‘Down By The Highway Side’

Originally posted May 27, 2008

When one thinks of cover songs, I’m not sure that recordings of blues songs written long ago are what come to mind. One generally thinks of cover songs in the context of being able to compare the cover versions to a relatively recent original. And in the case of many of the classic blues songs, the original can be hard to determine, if not lost to history.

There are, of course, some blues songs that we can trace back to a writer: There are the twenty-nine songs written by Robert Johnson. Charlie Patton, who was born about twenty years earlier than Johnson, no doubt wrote many more blues songs than that during his lifetime. (The box set titled Complete Recordings, 1929-1934, available in numerous places, gathers in more than ninety recordings, many of which, if not all, are credited to Patton. That’s a set that’s high on my wish list.) In between the two – born eleven years after Patton and nine years before Johnson – came Son House, creator during his recording days of many songs as well.

I’m being imprecise about the work of Patton and House, I know. Their work came a few years earlier and their catalogs are larger than Johnson’s. The very slenderness of Johnson’s recorded catalog – twenty-nine songs, forty-two recordings – makes it easy to deal with. (My music collection includes Johnson’s complete recordings, but neither Patton’s nor House’s.)

In addition, there is a difficulty in crediting writers of blues songs – especially those songs created in, say, the first half of the twentieth century. Improvising singers would borrow a line from here, a figure of speech from there and a snippet of dialogue from another place: Did that make a new song? In the folk, early country and early blues tradition, it did. A new legal copyright? These days, likely not. (It’s interesting to realize that what those early blues singers were doing was similar to what today’s studio masters do when they sample other recordings for their own uses.) Johnson, no doubt, did the same; I’m not a blues historian, but I know that themes and ideas and language similar to those in Johnson’s works have been found in earlier works, as was common in the blues tradition. So how can the copyrights be Johnson’s and now belong to his heirs? I dunno. That’s a question for lawyers. On an artistic level, Johnson’s blues are clearly distinct from those that came before in their dark vision and their lyrical complexity (not to mention musical virtuosity).

(Again, I’m not a blues scholar; I know the history of the music fairly well for an amateur, I think, and I’m more or less just wandering through this thicket without notes. If I overstate or understate or ignore something, let me know.)

Anyway, acknowledging that to some degree or another, Patton, House and Johnson built their own songs on those that had come before, I think they’d still have to be considered three of the six most important blues writers ever. (The other three? Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie McTell – the first pretty much a contemporary of Patton, House and Johnson, with McTell coming along a little later – and Willie Dixon, who wrote an astounding number of blues songs for Chess Records during the 1950s and 1960s. Where’s W.C. Handy? Seventh, eighth, ninth – I don’t know.)

So it’s not hard at all to find covers of the songs written by Patton, House and Johnson, as many of those songs have become central to how we hear the blues today. That’s been true even when the original writer got no credit; for years, early blues songs were credited as “traditional” at best. Performers and producers often took writing credit for the songs, too. That practice has generally ended, mostly as a result of the two separate eras of increased awareness of the blues, in the 1960s and since 1991, although one can still find the occasional record or CD label that fails to credit Johnson, House, Patton or another early blues artist for the writing of a song that’s historically known to belong to one of them.

One performer who’s never been anything but accurate in crediting his influences and sources has been Eric Clapton. Throughout his career, he’s cited Johnson’s work as one of the touchstones of his own work. And in 2004, Clapton released an album he said he’d wanted to release for some time: Me and Mr. Johnson, a fourteen-song collection of Johnson’s blues. Later that year came another treat for those of us who are fans of both Clapton and Johnson: Sessions for Robert J, an eleven-song CD accompanied by a DVD that chronicled the four sessions that created the CD.

One of those sessions took place during June 2004 in a dark room of a decaying building at 508 Park Avenue in downtown Dallas, Texas. According to records long thought lost but that had come to light in recent years, that room was almost certainly the same one in which Robert Johnson had recorded in June 1937. Clapton and Doyle Bramhall II ran through five of Johnson’s songs as the light faded.

The Texas Gal and I spent Christmas 2004 with her family near Dallas. That morning, one of her gifts to me was Sessions for Robert J. After dinner that day, she and I drove into downtown Dallas and picked our way through the streets to Park Avenue. I walked up to the front door of 508 Park Avenue, now gated and locked. Without success, I tried to imagine how Park Avenue would have looked when Robert Johnson went through that doorway, a doorway that Eric Clapton would pass through in 2004, sixty-seven years later.*

Here’s the original “Me and the Devil Blues” by Robert Johnson, recorded June 20, 1937 at 508 Park Avenue in Dallas and released as Vocalion 4108, and a cover, “Me and the Devil Blues” by Eric Clapton with Doyle Bramhall II, recorded June 3, 2004, at 508 Park Avenue in Dallas and released on Sessions for Robert J.

Robert Johnson – “Me and the Devil Blues” [1937]

Eric Clapton – “Me and the Devil Blues” [2004]

*In the interest of full disclosure, the photo of 508 Park Avenue was taken on our second visit to the site in the spring of 2007. When this post was first published, a reader noted that Google’s street view of that address showed a different building. It did, indeed, but Google’s location was wrong and has since been corrected. Note added June 29, 2011.

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One Response to “‘Down By The Highway Side’”

  1. ‘It’s Goin’ To Be Rainin’ Outdoors . . .’ « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] Park Avenue building is closed and awaiting its fate. I recently wrote about stopping there with the Texas Gal in December 2004. We stopped there again a little more than […]

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