I began teaching myself fingerstyle folk and blues on a banjo in the fall of 1963 while suffering through freshman year at a Pennsylvania prep school. Not an auspicious beginning. As soon as the Beatles hit in 1964, I switched to guitar and harmonica. At the time, electric blues, rock 'n' roll, and rock were exploding all over the country, but being an introvert, I was drawn more to the quiet, down to earth aspects of folk music and country blues. Here was something even I could do. The way it worked out, I wasn't alone in my inclination. Guys only a few years older than I was would soon make pilgrimages to find the last delta and country blues singers still alive in the South. Scratchy recordings from the twenties and thirties were mesmerizing in this context, like shadows glimpsed behind a screen. In my great wisdom, I realized that folk music and roots blues were the bedrock of American music.
By 1973 I had actually subdued and conquered the dreaded bar chord, had written several truly hideous songs, and could consistently drive people from the room, or put them into a deep sleep, whenever I tried to "sing". I had also learned more country blues and absorbed some history. Texas street singer Blind Lemon Jefferson opened the country blues era with his legendary 1926 recordings, but had frozen to death in Chicago just three years later. Charly Patton had died in 1934, Robert Johnson in 1938, Big Bill Broonzy in 1958, Blind Willie McTell in 1959, Mississippi John Hurt in 1967, and Skip James in 1969. All of them died in almost complete obscurity. A few others were still alive, but they were old men now. My friends and I handled old records from before World War II like glass, and played guitar all the time. It was a phase that never passed... and was it in Chicago or Atlanta that Blind Blake met that fatal streetcar?
I heard Houston's Sam "Lightnin" Hopkins early on and consider him one of my primary influences. Then I listened to Robert Johnson, whose recordings still yield pearl after pearl. My guitar player friends and I found records by Charly Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Blind Blake, and Blind Boy Fuller. I heard Leadbelly, Josh White, Mississippi John Hurt, both Sonny Boy Williamsons, Kokomo Arnold, King Solomon Hill, Memphis Minnie, Ramblin' Thomas, Texas Alexander, Booker White, Reverend Gary Davis, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Little Hat Jones, Sippie Wallace, Tommy Johnson, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Papa Charlie Jackson, William Moore, Tampa Red, Pink Anderson, Spark Plug Smith, Furry Lewis, Rabbit Brown, Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, Lonnie Johnson, and Peetie Wheatstraw, High Sheriff of Hell. Their names evoke an America that has largely vanished, and one has to resist the temptation to romanticize the era. At one point, I wanted to call myself "Pigmeat" or "Sugarboy", but couldn't come up with anything that had the right zing, so I stuck with "Geoff", which has given me enough trouble...
By 1910, blues were being played all over the cottonlands of the South. In Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia, this deep, strange music was growing. But it was in the Mississippi Delta that blues were born. In 1897, Charly Patton and his family moved to Dockery Farms near Cleveland, Mississippi. Charly was either sixteen, twelve, or ten that year, depending on which birth date you choose, and while living at Dockery's he began scaring up gigs for himself and played dance music for the whites with the Chatmon family. He also heard the raw guitar style of an older man named Henry Sloan, and while many elements of blues originated in the old kingdoms of Africa, it is generally agreed that blues, a black expression of life in the rural American South, developed from this man's sound.
When Charly lived at Dockery's in the teens and twenties, owner Will Dockery had as many as a thousand people working for him. His five thousand acres of cotton and corn ran out from both banks of the Sunflower River, and he ran them fairly. Joe Rice Dockery took over from his father in 1936 and died in 1983. Joe's widow, Keith Sommerville Dockery, runs the place now. Dockery's is roughly twenty miles from a spot where the Southern Railroad crosses the tracks of the Yazoo & Mississippi, known locally as The Yellow Dog. Where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog is the Tigris and Euphrates of the blues.
The culture that birthed blues was essentially matrilineal. Women singers had been performing and recording uptown, vaudeville-style blues, "primitive jazz", for years before any of the male east coast or delta guitar players attracted serious interest from record companies in the mid-twenties. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Victoria Spivey, Clara Smith and others predated them all, playing fancy theaters in the cities with a cornet, guitar, clarinet, piano, maybe a small trap set, a bass fiddle. Bessie's early twenties sessions feature a young Louis Armstrong, and her influence on Charly Patton's singing style is unmistakable. And, of course, blues is the backbone of jazz.
For me though, the elemental blues with one voice and one guitar bring the starkest revelations, and it was this music, raw, unalloyed, and still black, that was to move steadily north, stopping for coffee in Memphis in the northern delta with its mix of black and white sensibilities, becoming rock 'n' roll and rockabilly, or Tin Pan Alley (black music made palatable to whites), then straight to Chicago to become the powerful electric Chicago blues, then to England and back to the U.S. and on to rest of the world, becoming the huge industry known as rock.
The chief requirement of the country blues musician in his day was to provide a dance beat, but a curious thing began to happen around 1925 when northern whites began lugging "portable" recording devices into the Mississippi Delta; in the interest of uncontested label ownership of all recordings, these early A&R men sought singers who sang original lyrics. They also sought outstanding musicianship, so that by 1936 these two skills reached a flowering in the person of Robert Johnson. Only Willie Dixon contributed as much as a songwriter, but that was in 1950's Chicago and is another story.
In the 'twenties, a day working delta corn or cotton might earn you a dollar and a quarter, but the musician at a country supper might earn the same. A roaring road gang or lumber camp party could pay a popular singer five bucks, and a genuine roadside barrelhouse or jook joint gig could pay more. Patrons sometimes came from as far as Memphis to hear a famous singer. Hunger to get recorded was fierce. It's easy to see that these guys were motivated! If you could play the guitar and sing a little, you didn't have to work, and you could meet girls, drink whiskey, travel around, maybe get famous, make a little money, be free. (To tell the truth, these same considerations motivated me mightily). Some of these men became all-around great entertainers. Many knew all kinds of music, including popular songs of the day, polkas and square dances, folk songs and children's songs, medicine show numbers, hymns and vaudeville. From the lives and times of these traveling musicians bloomed blues, America's greatest export, a rugged and blood simple art form capable of great subtlety. Few things have helped mankind express so keenly the sorrow and beauty and mystery of living.
Ten of the sixteen numbers on this album are delta or country blues originally recorded between 1927 and Pearl Harbor. Two songs are post-war, two are instrumentals, one is a folksong done in a blues style, and I wrote four. Four were recorded live. For these, we thought about mixing in some applause from a Robert Cray concert, but restrained ourselves. The backing instruments are sparse and consistent with the era. Our worst moment of studio horror involved a song used here that existed only on cassette (Cross Road Blues). Thankfully, I was assisted by geniuses* for whom nothing was impossible, and now the song fits right in. We recorded in various locations under varying conditions and had a lot of fun.
The following notes will be of interest only to me and some diehard blues fans, so don't feel guilty if you nod off. Lack of space prevents inclusion of many asides, like the fact that the 1960's pop hit Walk Right In comes from Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers circa 1928, or that Blind Willie Johnson's haunted bottleneck instrumental, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, is onboard the Voyager II Spacecraft headed for another galaxy. I have striven diligently to be accurate throughout, but will no doubt get some mail.
* The geniuses are co-producer Frank Coakley and recording & mixing engineer Eric Kilburn at Wellspring Sound, then in West Concord and now in Acton, Massachusetts. Special thanks to John Newton who let us use his mastering facilities at Sound Mirror Studios in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to bring the audio fidelity of our cassette recording of Cross Road Blues up to spec. ~ Geoff
Well, that's it. My Mac is starting to smoke. Hope you enjoy the album and thanks for your interest and support. All financial proceeds from the sale of this CD go to frivolous luxuries only, so you may rest assured that your money is safe with us. Copyright © Geoff Bartley 1997, published by Joshua Omar's Music, BMI. All Rights Reserved.
- If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day (Robert Johnson, 1936)
Geoff; vocal, Thompson OM-42, and footboard
This is Robert Johnson's version of Roll and Tumble Blues from Hambone Willie Newbern's 1929 recording. Johnson listened to records too, and could easily have gone to Newbern's gigs to learn or "borrow". Most players do something closer to Muddy Waters' 1953 Rollin' and Tumblin'. Certainly Eric Clapton's 1966 version owes much to Muddy. I've fooled with the lyrics a little... that's half the fun... using some of Johnson's lines, some of Newbern's, and a line from Skip James.
- Sittin' on Top of the World (Walter Jacobs & Lonnie Carter, aka The Mississippi Sheiks, 1930)
Johnnie Cunningham; fiddle
Eric Levenson; string bass
Geoff; vocal, National Style-O resonator guitar
This ambiguous, well-loved chestnut exhibits multiple personality disorder. It flourishes in the song bags of bluegrass, country blues, and electric blues, with the best-known version belonging to Howlin' Wolf, who recorded it for Leonard Chess in the 'fifties. The version here never goes to the five chord, but otherwise draws on Doc Watson's 1964 recording in Open D (DADF#AD). I used Open G tuning but played in D, so these versions are the same only different.
Walter Jacobs is actually Walter Vincson and Lonnie Carter is actually Lonnie Chapmon (sometimes Chapman). Lonnie's brother, Armenter Chapmon, who recorded for other labels as the famous Bo Carter, was also involved, as was Sam Chapmon, who didn't change his name. I guess things were confusing enough for Sam. Walter and Lonnie were the nucleus of the Mississippi Sheiks, who recorded this first. They probably wrote it. The others mentioned played with the Sheiks off and on.
- Grinnin' In Your Face (Eddie James "Son" House, Jr., 1965)
Ralph Tufo; accordion. (Play accordion. Go to jail. It's the law.)
Geoff; vocal, Thompson OM-42, harmonica.
Recorded LIVE 3/26/94 at Exchange Hall in South Acton, Massachusetts. Accordion and harmonica added
in the studio. Special thanks to Mark Greenbaum and Crew.
Son House was a powerhouse of a singer whose recordings still come bristling out of the speakers like a force of nature. He may have made this up, or learned it, in the 'twenties, but who knows? He could have adapted it from a children's song or from a hymn. When Son wasn't a blues singer he was a Baptist preacher and a tractor driver in Robinsonville, Mississippi.
In 1964, Dick Waterman, Phil Spiro, and Nick Perls (founder of Yazoo Records), after scouring the South, finally found Son in Rochester, New York, of all places, where he was working for the railroad. They brought him to The Newport Folk Festival that year and got him to do some more recording, too. Son sang this a cappella with hand claps so I made up a guitar part. His best recordings are the 1941-'42 Library of Congress sessions. Of his eleven original recordings from the 1930 Grafton, Wisconsin session with Willie Brown, Charly Patton, and Louise Johnson, seven have been found. He was a shy, big man, but the music that burst from him was as fierce and pure as anything ever brought out of the delta. Son House died in a Rochester nursing home in 1988. (I never met Son House, but Paul Rishell met and played with Son at Dick Waterman's house in Cambridge in the middle 60s. Dick became Bonnie Raitt's manager about 1970. ~ Geoff).
- The Dying Crapshooter's Blues (Blind Willie McTell, 1940)
Billy Novick; Bb clarinet
Eric Levenson; string bass
Geoff; vocal, National Style-O
Willie McTell endears himself to country blues fans with his gentle voice and sweet 12-string. He was also a facile poet and a keen observer, as Crapshooter shows. This song conjures a mythical life style that has become woven into the country's folklore, and McTell catches its detail and color with soft, deft touches. McTell also wrote The Statesboro Blues, immortalized by the Allman Brothers. The "copper tins" were hung from the hearse wagon so folks might chip in for the band and refreshments. They were "barred" so folks might not make change. The Atlanta nightclub Blind Willie's is named for him, and do you remember what was carved into the bar in the Back Room at the Idler? "God Bless Willie McTell".
- Papa's on the Housetop (Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, 1930)
Phil Antoniades; percussion
Eric Levenson; string bass
Geoff; vocal, National Style-O
This song is so cool... a little whacked, possessed of a relentless chord progression... a rotogravure of a family trying to deal. I wish it had more verses. Actually it probably does, or did: at all-night parties it was good to have some really long songs. The advent of acetate chopped everything down to three minutes.
Leroy played piano. The guitar part used here (standard tuning, EADGBE, no capo, key of B) was invented by Peter Spencer. Leroy Carr and guitarist Scrapper Blackwell were based in Indianapolis and became a hot act in Chicago in the 'thirties. Their records sold all over. Leroy was so successful that he died of cirrhosis of the liver. Some might call this a shrewd career move since his recordings sold even better after his death. He died in 1935 at the age of thirty one. Scrapper's career sputtered along into the early sixties when he made his final recordings at the age of 64, his voice shot.
- Prize Your Reputation (Charles Calhoun,1958. Additional lyrics by Geoff Bartley)
Geoff; vocal, D-28 Martin, and harmonica
In my opinion, any collection of blues has to have some mention of pink Cadillacs and low-cut dresses, nylons and ruby rings. You'll recognize some of I've Got News for You recorded by Ray Charles, and I Don't Know from the Blues Brothers movie. I added the first half of the first and second verses, and all of the last verse, plus the last line of the chorus and title. So how to credit the thing? I'm sure huge royalties will be involved.
- Cross Road Blues (Robert Johnson, 1936)
Geoff; vocal, harmonica, & Thompson OM in Open G
Recorded LIVE 1/20/90 at Saturday Night in Marblehead Coffeehouse, Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Special thanks to Fred Long.
This may be the best-known blues song in the whole world. If not, it's a sure tie with Hootchie Cootchie Man by Willie Dixon. The lyrics are so haunting and visual that they define the blues experience. The third verse is particularly spooky considering that in 1936 a black man out walking the roads after sunset could suddenly find himself very dead. The story about Robert selling his soul to the devil in return for fiendish guitar licks was common at the time, and many singers spread similar stories about themselves for the mystique it created... blues' earliest pr.
The original recording from that San Antonio hotel room is in Bb (Open G cranked up three half steps). He could have used a capo, but I don't think so, and I seriously doubt that the masters were sped up to fit a commercial product format. I think he just tuned up until it felt right for his voice, and until he could be heard over the ruckus of the dirt-floor-moonshine-barbeque-kerosene-lamp-and-razor-fight parties he played for... and if the bridge ripped out of his old Kalamazoo he could always get another from Sears and Roebuck for thirty bucks. And these guys didn't play alone despite the fact that they were usually recorded solo. At the gig there was always somebody on bones or banjo or jug or harmonica or spoons or washtub bass or whatever.
One final note. The little guitar riff I play that goes winging off to the five chord early just before the last line of the third verse is a complete and total mistake. I've never been able to play it again.
- Lemonade (Geoff Bartley, 1995)
Geoff; National in Open G
This unassuming little instrumental is obviously not a blues, but could be mistaken for a turn of the century parlor piece. Maybe I channeled Scott Joplin when he was a child. Easy, fun to play, and a nice end to side one, for those of you with the cassette. Enjoy the tab... it's easy!
- When You've Got A Good Friend (Robert Johnson, 1936)
Geoff; vocal, harmonica, and HD-28
I've always felt that blues is a lyric form first and foremost, and I often choose songs for their words alone. This is a case in point. I love every verse, even the one I left out. Robert Johnson was a great guitar player, even by today's standards, and a great songwriter too. His words are gripping, honest, and durable. There's very little fat... most of what he sings is his own. In all of his recordings he takes only one guitar break, yet his rhythm guitar licks are still the basic language of blues anywhere in the world.
Johnson's version is in Open D and is much gentler. I indulged myself a bit with this, recording it in a kind of Chicago style, but fought down the urge to get an A-Static or a Green Bullet mic and plugging my harp into a Twin Reverb turned up to eleven. Thank God for small miracles.
- Everything They Told Me (Geoff Bartley, 1995)
Phil Antoniades; percussion
Eric Levenson; string bass
Geoff; vocal, National in standard tuning, capo 3
This is a social protest song disguised as a love song. Utah Phillips will be proud. I borrowed a line from Blind Alfred Reed's How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live and another idea from a line in a Ry Cooder adaptation of the traditional song The Taxes on the Farmer Feed Us All but the rest is original, as far as I know. Great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few is an injustice and a form of violence.
- Peaceable Street (Geoff Bartley, 1995)
Geoff; vocal, National in Open G, harmonica, and Fender bass
I've gotten my promo 8x10s for years from Jet Photo in Brighton. To come home, I have to take a left onto Peaceable Street. This song fell together late one autumn afternoon after a trip to Jet, and is a sketch of the darker side of my neighborhood in Cambridge. Maybe I had Skip James' Hard Time Killin' Floor in mind. I tried to get a spare delta sound here, staying on the one chord when you expect the five. This is an earmark of some primitive delta blues that, when I first heard it, raised the hair on my head. John Lee Hooker has raised it to an art form in his Smokestack Lightnin' and others.
- The Fullerton Street Strut (Geoff Bartley, 1984)
Geoff; HD-28 in DADGAD, capo 2
It was fall of 1984 and I had just won this Martin at Winfield in Kansas. Talk about high. I was on tour headed home from California via Chicago and was staying with a friend who lived on Fullerton Street there. The voicing of the four chord hooked me, and the song grew from this sound. DADGAD is usually reserved for a Celtic feel, but I can transmogrify almost anything into blues. I've never heard this tuning on old records. For David Wilcox, who liked it enough to learn it and teach it back to me.
- No Money Down (Chuck Berry, 1961)
Geoff; vocal, HD-28, harmonica
Recorded LIVE 3/26/94 at Exchange Hall in South Acton, Mass.
Special thanks to Mark Greenbaum
Here is a towering lyrical sign post on the landscape of American rock 'n' roll; a mini-movie from the master, the perfect pop anthem to America's love affair with the automobile and all the glittering highways built after the war. Chuck (Charles Edward Anderson) Berry from St. Louis burst onto the airwaves in 1955 with Maybellene, starting a string of hits that lasted ten years. Through 1961 Chuck was next in line behind Elvis on the rock 'n' roll airwaves. His songs told the story of teenagers' real lives and dreams, and are still so well known that he doesn't need to travel with a band. He picks up bands that know his songs in every town he plays. A Caddy fitting the general description of the yellow convertible can be seen outside The Cantab Lounge any night Little Joe Cook is holding court. I learned this song in 1974 after hearing John Hammond and Chris Smither. Thanks to Cheapo Records in Central Square, where I found the original.
- Duncan and Brady (American folksong, circa 1925)
Geoff; vocal, Style-O in Open C tuning CGCGCE, and Fender bass.
Duncan runs the bar and crap game, and King Brady is the crooked sheriff trying to horn in on the proceeds in this well-known folk tale. (There is also a bluegrass version by The Johnson Mountain Boys). I learned it from Bob Franke who learned it from Michael Cooney. Open C is a royal tuning for guitar owing to the timbre of the detuned strings and to the sparkling major third on top. It is a tuning of irrepressible optimism. Duncan plugs the s.o.b. and the whole town parties down.
- Denomination Blues (Washington Phillips, 1927)
Ralph Tufo; accordion
Eric Levenson; string bass
Geoff; vocal, HD-28 (Dropped D tuning DADGBE capo 2)
Here again is a song with great lyrics, but great as they are I still adapted them slightly. Phillips sings the first verse... every man don't understand the Bible alike, and that's all, and the chorus goes... but you better have Jesus, I tell you that's all. Also, my version is a combination of verses from both Part 1 and Part 2, which eventually ended up on one re-issue. I sang it the way it felt right to me.
Washington Phillips is an unusual figure in country blues. Not only did he put religious themes in his blues songs, but he also played a dulceola, a kind of zither with a miniature keyboard. The only person I know who has a dulceola, and actually plays it, is Andy Cohen. Andy is also the best interpreter of Reverend Gary Davis currently walking the earth, plays wicked blues piano, and knows about a million songs.
- Come On In My Kitchen (Robert Johnson, 1936)
Geoff; vocal, Thompson OM in Open G, & harmonica
Recorded LIVE 3/26/94 at Exchange Hall in South Acton.
And so we come to the last song. Winter is coming and with it the rains. Lives move indoors to wait out thin times. This has to be the loneliest blues I know. Johnson's recording is truly eerie, a spare line drawing of deep sadness, where the cleared canebrakes of the delta lie desolate, where souls drown. He stays on the one chord throughout, but magically implies much more, even insinuating several rhythms at once. There's not another song like it in all of blues.