It’s one of my favourite music jokes – the shortest blues ever.
You may not be amused, because you’re not familiar with the genre. So let me completely ruin the joke…
No, no. Not ruin it. I’ll deconstruct it. That sounds more, I dunno, Radio 4.
Many, many blues songs open with the line, “I woke up this morning” or something similar. There follows a litany of miseries the like of which would fell a tree.
But if your first line is, “Well, I didn’t wake up this morning….” there’s nowhere to go.
Which always makes me chuckle.
Unfortunately, and generally speaking, a cul de sac opening line would more often than not be a blessing these days. Because, good Lord!, there’s a lot of shit passing as ‘der blues’ in the 21st century.
I was listening to the Paul Jones Blues show on Radio 2.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Why would you do that, Driver (as my friends call me. More formally I’m addressed as Mr 67).
But, y’know, it’s Monday night, you’re in the kitchen and in a panic to stifle the Archers you quickly flick the dial and there’s some grown guy going, ‘I love you baby, I really love you baby, you don’t know how much-a I love you baby, and I got the blues’.
And I think to myself, What?
This is definitely not what Robert Johnson had in mind when he met the Devil at the crossroads. Robert Johnson sometimes wrote lyrics of heartbreaking beauty; sometimes they were chilly and scary. So this, for instance:
And I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand,
And I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand.
Well, it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell, when all your love’s in vain,
Me and the Devil
Was walking side by side
And I’m going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied
What he never did was throw off a lyric just to showcase his guitar skills, which were phenomenal.
Unfortunately, that seems to be the model today.
The old blues guys, they knew it needed more than some slick riffs on a pawn-shop Gibson or, more commonly, something from the Sears catalogue costing $10. (Some of those old catalogue guitars are now worth small fortunes by the way).
Lead Belly, for instance, brought a whole bunch of classic songs out of the cotton fields and into the daylight of popular culture. Rock Island Line, Black Betty, Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, Pick a Bale of Cotton.
If you already love Lead Belly, or want to know more, follow this link .
For Robert Johnson, Lead Belly and all the greats, the song was the thing. Always the song. When white guys began singing the blues – the Stones, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Jeremy Spencer – they either covered the great songs, or wrote their own great songs.
Sometimes, they were covering the covers. Jeremy Spencer learned his slide guitar from Elmore James. Elmore James learned Dust My Broom from Robert Johnson.
(By the way, Dust My Broom is neither about a broom, nor about dusting.
‘I’m a get up in the morning, I believe I’ll dust my broom….’
Now what do you suppose he means by that?)
My favourite Robert Johnson song is Come On In My Kitchen.
Woman I know
took my best friend
some joker got lucky
stole her back again
he better come on
in my kitchen
it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
Well she’s gone
I know she won’t come back
I took the last nickel
out of her nation sack
you better come on
in my kitchen
well, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
You haven’t got a clue, have you? What is he talking about and what’s a ‘nation sack’ (Google it); who is it that better come on in his kitchen; and why a kitchen?
But it sounds great, and even in your incomprehension, it paints a picture.
It’s a long, long way from ‘I loves ya baby, you done did me wrong, if I don’t wake up tomorrow, you know it’ll be too long‘. I made that up, as I was typing. Took me as long to make it up as it took me to type it. And that seems to be the standard of many of today’s blues lyrics.
Which is a shame, because in the right hands, the blues can still surprise and entertain. Have a listen to this Joe Bonamassa track. The first few seconds is a mini-history of the blues – the African roots, the familiar guitar lick. And then off he goes into a mix of Cream and Led Zep, but with his own maestro touch. Man, he can play.
But those lyrics – they are dark. This is the song of a man who knows he is gonna wake up tomorrow, and suffer all over again.
And from reader M. Sacree of Hove comes this much pithier deconstruction of the blues cliche.