by David Hamburger
Come on…Baby, Don’t You Want to Know?
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of teaching at various workshops in the company of some fabulous blues guitarists, including Paul Rishell, Steve James and Duke Robillard, among others. I’ve always soaked up as much as I could from these experiences, realizing early on that as long as no one who was paying me to teach realized just how much I was actually learning myself, I was pretty much sitting on so much velvet. The thing I’ve always envied about these guys is their hands-on connection to the past. Steve’s got stories about backing up Furry Lewis onstage in Memphis in the early ’70s. Duke told me once how he got called up to sit in with Muddy Waters, while Freddie King was already onstage too, and Freddie proceeded to glower at Duke the entire time for messing with his own Muddy moment. “And Freddie was a big guy!” laughed Duke. But the best of all are Paul Rishell’s stories about backing up Howlin’ Wolf in Boston, also in the early ’70s. After one session, one of the other musicians asked Wolf if he had any words of wisdom for a young, up and coming bluesman. Wolf looked the afro’d and dashiki’d guitarist up and down and growled, “Yeah! Throw them pedals in the river on the way to the barber shop!”
So I wish the things I am about to tell you, I learned from hanging with Robert Lockwood Jr., sitting in with Roosevelt Sykes, and catching Magic Sam at his incendiary Ann Arbor Blues Festival appearance in the 1960s. But I didn’t. I learned them on Youtube, and from Wikipedia. Also from Elijah Wald’s fantastic book, Escaping the Delta. More on that in a future post. For now, on to the Robert Johnson tune, “Sweet Home Chicago.”
First things first. Johnson’s tune is, according to most people who think about these sorts of things a lot, a kind of a re-write or development of a 1928 Scrapper Blackwell song, “Kokomo Blues.”
Blackwell is best known for playing guitar with the pianist Leroy Carr, who wrote the classic “How Long How Long Blues.” “Kokomo Blues” was then recorded in all of 1934 by James Arnold as “Old Original Kokomo Blues,” which, to put things in perspective, would be like recording Beyonce’s 2004 hit “Naughty Girl” today as “Old Original Naughty Girl.”
Johnson’s song, obviously, replaced the relatively obscure city of Kokomo, Indiana, with the hoped-for destination of millions of post-Emancipation blacks, Chicago, and in so doing unwittingly created an anthem for a blues scene that, while young and thriving, had yet to explode into the postwar phenomenon of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chess Records and all the rest.
But almost nobody sings the final line of the first verse the way Johnson originally wrote it: “Back to that land of California, sweet home Chicago.” Pianist and singer Roosevelt Sykes is generally credited with changing that line to “Back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago,” which is how Magic Sam, Freddie King and, of course, the Blues Brothers went on to sing it in the postwar era. (And if you can’t trust John Belushi, who can you trust? I mean, the man’s wearing a tie, for cryin’ out loud.)
Musically, acoustic and electric versions of the song diverge as well, although there are some interesting connections to be made all around. Johnson’s original is based around the shuffle figure I grew up thinking of as the Chuck Berry rhythm, though Johnson himself deserves much of the credit for making this barrelhouse piano sound an essential blues guitar move. Carriers of the Johnson flame like Robert Lockwood Jr. and Johnny Shines ring their own subtle changes on the Johnson essentials, putting their own stamp on the shuffle figure itself (with various open-position fills) and Johnson’s distinctive intro and turnaround licks.
Robert Lockwood Jr.:
Freddie King and Magic Sam, on the other hand, both have similar takes on what I think of as the electric version of the song. Whether one of them was the first to apply that intro and those turnaround licks to the tune, or if it was someone else, I haven’t been able to suss out yet, but I’m all ears if anyone knows (or has a plausible theory that doesn’t involve zombie swordfish, the color magenta or the C.I.A.). In the meantime, what’s cool and interesting about both of their versions is that Magic Sam and Freddie King are both essentially fingerstyle guys, even though they play electric guitar. And so they both do a lot of cool open position work, both for chording and soloing, and make hefty use of a classic Chicago turnaround move for the IV chord that I’ll get into in the video post along with a bunch of these other nuances.
Poke around Youtube and you’ll also find versions where people append Elmore James’ classic “Dust My Broom” intro to “Sweet Home Chicago,” a song James does not seem to have done himself. Considering that Robert Johnson didn’t actually do “Dust My Broom” on slide himself, you can see how the longer you look at these things, it just gets weirder and weirder, like an M.C. Escher print. Heavy, dude.
David Hamburger leads a double life as a guitar geek/educator and composer for TV, film and advertising. Check out the former at www.davidhamburger.com and the latter at www.davidhamburgermusic.com, and dip into his popular Truefire course Blues Alchemy for his take on all things 12-bar and beyond.