Originally inspired to take up playing the blues in our teens, we’ve both been playing ever since – in bands, jams, solo, duos – and sometimes just the two of us together. Living at opposite ends of the country, we don't get to play together as often as we'd like, but when we do, the result is the kind of thing you hear on this album – a mixture of old favourites and new discoveries. It’s also a homage to the men and women who first shaped the blues, and a journey through the country blues, vaudeville and jug band music of the 1920s and 1930s, to the post World War 2, electric blues of Chicago. Recorded in a single session, and mostly in single takes (with some overdubbing for additional vocals and jug), we set out to capture the spirit of one of our live sets, meeting the blues like an old friend – but one full of surprises.
Notes on the songs
1. Stealing, Stealing
An old favourite that we first heard from Jesse Fuller, but originally recorded in 1928 by the Memphis Jug Band with Will Shade on harmonica and vocals. It has what must be one of the best opening lines of any song.
2. Big Road Blues
A Tommy Johnson song, first recorded in 1928 and one of three of his on this album. He wrote this one night at a party when the girl he wanted to go home with was non-committal. The guitar here is in dropped D tuning capoed up to E.
3. Green River Blues
One of two Charley Patton songs on this album, both recorded in 1929. This one rolls along like a Mississippi steamboat; big wheel churning, smoke hanging in the air, and accordion and guitar music drifting across the water….
4. I Wonder To Myself
Another song from Tommy Johnson, this one surviving only as a poor quality 1929 Paramount recording. We think this is the only ragtime number Tommy recorded, and family members tell us that in the studio he had someone to put the kazoo in his mouth for the instrumental breaks. Here Bob had the luxury of a rack to hold his kazoo. Tommy’s lyrics deal with common themes in his songs - coming home to his old mother who is missing him, being drunk and short of money. The lyrics also make a reference to racial segregation (“got to stagger to the rear of some passenger train”), which was rare in 1920s blues recordings.
5. Rocking Chair Blues
A Big Bill Broonzy song first recorded in 1940 with Memphis Slim on piano. Although Big Bill protests he’s young and tender and needs handling with care, he was 47 at the time. And as for Bob’s age…well, he too is being ironic…...
6. Going To Germany
A Canon's Jug Stompers song recorded in 1929 with Noah Lewis singing and playing harmonica. There are various ideas on what is meant by “going to German” – perhaps a reference to army service during the First World War or, more likely, to Germantown on the east side of Memphis. Either way, it's a beautiful and haunting song.
7. Me And The Devil Blues
One of our favourite Robert Johnson numbers and one we usually play acoustically. But this time we plugged in for an ‘early Chicago’ sound, Bob playing his Gretsch Synchromatic guitar and Keith playing harp through small Fender tube amps. We wonder what Robert Johnson would have done with an electric guitar if he had lived a little longer....
8. Some Of These Days
Another Charley Patton number but this time not a blues - it's derived from the popular hit recorded in 1911 by vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker. A jaunty fusion of blues and country, it illustrates the breadth of Patton's repertoire and his versatility as an entertainer who seems equally at home with blues, gospel and the pop music of the time.
9. Sporting Life Blues
Our arrangement of the old Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee favourite. The song, first recorded by Brownie in 1946 but written in the 1930s when he was still a teenager, was prompted by the last letter he got from his mother, urging him to change his ways. But as we all know, once you’re bitten by the blues…. Anyway, as they say, youth is really wasted on the young.
10. Black Eye Blues
A song from the repertoire of Ma Rainey, the early 20th century vaudeville star and first great blues stage singer. Recorded in 1928 with Thomas ‘Georgia Tom’ Dorsey on piano and Tampa Red on guitar, and written by the prolific Dorsey (later famous as a gospel composer), this is classic Ma Rainey territory – troubled relationships, suffering, determination and humour - a ‘dirty mistreater’ story from the woman’s point of view.
11. Mother Earth
An old favourite of ours by Memphis Slim (Peter Chatman) which we first heard on a 1960s blues compilation album, and then picked up again in the early 70s after meeting Memphis Slim on tour in England and later again in Paris where he settled towards the end of his life and opened a nightclub. It has great lyrics that just get better with age.
12. I Couldn't Help It
There’s not really that much known about Memphis blues musician Allen Shaw. He only recorded a few songs, this one for Vocalian in 1934. As so often with blues, Shaw took these verses from other songs around at the time. But the keynote here, the catchy jug band-like chorus, is all his own.
13. Maggie Campbell Blues
This 1928 Tommy Johnson song refers to his great lost love. There were many women in Tommy’s life, but Maggie Campbell was unusual in that she walked out on him. He spent the rest of his life keeping an eye out for her, hoping she’d come back. According to his family, she never did. Like the original, Bob plays this in open G tuning.
14. Standing Around Crying
Our tribute to Muddy Waters. Both as an acoustic player in Mississippi, and later, with his electric bands in Chicago, Muddy has been a towering influence. So too has Little Walter, who reinvented the harmonica as an amplified instrument. This song comes from Muddy’s incendiary 1952 sessions, recorded initially with Little Walter and, later, Junior Wells on harmonica. One of two numbers here (see track 7) played through tube amps – the harp through a bullet mic and an old Fender Champ.
15. Police Dog Blues
A typically tuneful and highly syncopated number which, unusually for him, is played in open tuning. Recorded in 1929, it’s a story of unrequited love for a woman whose fiercely protective dog ‘when he gets the chance, leaves his mark on everybody’s pants....’