I first encountered this tune through the work of the criminally under-known Mike Henderson, who’s been making one crazy-good, independently-released record after another since the mid-nineties. I won’t go on about him too much, since I haven’t been able to dig up his version of this blog’s song anywhere online, but here’s his band plowing through “When I Get Drunk,” just to convince you his records are worth getting your hands on:
But back to business. While it may have been around in one form or another previously, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” first made it on record via Blind Willie Johnson, one of the great prewar slide guitarists, in 1927.
Johnson’s playing in open D tuning (DADF#AD) and building off a basic alternating-thumb groove which he frequently interrupts or backs off on during his slide breaks and solos. In terms of form, this is pretty distant from a 12-bar blues. Johnson is basically vamping on I, and the contour of the melody and form of the lyric stanzas is what gives the tune its shape. Generally speaking, Johnson’s slide works its way up and down the high string in and around the vocals, then dips down to phrase the melody, unaccompanied, on the 4th string for his first solo, and the first half of his third solo.
It’s unspeakably cool, of course, though – full disclosure – it’s taken me a while to get with Johnson’s singing style. But I don’t think anything beats a septuagenarian standing up to fingerpick a Telecaster through a phase shifter with nary a rhythm section in site.
Like Johnson, Pops Staples was a big influence on Cooder, and in his version of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” he holds down a rock-steady alternating-thumb bass and, like Johnson, Staples lets the bass drop when he’s getting particularly busy in the single-note department. The Staples Singers first recorded the song in 1965, but this version is, of course, much more recent.
While both Johnson and Staples play this song as a one-chord vamp, you don’t have to, as Nina Simone makes clear in her extremely cool version from 1969.
This may be my favorite version of all, but I’m a sucker for this kind of solo piano playing that sits on the cusp of blues and jazz. Simone’s playing is particularly interesting for the way she succeeds in remaining as abstract as many guitarists on the I chord – is it major? is it minor? does it keep changing? Sometimes she nails the minor third of the I, sometimes the major third, sometimes she sidesteps the issue altogether.
And then, of course, there’s Zeppelin. I love me some classic rock interpretation of prewar blues, but I managed to remain oblivious to this one for the duration of my formative years. So, while someone’s going to smack me upside the head for this, it’s hard for me not to hear Plant hold out a word like “night” (er, “niighyeeeeeet”) without thinking about, say, Spinal Tap. Which, I know, is sacrilege. But there it is. Still, I digress. Zep gets big points for layering something as rootsy as harmonica on top of all those stacked-up guitars, which somehow brings all that euphoric Seventies proto-metal back to earth. And while the lyrics and the arrangement go far, far afield from Blind Willie Johnson, Page is no fool – those guitars and wordless Plant moans that bookend the arrangement do nothing so much as conjure up Johnson’s wordless vocal/slide interludes.
On up into the present, now, with a version that demonstrates just how sturdy a song like this is – here it is in the hands of old timey singer Abigail Washburn, who plays it on banjo with cello accompaniment. In terms of the changes, she splits the difference, starting out with a pretty simple vamp that just rocks to the V and back to I, but from time to time the turnarounds get practically jazzy.
Finally, for one more guitarist’s take, and a fantastic vocal, get your hands on the Sister Rosetta Tharpe version from the early 1940s. It’s not floating around on Youtube, but it’s well worth the ninety-nine cents.