Apple Tree Swing

July 15, 2012

I’ve just spent the most frustrating hour trying to answer a call in cyberspace (note: in cyberspace noone can hear you scream). Someone posted to a harmonica site asking for the chords to John Lee Williamson’s Apple Tree Swing, but I couldn’t find the means to reply.

Anyhoo, if anyone’s interested, this is how it goes (to my ears, anyway). I’m hearing this in the Key of G:


G   /  G   / C9 / C9 / G-G7 / E7 / A7-D9 / G

Middle 8:

B7 / B7 / E9 / E9 / A7 / A7 / D9 / Stop

Apple Tree Swing is one of those out-of-the-mould Sonny Boy I moments. Bluebird recordings of the 1930s and ’40s are often disparaged for being mass-produced and homogeneous (one remembers Sam Charters’ denunciation of the ‘Bluebird Beat’), but the leading artists did shake it up from time to time – none more so than Sonny Boy I.

Apple Tree Swing finds John Lee bending his harp around some neat jazz changes. The whole thing feels like a countrified version of Louis Jordan. Harp nuts may also find this to be a proto-Little Walter moment.


In recent days, I have been preparing for a radio interview. The host asked me to nominate some disks to play and my mind went immediately to Sonny Boy Williamson’s All My Love in Vain.

The unitiated can hear the track here:

Sonny Boy’s Love .. bears no relation to the similarly titled Robert Johnson song (although the two men reputedly travelled together in the 1930s). No. It’s a prime piece of Rice Miller*, which exemplifies both his skill as a harmonica player and as a poet.

The harp is extraordinary. This blues is played in crossed G on a regular 10 hole Marine Band, but sometimes you feel like checking your ears. To this day (and this song has been around me now for over 30 years) I have no idea how Sonny Boy achieves those low bends in the solo.

But it’s the words that I really love. Essentially, All My Love in Vain was the tenth millionth song about heartbreak, but the imagery is wonderful. Repeatedly, Sonny Boy appeals to a forlorn sense of natural law, an ideal which declaims that ‘a woman is a glory for man’. This reaches its zenith in the second verse:

If this home wasn’t what you’re needing, the judge will not let you explain.  Because he believes in justice, and a woman is a glory for man.

Now, we can argue about the sexual politics, but this would be missing the point. This is a song about one man’s heartbreak and its attendant confusion. Here, Sonny Boy plays the part of someone who is bewildered by a sudden separation. I know how he feels and I bless him for it.

All My Love in Vain formed part of Sonny Boy’s first session for Chess, in 1955. With Don’t Start Me Talking, it set the mould for this great bluesman’s future work. Up to his death, Sonny Boy 2 presented snapshots of the modern world, as it appeared to him. These were stories of life: sometimes cynical, often funny, but always original and pertinent.

* Blues savants will know that Sonny Boy Williamson 2 was not born a ‘Williamson’. Various suggestions have been made concerning his birth name and ‘Rice Miller’ is quoted most often.

Some blues stay in your head for a lifetime. Such is the case with Sammy Lewis’s ‘Somebody Stole My Love’.

Lewis was – and I hope is – a Memphis singer/harmonica player best known for his 1950s collaborations with the guitarist Willie Johnson. ‘I Feel So Worried’ was one of those Memphis blues of the ‘Feeling Good’ school and it is well known to blues/rockabilly fans, partly because of its inclusion on the famous 1970s Sun blues compilation, Blues Came Down From Memphis.

‘Somebody Stole My Love’ was recorded at some point in the early 1970s and it was something else again. This soulful minor blues was released on the independent (meaning ‘one release’) 8th Street label and it was later included on a bootleg compilation from the dutch Sundown concern.

The song stood out from the start because of the band format. Unusually,the band comprised acoustic guitar, electric bass and drums. This configuration had been used, to generally corny effect, on the Chess ‘Folk Blues’ albums of the 1960s, but Lewis’s band was distinctive and purposeful. The sound was not nostalgic, but forward-looking, in the manner, say, of the contemporary small acoustic-led band of Bill Withers.

Lewis’s vocals were fluid and sensitive. I can still hear the last verse:

All day long/ I’ve been crying out for you/ All day long, pretty baby/ I’ve been crying out for you/ Now you’ve gone and left me baby/ Tell me what in the world am I’m gonna do?

The singing was matched by the most delicate and melodic harp playing. Unusually, Lewis played in fourth position, using a G harp to play in B minor. This resulted in some startling filigree phrases in the upper register which sounded almost like chromatic slides. Fourth is a difficult position to work in, partly because of the relative scarcity of obvious bends and ‘Somebody Stole My Love’ displayed evidence of much forethought. The opening lines (working down from the 5th) were remarkably pretty and, throughout, Lewis produced phrases of deft beauty.

A couple of years ago, I made a little effort to get in touch with Sammy Lewis – just to record my appreciation. The opening came about as a result of a brief message, posted to a strange little website called ‘Top Twenty’ (or something similar). A lady wrote that Sammy was her grandfather and that any fans of his Sun work ‘should hear the stuff he plays around the house’.

I’d love to (although my post went unheeded at the time) . ‘Somebody Stole My Love’ is a total jewel of a record and it deserves to be more widely known. Sammy Lewis is a tremendous bluesman and this little post is intended to serve as a cyber-message in a bottle – if only to let Sammy know how he touched the soul of a blues follower thousands of miles across the pond.

This news has only been about 20 years in coming. I have finally learnt how to play the harmonica solos from Sonny Boy Williamson’s Trust My Baby.

Of course, this is the second Sonny Boy that we’re talking about here (‘Rice Miller’ to the cognoscenti). Both Sonny Boys achieved great things, but the second took a markedly melodic and, from time to time, lateral approach to the blues.  Such was the case with ‘Trust My Baby’, a strikingly mournful tune in G major, wherin the harp takes on a unique cello-like quality.

Over the years, I have wondered about the basic position that Sonny Boy uses on this tune. The deep bends suggest standard cross-harp (i.e.playing a fourth below the key of the harp), but the scales almost seem to have a minor tonality. There again, the lines aren’t truly minor, ruling out both third and fourth position. (Anyway, the recorded evidence suggests that Sonny Boy lacked Little Walter’s brilliance in Third). Recently, I found the solution to this problem, via a You Tube link:

This woman has the whole thing off. Three things are noticeable immediately. 1. She’s using a standard ten hole harp – and only the one (there is no switching between positions). 2. She’s mainly playing at the low end of the harmonica (this confirms it’s not in Third). 3.The start of the solo is played up high, in a way that recalls Jimmy Reed. The last observation is important.

It turns out that this Sonny Boy played this tune in First position – or ‘straight harp’. This is so named, because you play the harmonica – straight – in the key that it’s tuned in. This idea is favoured mainly by people who like to puff in and out in the Bob Dylan manner (oh yes and also by five year old children). Of course, Sonny Boy thinks differently. In effect, he is anchoring his riffs around the 3 Draw reed. Naturally, the key note is still to be found at 4 Blow, but all of the significant moments hang on that 3 draw.

Given this understanding, ‘Trust My Baby’ becomes one of those rare things in life – something that really is ‘simple when you know how’. Characteristically, Sonny Boy includes some tricky deep bends on the 3 Draw reed (a la ‘All My Love in Vain’), but it’s otherwise quite easy to emulate.

… But there is catch. Those runs around the 2,3 and 4 reeds (draw and blow) sound smart as anything, but this use of straight harp offers up a pretty limited vocabulary. This point is proved if you listen closely to the record. Sonny Boy begins unaccompanied because, otherwise, the starting/pivotal note (an F#) would be out of tune with the band. Later on, he has to start the solo in the upper register because the options are relatively limited lower down.

These observations are supported if you listen/watch another You Tube clip. This shows Sonny Boy himself performing a solo version of ‘Lonesome Cabin’, in Copenhagen in 1963/4:

Of course, the solos are drawn from ‘Trust My Baby’ and they show that, on this occasion, Sonny Boy wrote himself a pretty tight script.

Recalling Jay Owens

December 21, 2009

I think that a good bluesman is like a shaman. Fundamentally, this is a straightforward music which makes simple appeal to the human soul and the effects can, on rare occasions, be transcendental. Such as the time, in 1992, that I saw Jay Owens play in a small pub in Fratton, Portsmouth.

Jay Owens (1947-2005) was a much underestimated singer, songwriter and guitarist. He went to his grave having recorded three albums and, doubtless, with a song still in him. Owens was a modern blues performer – his best-selling album was called The Blues Soul of Jay Owens – but he didn’t come across (like many of this type) as a converted R&B man. Rather, he tapped into the ethereal world of the blues spirit.

Re: shamanism, you know when you’re in the presence of a great blues artist when the music takes you out of yourself. I have one abiding memory of Jay Owens night in Portsmouth (and then, necessarily, a partial one). At some point, I remember my wife and I being carried, somehow, to the small dance area in front of the stage. Looking back, the slow number was probably Owens’ marvellous ballad The Same Thing, but we didn’t know at the time. The music was all of a piece, every element drawn from the man’s beautiful soul.

There is a little glimpse of Jay Owens available on the WWW. Follow this link and you may catch some of the feeling: This song is an opener and, as such, not his best. But it’s typical by dint of its snappy turnaround and tricky ending. One reviewer suggested that Blues Soul sounded a little like Steely Dan. There is a hint of that, but Owens’ clever chord substitutions and key changes were never gratuitous.

Sadly, I will never have the chance to see Jay Owens again. But his music demonstrated the essential timelessness of the blues. In this way, I remain hopeful that I will, at least, see and hear his like again.

When Girls Do It

December 9, 2009

When I think of the British Red Lightnin’ label, I think of atomic mushroom clouds and devil-eyed monks fishing in a pond. Such imagery adorned the sleeves of Red Lightnin’ from the 1970s onwards; tacit reminders of the links between the blues and surreal dreamscapes. Pete Shertser’s label also produced some fine reissues and compilations – none better than When Girls Do It.

Gloriously, this album (originally a double) has itself been reissued by Cherry Red Records. It is a profound joy. Like all things Red Lightnin’, the album is erratic. Ostensibly, it serves to characterise blues of the 1960s, but it actually features a number of tracks from the classic previous decade. Nonetheless, there are some wonderful moments.

The 1960s were a transitional period for the blues; that time when young black audiences were moving in the more affirmative direction of soul and when the older performers (the lucky ones, that is) found that the richest pickings came from white college audiences. Importantly, When Girls Do It documents the efforts of those blues singers who continued to try and make it with black audiences. The album is made up largely of 45s from the period, which are imbued with a kind of romantic spirit and train-loads of energy.

Some tracks speak of the record companies’ attempts to appeal to the residual blues audiences of the times. The songs from Junior Wells and Magic Sam are powerful examples of early sixties blues, which are aimed squarely at their regular club audiences. (My Love is your Love endures as my favourite Sam moment). Elsewhere, Sam Price, Little Oscar Stricklin and, particularly, Mr Bo evoke the sophisticated and still popular urban sounds of B.B.King. But When Girls Do It is at its best during the quirky, one-off moments.

The two tracks by Danny Boy are a special treat. Apparently, this singer walked into the Savoy studio one day, accompanied by a harmonica player who had, absurdly, forgotten to bring a harp – one had to be borrowed for the session. Amazingly, the harpist emerges as the hero of the hour; Danny Boy sings well, but the harmonica (particularly on Wild Women) is highly unusual. Donnie Jacobs’ Street Walking Woman has a different kind of charm. The vocal is weak but it is also wistful. Moreover, the track has that delightful pop quality which, somehow, characterised the Louisiana blues of the period.

There are some duds here. The tracks by Tender Slim and Clear Waters (Eddie Clearwater) are pale pastiches of Chuck Berry and Jimmy McCracklin is not at his best on his two songs. But everything is worth a listen and the album is filled with surprises. When Girls Do It presents a vivid picture of the blues times of the 1960s.

Bloodstains on the Wall

November 22, 2009

As we know, most songs deal with instant emotions – lust, anger, envy and so on. This is a visceral art form. But, from time to time, one encounters a three minute piece which has a complete story to tell. My favourite example of the ‘story blues’ is Honeyboy’s 1952 song, Bloodstains on the Wall.

As is often the case in blues matters, very little is known about Honeyboy. I know that his real name was/is Frank Patt and that he was born around 1925. I also remember seeing somewhere that he was/is the Uncle of the late blues harp player Carey Bell Harrington. In any event, is is clear that his little bit of fame rests entirely on Bloodstains … and for very good reasons. Honeyboy has a cinematic imagination.

Take the first verse:

She had pillows torn to pieces,
Bloodstains on the wall (x2).
I know I wasn’t injured when I left for work this morning,
I didn’t leave the ‘phone out in the hall.

It’s like film noir or something, isn’t it? Oddly, Honeyboy appears to have become involved, inadvertantly, with a psychopath. I love the consolidation of visual detail. Most blues guys would probably settle for a First Person factual account (‘My Baby’s a Murderer’ or some such); but Honeyboy’s acute imagery puts across the horror of the incident.

The lyric is cinematic also in the sense of movement. The fact of the ‘phone ending up in a strange place speaks of some kind of struggle having taken place.

Things become a little more predictable, thereafter, although the last verse offers an oddly conciliatory note. It appears that Honeyboy is prepared to stand by his sanguinous gal, for the time being:

Then when it’s all over,
I’m gonna let you go.
I didn’t know you were the kind of girl,
To fall so low. She had …

There are other examples of the story blues (not least in the oeuvre of the second Sonny Boy), but Bloodstains … heads the field. Somehow, that terrifying apartment of his has stayed in my mind for 30 years.


November 11, 2009

One of the great things about blues music is its ability to catch you off-guard. Over time, the basics of the blues – the 1-4-5 changes, the 12 bar structures, the use of pentatonic scale – have become familiar to us all. Rock and roll and rock sans the roll have deployed these devices ad infinitum (and on into pop). But the real blues feeling was never so neatly contained and one can find some genuinely weird moments.

Certain mavericks come to mind: the Detroit pianist Johnny Howard and his unique way with the sustain pedal (pressed down, constantly); Skip James, with his quirky, personalised guitar tunings; the apparently a-rhythmic Robert Pete Williams. But my favourite free spirit is the harmonica player/singer Jaybird Coleman.

Jaybird had a somewhat erratic career. He started out as a troops entertainer of sorts (he fought in WW1), before doing some recording, between 1927 and 1930. The recordings split into two groups; the orthodox but energetic waxings with the Joe Williams’ Birmingham Jug Band – and his eerie solo stuff.

The liner notes to the recent Coleman collection speak of the close connections between Jaybird’s harp and vocal style and the field holler. Quite so. But he brings some additional things to the table. The records are all well-structured from a viewpoint of the use of call and response, lyrics and endings (invariably, Coleman ends on a flattened seventh note), but, en route, they are remarkably free-form.

My favourite songs are the two that Jaybird recorded, in 1930, with a pianist called J.D.Northwood. The piano-work is filigree and oddly daintly; essentially, it wouldn’t sound out of place in a ballet school. Moreover, Coleman’s accompanist seems unsure whether to follow the progression up to the fourth and/or fifth or just sort of mooch about. Northwood takes the latter course, interpolating some fussy right-hand figures as a kind of insurance policy, lest his erratic leader should veer off course. All the time, Jaybird hollers and switches the harp style between tidy bends and sawing-motion chords (Jaybird’s chords recall nothing more than a gentle wind or lilting waves).

In the shake-up, Man Trouble and Coffee Grinder Blues endure as authentic blues moments. The latter benefits further from Jaybird’s unique – and possibly religion-inspired – take on sexual politics. (This is also evinced on his solo recording, Save Your Money, Let These Women Go). In all ways, Jaybird made records which were curiously dark but which packed much personal feeling.

Hitting the Keys

November 1, 2009

This is good – take a look:

Follow the link and you’ll find Fenton Robinson performing You Don’t Know What Love Is, in 1974 in a Chicago bar. The song was recorded for a BBC TV series, The Devil’s Music, and it is simply exceptional; the very best in the modern, soulful blues.

Fenton was great, of course. He had a smooth, easy voice and his guitar solos were filled with cute phrases. The band on this clip is also exceptional (just listen to the subtle fills on the snare). But I’m struck here mainly by the piano playing, from Bill Heid.

The Fender Rhodes electric piano is a much underrated blues instrument. Classically, the Rhodes has been favoured by jazzers (Heid is a jazzman of great note) whilst the blues have generally been associated with the acoustic piano and/or Hammond organ. But in this clip, Heid demonstrates the expressive range of the electric piano.

At school, I learned that the piano was to be counted amongst the percussion instruments (on the grounds that the sound is generated by the beating of hammers on strings). Frankly, this always struck me as semantics; just like tomatoes being fruit. But the best blues pianists really do act as part of the rhythm section.

The point is proved by Heid’s evocative playing. The riff is simple – a take on the old Magic Sam routine of minor root chord played off against a major fourth – but Heid sticks to the task with admirable discipline. But he also adds some wonderful flourishes. The little right hand fills are perfectly timed and they respond beautifully to Fenton’s tale of irresistible, but doomed, love. At one moment, Heid interjects a quick-silver right hand roll to propel Fenton into a guitar solo; at another, he contributes a kind of two note suspended riff, which sounds weirdly like a police siren.

… But none of the above is clever-clever. Heid listens, he feels and he responds. The result is an exemplary piece of piano work which reveals the rhythmic soul of the instrument. Very often, blues piano players – particularly those from a classical background – treat rhythm as a kind of last resort, imagining that the song is best served by endless arpeggios. The results are usually hackneyed and lacking in spirit.

None of this could have been said of Bill Heid in 1974. Palpably, he was Fenton’s right hand man.

I Call it Pretty Music

October 25, 2009

A tiny Stevie Wonder sang back in 1962, “I Call it Pretty Music (But the old people call it the blues)”. There was never a truer word sung.

Conventionally, we think of the blues as a repetitive 12 bar form overlaid with melodies written to the pentatonic scale. But listen deeply and you’ll find some pretty melodies.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the late California blues singer and pianist, Roy Hawkins. Hawkins is probably best known for his authorship of two standards, The Thrill is Gone and Why Do Everything Happen to Me?, but his whole catalogue merits a listen. His singing has some of the urbanity that we associate with the West Coast, but he has a stronger emotional edge. Geting back to my point about melody, Hawkins was someone who knew how to shape a tune to get the most from his three or so chords.

If I Had Listened is a sombre minor blues, which finds Hawkins laid on a road, his side punctured by shots fired by a jealous love rival. Roy lifts the mood with some delightful vocal curls and, typically, he varies the tune by shifting the phrasing of the repeated line on the fourth. Strangeland is in a major key, but, again, Hawkins displays his instinct for keeping the tune moving. The repeat of the first line (“Yes, I’m in a strangeland”) includes a distinctive and tricksy vocal bend.

Sometimes, I think that blues singers could do with really studying the masters more. Too often, standard blues phrases are stuck onto twelve bar changes, to nullifying effect; Stormy Monday becomes Have You Ever Loved a Woman? becomes Key to the Highway. The best blues are far more varied and the vocal passages peform the essential job of nailing the melody.