfully so.

9. "Traveling Riverside Blues" by Led Zeppelin (Robert Johnson, 1937)
It includes the line "I want you to squeeze my lemon / Until the juice runs down my leg," which has been used in other songs (most notably, Led Zeppelin's "The Lemon Song," which is kind of a hybrid cover, mostly of Howlin' Wolf's "The Killing Floor"). Zeppelin's version of this song is awesome. Jimmy Page really pulls the listener in with the opening slide guitar riff.

10. "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin (Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, 1929)
Originally written about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, Led Zeppelin transformed it into a thundering, wailing, fuzzed out masterpiece. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but this is my favorite Led Zeppelin song, and one of my overall all-time favorite songs. It is my ringtone.

Honorable mention: "Alberta" by Eric Clapton (originally "Corrine, Corrina" by Bo Chatmon); "Black Betty" by Ram Jam (Leadbelly); "Crawling King Snake" by The Doors (John Lee Hooker); "Fixin' to Die Blues" by Bob Dylan (Bukka White); "From Four Till Late" by Cream (Robert Johnson); "I'm So Glad" by Cream (Skip James); "Love In Vain" by The Rolling Stones (Robert Johnson); "Prodigal Son" by The Rolling Stones (Robert Wilkins); "Ramblin' On My Mind" by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (Robert Johnson); "Stop Breakin' Down" by The White Stripes (Robert Johnson); "Stop Breaking Down" by The Rolling Stones (Robert Johnson)

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Rebecca Davis Winters said...

Thanks for this blog post; I enjoyed reading about your exploration into the roots of rock! I'll have to check out the rest of your blog, as now I'm curious as to which book you're reading.

I found your blog by perusing the Web for Canned Heat-related posts. Their music is my particular field of interest. I've written a book-length bio of "On the Road Again" vocalist Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson, and recently have been honored to contribute to a family tribute website at AlanWilsonCannedHeat.com. You might want to check out some of the essays and resources there. Alan wrote a number of scholarly works on early blues, such as a bio of Son House and a two part analysis of Robert Pete Williams. You may find this of interest as you delve deeper into blues music.

Thanks again for your insightful post, and I hope you won't mind if I share it in some music-related forums I admin.

Anonymous said...

about Sweet Home Chicago... Johnson did went to Chicago and recorded songs for Paramount Recordings... he was found by the Recording companies... he just had a very small career and died mysteriously... (probably the Devil came for his soul)