Wednesday, December 27, 2017

When The Blues Was Dues- The Slide Guitar Of Elmore James

When The Blues Was Dues- The Slide Guitar Of Elmore James

By Ray Carter

 [As of December 1, 2017 under the new regime of Greg Green, formerly of the on-line American Film Gazette website, brought in to shake things up a bit after a vote of no confidence in the previous site administrator Peter Markin was taken among all the writers at the request of some of the younger writers abetted by one key older writer, Sam Lowell, the habit of assigning writers solely to specific topics like film, books, political commentary, and culture is over. Also over is the designation of writers in this space, young or old, by job title like senior or associate. After a short-lived experiment by Green designating everybody as “writer” seemingly in emulation of the French Revolution’s “citizen” or the Bolshevik Revolution’s “comrade” all posts will be “signed” with given names only. The Editorial Board]

I, Kenny Evans, will get to a CD review of Elmore James’ work in a second. Now I want to tell, no retell, the tale that had me and a few of my corner boys who hung out in front of, or in if we had dough for food or more likely the jukebox, Jimmy Jack’s Diner in Carver where I came of age in the early 1960s going for a while. On one lonesome Friday night, lonesome meaning, no dough, no wheels, no girls, or any combination of the three, with time of our hands Billy Bradley, Jack Dawson and I went round and round about what song by what artist each of us thought was the decisive song that launched rock and roll. Yeah, I know, I know now, that the world then, like now, was going to hell in a hand-basket, what with the Russkies breathing hard on us in the deep freeze Cold War red scare night, with crazy wars going on for no apparent reason, and the struggle for black civil rights down in the police state Mister James Crow South (that “police state" picked up later after I got wise to what was happening there, that it was not some ill-thought out aberration by a few raggedly rednecks by a deeply conscious social policy formulated at the highest local levels, and carried out from the top down in a crazy quill iron front which almost took a second civil to unravel) but what were three corner boys to do to while away the time.  

Here is the break-down though. We knew, knew without anybody telling us that while Elvis gave rock and roll a big lift in his time before he went on to silly movies (after Jail House Rock where the jail house rock scene was worth the price of admission alone) that debased his talent he was not the “max daddy,” not the guy who rolled the dice. For one thing and this was Billy’s position he only covered Big Joe Turner’s classic R&B classic Shake, Rattle, and Roll and when we heard Joe’s finger-snapping version we flipped out. So Billy had his choice made, no question. Jack had heard on some late Sunday night radio station out in Chicago on his transistor radio a thing called Be-Bop Benny’s Blues Hour where he first heard this guy wailing on the piano a be-bop tune. It turned out to be Ike Turner (without Tina then and using another name like Johnny and the Dee Drops, something like that, due to onerous and one-sided contractual problems) blasting Rocket 88. So Jack had his position firm, and a good choice. Me, well I caught this obscure folk music station (obscure then but not a few years later though) which played not just folk but what would be later called “roots music.” And the blues is nothing but roots music in America. One night I heard Elmore James slide guitar his way through Look On Yonder Wall. That is the song I defended that night. Did any of us change each other’s mind that night. Be serious this was teenage boys turf war and the last I heard it was about 1926 the last time a teenage boy succumbed to reason. I later, several years later well out of teenage boy angst and alienation so easier to un-clutch wrong opinions, saw the wisdom of Jack’s choice and switched but old Elmore still was a close second. Enough said.       


The History of Elmore James: The Sky Is Crying, Elmore James, Rhino Records, 1993

When one thinks of the classic blues tune “Dust My Broom” one tends to think of the legendary Robert Johnson who along with his “Sweet Home, Chicago” created two of the signature blues songs of the pre-World War II period. However, my first hearing of “Dust My Broom” was on a hot LP vinyl record (the old days, right?) version covered and made his own by the artist under review, Elmore James. I have heard many cover versions since then, including from the likes of George Thoroughgood and Chris Smither, and they all reflect on the influence of Elmore’s amazing slide guitar virtuosity to provide the "heat" necessary to do the song justice. Moreover, this is only the tip of the iceberg as such blues masters and aficionados as B.B. King and The Rolling Stones have covered other parts of James’ catalog.
Perhaps because Elmore died relativity young at a time when blues were just being revived in the early 1960’s as part of the general trend toward “discovering” roots music by the likes of this reviewer he has been a less well-known member of the blues pantheon. However, for those who know the value of a good slide guitar to add sexiness and sauciness to a blues number James is a hero. Hell, Thoroughgood built a whole career out of Elmore covers (and also, to be sure, of the late legendary Bo Diddly). I never get tired of hearing these great songs. Moreover, it did not hurt to have the famous Broom-dusters backing him up throughout the years. As one would expect of material done in the pre-digital age the sound quality is very dependent on the quality of the studio. But that, to my mind just makes it more authentic.

Well, what did you NEED to listen to here? Obviously,” Dust My Broom". On this CD though you MUST listen to Elmore on "Standing At The Crossroads". Wow, it jumps right out at you. "Look On Yonder Wall" (a song that I used to believe was a key to early rock 'n' rock before I gravitated to Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" as my candidate for that role), "It Hurts Me Too" and the classic "The Sky is Crying" round out the minimum program here. Listen on.

Lyrics To "Dust My Broom"

I'm gonna get up in the mornin',

I believe I'll dust my broom (2x)

Girlfriend, the black man you been lovin',

girlfriend, can get my room

I'm gon' write a letter,

Telephone every town I know (2x)

If I can't find her in West Helena,

She must be in East Monroe, I know

I don't want no woman,

Wants every downtown man she meet (2x)

She's a no good doney,

They shouldn't 'low her on the street

I believe, I believe I'll go back home (2x)

You can mistreat me here, babe,

But you can't when I go home

And I'm gettin' up in the morning,

I believe I'll dust my broom (2x)

Girlfriend, the black man that you been lovin',

Girlfriend, can get my room

I'm gon' call up Chiney,

She is my good girl over there (2x)

If I can't find her on Philippine's Island,

She must be in Ethiopia somewhere

Robert Johnson

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