by David Hamburger
There are really two “Statesboro Blues” (blueses?). There’s the song as originally conceived and recorded by Blind Willie McTell in the 1920s in the prewar solo style, with a bright, syncopated but rhythmically tight and danceable guitar part typical of Southeastern guitarists like Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller. Then there’s the version created by the original lineup of the Allman Brothers Band from fragments of the McTell lyric, a sizzling shuffle groove and Duane Allman’s definitive and compelling signature slide theme. Somewhere in between – but definitely leaning towards and allegedly inspiring much of the Allmans version – lies the Taj Mahal version from just a few years before the Allmans’.
Like most people presently walking the planet, I grew up thinking of “Statesboro Blues” as an Allman Brothers song. Maybe even the Allman Brothers song, the first thing that came roaring out of the speakers when someone gave me a hand-me-down LP of The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East that only had sides one and four and said, “here, you might like this.” Like it – good gravy. I didn’t know what was on sides two and three, nor did I even really care what was on side four – I just wanted to hear those first three songs on side one over, and over, and over again. And once someone in college showed me all the things I was doing wrong with the slide, and I made the connection between that and the beginning of “Statesboro Blues,” forget it.
The Allmans were particularly good at giving credit where credit was due – I don’t think they cited Blind Willie McTell on Fillmore East, not out loud, anyway, but they carefully I.D.’d the writers of their next two tunes, Elmore James and T-Bone Walker. Still, when I finally heard how Willie McTell, the original composer of “Statesboro Blues,” played this fragment of my musical bedrock, it was pretty bewildering. To paraphrase Mike Bloomfield, here’s one guy, sitting alone with a guitar – how’s he going to do it? Where are the drums going to come from?
Because Blind Willie McTell of course recorded “Statesboro Blues” as a solo singer/guitarist, and really, that’s how most people before and after the Allman Brothers have done it, too – everyone from Dave Van Ronk, the Holy Modal Rounders and John Hammond to Roy Book Binder, Dave Bromberg and Rory Block. Of course, that last sentence reads like a laundry list of great Folk Revival artists, all of whom were interested in country blues long before the late 1960s and the arrival of Duane, Gregg and company. But the fact that “Statesboro Blues” can carry on this twin identity is a testimony to both the sturdiness of the original song and to the overwhelming originality and ingenuity of the Allmans’ subsequent transformation of it.
In a way, it’s not unlike what Cream accomplished with their drastic restatement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” – when you hear John Mayer’s recent version of that song, do you think “wow, he’s doing that old Robert Johnson song with a band!” or “wow, cool harmony vocals, and I can’t believe he took just one chorus on that Cream tune!”?
So let’s roll tape. Here’s the Fillmore East audio, and a 1973 live version with Dickey Betts stepping in on the slide end of things.
Released on Taj Mahal’s eponymous debut album in 1968, this version transformed the country blues original from a straight-eighths, solo-singer outing to a shuffling, full-band slide feature, four years before the Allman’s version hit vinyl. It never hurts to have Ry Cooder in your rhythm section, either, though most sources claim it was Jesse Ed Davis laying down the slide parts here.
Meanwhile, here’s what a dedicated prewar stylist like Paul Geremia sounds like taking a direct line from the McTell original (he starts playing at about 1:38):
And finally, here’s audio straight from the source: Blind Willie McTell himself, from the original 1928 recording. Notice that it is not necessary to sing like your mouth is full of marbles to be an authentic prewar bluesman – or, for that matter, to imitate one. Nor must one leave the impression that form and groove are simply theoretical matters for tourists to the genre only.