On the Road Again

Canned Heat, Liberty 56038, 1968, #16 Pop

The only two Canned Heat songs I really love are “On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country.” Since both of these songs are wonderful because of Alan Wilson’s lead vocals (a role usually handled by Bob Hite), I guess I’m an Alan Wilson fan but not a Canned Heat fan.

I have a rule—which I may break someday—that I won’t pay more for one record than I paid for the record player.

I was drawn to the eerie spell of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” whenever I heard it on the radio as a young lad. The harmonica (also Alan Wilson) and the pulsing bass line set the ominous tone, and the falsetto vocal complemented the instrumentation. It was years later that I got the same eerie feeling, and a sense of déjà vu, hearing Floyd Jones’s 1951 song “Dark Road.” I didn’t immediately associate the two songs, but read later that Wilson drew from “Dark Road” to come up with “On the Road Again.” Jones, who’s credited as a co-writer on the Heat song, had derived his song from “Big Road Blues” by Tommy Johnson, which I only heard (and loved) for the first time 86 years after it was recorded. Tommy also wrote “Canned Heat Blues,” which gave the group its name. The droning music of “On the Road Again,” based around an E chord, features, in every third bar, the E – G – A riff popularized by John Lee Hooker.

The other Canned Heat road-song hit, “Going Up the Country,” was borrowed from an old acoustic blues song. “Bull Doze Blues,” recorded by Henry Thomas in 1928, and had the same guitar rhythm and flute part to back the same melody. The Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane) had recorded a similar song in 1927, about being “Beale Street Bound.” In one verse, Stokes sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin’, what you want me to bring you back?” Al Wilson, forty years later, sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin” where the water tastes like wine.” The blues is a borrowing style, but all pop music borrows to varying degrees from roots predecessors. There’s truly nothing new under the sun—but there continue to be delightful mergings and mutations.

Quite a few of my all-time favorite recordings are country blues songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s, but I’m afraid I’ll never own them in their primary, essential state. I have Bukka White’s “Shake ‘em on Down” on an LP, but the 78 rpm in any playable state would cost me thousands. At least hundreds. It would be the same for any record by Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and any of their peers. These records are unaffordable treasures not only because they are so damn good, but because so few people back in those days thought they were any damn good. Few were pressed, and very few survive. It’s a rarefied group of old white guys who’ve bought these up, and when they die, others who may be interested and have a lot of “walkin’ money” can grab the records they’ve coveted.

Of all the 78s out there, the percentage of valuable ones is minute; the supply of most 78s exceeds the demand. I am fortunate to be broad of musical scope and forgiving of disc condition. (Another reason I wouldn’t pay two grand for a blues rarity is that my player is a $49 portable hooked up to computer speakers. I have a rule—which I may break someday—that I won’t pay more for one record than I paid for the record player.) So I happily buy five-to-twenty-dollar 78s by The Ink Spots, Fats Waller, Johnny Hodges, Bill Monroe, Memphis Minnie and others who were popular enough that quite a few records survive today. And listening to these recordings on 10-inch shellac discs is just glorious—the best of cheap thrills. (But I would pay twenty bucks for someone who owns a clean copy of “Shake ‘em on Down” on 78 to just let me listen to it one time.)

Mean Mistreater Blues

Memphis Minnie, Columbia 37295, 1944

I had my first opportunity to become a Memphis Minnie fan back in 1967, but I failed to pursue it. I was just a junior-high kid, after all, with almost no exposure to the blues of my grandparents’ generation. (My grandparents had little to no exposure to it either.) A schoolfriend’s dad worked for RCA and passed along a promo LP copy of Jefferson Airplane’s first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, and my friend passed it along to me. I loved every song on the record, including its only cover, “Chauffeur Blues,” which was the standout vocal number for Signe Toly Anderson. Signe left the group shortly after that album’s release, to be replaced by Grace Slick.

“Chauffer Blues” is credited on the Airplane record as being written by Lester Melrose. He was one in the long line of producers who claimed writer credit in order to grab royalties. The original recording, made in 1941 as “Me and My Chauffer Blues,” is credited to Ernest “Little Son Joe” Lawlar, third husband of Lizzie Douglas, otherwise known as Memphis Minnie. Minnie is thought to have been the actual songwriter, as she was for most of her couple-hundred recorded songs. She lived another six years after the Airplane cover, without acknowledgment or royalties from them. Was she even aware they’d recorded it?

I was a dumb teenager. I had no idea what I was missing by not investigating “Chauffeur Blues,” just as I blithely failed to follow up on Robert Johnson, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Tommy Johnson, and other blues singer-songwriters covered by sixties rockers. It didn’t help that there was no YouTube then, nor did it help that I mostly listened to top 40 radio and played in a band that tried to cover The Beatles and The Byrds.

I’m catching up now, grabbing Memphis Minnie 78s as I’m able, making up for lost time by playing the hell out of ‘em. Among my favorites is “Mean Mistreater Blues,” which features the insistent rhythm guitar of Little Son, and the sharp, dancing guitar fills and rides and the powerful vocals of Minnie. It is hard to find affordable copies of 78s recorded by most of the men who created the greatest country blues music. It is a real treat that records by the only woman who regularly pops up in the country blues pantheon can be found in very nice condition for a reasonable price. Unlike most of her male peers, Memphis Minnie recorded into the fifties, maintaining the style and quality of her earliest recordings. The earliest ones may be a bit on the pricy side, but the later gems are plentiful.

Ms. Minnie’s vocal quality on “Mean Mistreater Blues” and many of her other recordings reminds me of her friend and mutual admirer Bukka White, whose records are in short supply and way out of my price range. But, you know what? I don’t feel like I’m “settling” for Memphis Minnie. She’s right up there with Bukka and the country blues men’s club.

Tomorrow Night

Lonnie Johnson, King 4201, 1948, #19 Pop and #1 R&B

Whenever I see a photograph of Lonnie Johnson, an urbane, black city fellow from New Orleans, I’m startled that he looks nothing at all like Frith Wilson, a simple, white, Okie farmer.

I found a copy of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” in its original habitat, the 78 rpm platter, and it’s splendid.

The way I remember my Grandpa Wilson’s voice, it is so much like Lonnie Johnson’s voice on this song that every time I listen to “Tomorrow Night” I imagine it coming out of Grandpa’s mouth, as he sits in a sea-green metal chair on the front porch of his farmhouse, strumming an old guitar. I never actually heard my Grandpa Wilson, who’s been dead for almost forty years, sing or play guitar, but he’s somehow being channeled through this disc.

Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” got me back into 78s. His original recording of “Tomorrow Night” was on 10” shellac, issued just before the 45 rpm format was introduced. I became addicted to the recording only fairly recently, and had it in MP3 format—woefully unsuitable to the task of conveying Mr. Johnson’s full musical and spiritual impact. I found a copy of the 45 online and ordered it, unaware that when “Tomorrow Night” was reissued in the 45 rpm format in the early fifties, some unwanted, unwarranted guests were invited along for the ride: A saccharine choir and florid piano, apparently added to shore up Johnson’s basics, were, I guess, intended to give the record some mass appeal. The additions subtract all the intimacy and earthiness that give the original its appeal. (Think of Ray Charles’s cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The worst thing about it is the background singing. If they had just let the Raelets do the backups, or just let Ray croon it solo…) Grandpa Wilson, I’m sure, would’ve preferred the unmolested version. So I found a copy of Lonnie Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night” in its original habitat, the 78 rpm platter, and it’s splendid.

It wasn’t always so splendid. When Lonnie Johnson recorded “Tomorrow Night” in 1948, more than two decades into his recording career, he pulled off a miracle, rescuing a pleasant-but-forgettable Sam Coslow/Will Grosz song from being forever stuck in 1939 by Horace Heidt’s milquetoast dance-band recording. And he did it almost single-handedly (or double-handedly, I should say, with his guitar). There’s a barely audible piano and bass in there providing the least little bit of backing, but the song is all Johnson’s.
With some records, there is a key musical element that locks them in as all-time favorites. With Johnson’s “Tomorrow Night,” it’s his strong, clear 6th note on the word “night” in the title phrase that opens each verse.

He is rightfully revered for his guitar style, which influenced many who came along after him, and his guitar work on “Tomorrow Night” is very fine. But it’s his syrup-and-acid voice that carries it aloft. It’s smooth but with a raw edge, and on “Tomorrow Night” Johnson sounds the way Howlin’ Wolf might have if he’d been asked to rein it in a little at a society soiree. Or the way Grandpa Wilson may have sounded if he’d been asked to let loose a little at a family reunion.

I also have a brassier and bolder LaVern Baker cover of the song, issued as a single in 1955 on the B side of her hit “Tweedle Dee.” It’s not bad at all, just not sublime. Elvis Presley recorded a version of “Tomorrow Night” at Sun that hews pretty close to Lonnie Johnson’s. He also plays up the glorious 6th, unlike Bob Dylan, who misses that element completely in his 1992 recording of the song.

Now about Sam Coslow, co-writer of the song. He’s written a couple of other songs, with his usual writing partner Arthur Johnston, that I love. One is “Troubled Waters,” recorded in 1934 by the Duke Ellington Orchestra with vocals by Ivie Anderson, singing as “one of the devil’s daughters.” The other’s a song I knew as “Lotus Blossom” that actually started out as “Marijuana.” It was written, also in 1934, for the movie Murder at the Vanities, a pre-code film with not only a song about marijuana’s soothing properties but with naked nymphs covering their breasts with their hands. Sam Coslow evidently made the title change somewhere along the way, but in his autobiography Cocktails for Two, barely mentions “Marijuana” and mentions “Lotus Blossom” not at all. (By the way, the subtitle of the memoir is The Many Lives of Giant Songwriter Sam Coslow. “Giant songwriter.” He wrote that about himself. Nice.)

About Lonnie and Frith: I think I can safely suppose that the slick, big-band milieu that Coslow traded in would’ve held less appeal for my grandpa than the rougher, down-home folk-blues stylings of Lonnie Johnson. So maybe Okie folky Woody Guthrie is the bridge. I can imagine Grandpa enjoying listening to Woody, and I can imagine Woody digging Lonnie.