‘If I Never Get Well No More . . .’

Originally posted September 25, 2007

One of the most durable of blues songs is the tune “Going Down Slow,” sometimes called “Goin’ Down Slow.”

With more than 300 recordings of it in print – according to All-Music Guide – it’s one of those songs that allow one to pick and choose, finding just the right version for the right moment. And it’s a baffling song, in one way: Lots of people seem to have written it.

It’s familiar:

“I have had my fun, if I never get well no more.
“I have had my fun, if I never get well no more.
“All my health is failin’ on me, oh yes, I’m goin’ down slow.

”Please, write my mama, tell her the shape I’m in.
“Please, write my old mother, tell her the shape I’m in.
“Tell her to pray for me, forgive me for my sin.”

At any rate, according to at least one website, that’s the lyric as sung by Howlin’ Wolf, who released it as Chess single 1813 in 1962, with some spoken portions added by Willie Dixon. When it was released, the writing credit was given to James Burton. At the AMG website, numerous other writers are credited with creating the sturdy song. They include Champion Jack Dupree, Jimmy Witherspoon, Mance Lipscomb, James Booker, Brownie McGhee, Lightning Hopkins and more.

Odds are, however, that the track was written by a bluesman named James Burke Oden (1903-1977), also known as St. Louis Jimmy. He recorded “Going Down Slow” in Chicago on Nov. 11 in 1941. The song was released as Bluebird 8889 and credited to St. Louis Jimmy, according to the Online Discographical Project, which offers a wealth of information about 78 rpm releases.

I’ve never heard Oden’s version of the song. The earliest recorded version of it that I have is probably one by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, although it’s hard to tell. My sense is that the track I have is one of the recordings the duo did for Folkways records in the 1940s and 1950s, but I have yet to find a listing for the duo that has them recording the song with the running time of 3:05. I suppose it could be someone else doing the lead vocal, but it sounds like McGhee, and the harp (and whoops) are almost certainly the work of Sonny Terry.

Excluding that version, the Wolf’s version from 1962 is the earliest I have, and I also have a version he did during his London sessions in 1970. Long John Baldry recorded the song for his Long John’s Blues album in 1964 and re-recorded it in 1971 or so during the sessions for It Ain’t Easy. In 1967, Canned Heat put the song on its self-titled debut album, and the same year, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley did a raucous version of the tune on their messy Super Super Blues Band album.

I also have a version of the song that Muddy Waters recorded in 1971, likely at the Chicago nightspot called Mr. Kelly’s. And the most recent version of the song I have is the one that Eric Clapton released in 1998 on his album Pilgrim.

But the best version I’ve got in the collection – and the best version I’ve ever heard – comes from a surprising direction, at least vocally. It’s the lengthy version cut in February of 1969 at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals by Duane Allman, during sessions for a solo album that never came to pass.

Allman acquits himself fairly well as a vocalist, even though Tony Rice noted in the liner notes to Duane Allman: An Anthology that Duane once told him, “The cats in my band insist that I cannot sing a note . . . My voice is a scapegoat.” But it’s with his guitar, of course, that Allman makes the veteran song his own. With Berry Oakley on bass, Muscle Shoals stalwart Johnny Sandlin on drums and Paul Hornsby on piano, it’s a cover version of an oft-recorded song that is a delight to the ears.

Duane Allman – “Goin’ Down Slow” [1969]

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One Response to “‘If I Never Get Well No More . . .’”

  1. John Denver With Olives & Mushrooms « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] which Allman Brothers Band album contains the version of “Goin’ Down Slow” I posted here Tuesday. I neglected to point out in the post that the track is included on Duane Allman: An Anthology, the […]

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