For as long as I’ve been playing the guitar, acoustic blues has been a part of my repertoire. Just as the blues has been a taproot of American music, it has been a taproot of my own writing and playing. I’ve never not played the blues. But over the last few years, I found myself with a growing discomfort over my place in it. I became increasingly aware of the fact that I was a white man playing music created by black Americans, and I was usually presenting it to primarily white audiences. I would make an effort to credit the songs where I knew the sources, and to encourage listeners to dig into the source musicians and their stories. But I also lived with the gnawing feeling that I was borrowing music that wasn’t mine, telling stories that I hadn’t lived, and that eventually I needed to give something back to the communities that birthed the blues. Cornel West tells us that the blues is nothing more or less than the willingness “to deal with the catastrophic with grace and dignity; to tell the truth and bear witness”. Amidst the swelling anti-racist protests of 2020, I can’t sit still with catastrophe any longer.
This album is an effort to acknowledge and pay back some of my own debt. All of the songs on this album have been part of my live set for years, which is to say: I’ve gotten paid to perform them. I’ve been a safe white face bringing black music to white audiences. I don’t intend to stop doing that. I couldn’t get the blues out of my music even if I wanted to, and I don’t want to. I love the blues too much. But I do want to recognize that it comes from places where I don’t live and a culture that is not my own. I want to make some small effort to Pay It Back.
So 100% of sales from this album will go toward organizations that directly support black musicians and their communities. Initially, I’ll be dividing the proceeds between Music Maker Relief Foundation and Black Lives Matter DC. As the situation in the United States evolves – and it seems to be evolving quickly at this moment in history – I may reallocate that to other anti-racist organizations. I’ve set the price at $8.46, in remembrance of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that it took police officers to murder George Floyd. If you want to give more, please do. Or donate to your local grassroots organizations directly. Or both.
This album isn’t perfect. I recorded it in mono to a single track with a single microphone and no overdubs, the way that many of these songs were originally tracked almost 100 years ago. There are mistakes, and I’ve left them in. There is noise, and I’ve left it in. This is not a pristine studio record with polish and a marketing budget. But I think now is a time for us to move quickly, to be willing to make brave mistakes, and to not wait until we feel perfect before we take action. We don’t need to have all the answers to make a difference, to give something of what we have. The blues has never been about perfection. It has largely been about making the most of what you have while reaching for something better. Black music and black cultures have given us so much. I hope this album gives me – gives us – some small opportunity to Pay It Back. Thanks for your care and support. Be kind to each other, and I’ll see you down the road somewhere.
1. James Alley Blues: This one comes from New Orleans via Richard “Rabbit” Brown, recorded in 1927. I first heard it as an a cappella duet from my bandmates in The Don’t Tell Darlings, who in turn heard it from a recording of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard.
2. Bottle Up And Go: My introduction to the blues came by way of K-Mart. I was 17 years old and had just gotten my first CD player. While rummaging in the discount CD bin at the K-Mart where I worked, I found an album by John Lee Hooker. I had no idea who Hooker was, but he looked like the personification of cool, so I took it home and my musical tastes would never be the same. Hooker recorded a bunch of different versions of “Bottle Up and Go”; other musicians have sometimes recorded it as “Step It Up and Go” or “Shake It Up and Go”. The Memphis Jug Band released their “Bottle It Up and Go” in 1932, but the song surely existed in other forms before that. My verses are mostly Hooker’s.
3. Ain’t No Tellin’: More commonly recorded as “Make Me a Pallet On the Floor” by everyone from the Memphis Jug Band to Doc Watson to Gillian Welch. My reference is the Mississippi John Hurt version (“Ain’t No Tellin'”) from 1928. Hurt’s recordings from the 1920s were not commercially successful and he spent the next 40 years working as a sharecropper near Avalon, Mississippi until the folk revival of the 1960s put him on national stages. The photograph on the cover of Pay It Back is of the country store in Avalon where Hurt would play weekend concerts for his friends and neighbors. I keep a tuft of Avalon cotton in my guitar case as part of my mojo, along with a spoonful of dirt from Hollandale, Mississippi (home of Sam Chatmon) and a spoonful of dirt from Holly Ridge, Mississippi (resting place of Charley Patton).
4. Sittin’ On Top of the World: Another one that has become an American standard from blues to bluegrass. Its origins are with Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks from Bolton, Mississippi, recorded in 1930. My version is a gumbo of different variations I’ve heard, but the basic roux is from the Sheiks.
5. The Monkey and the Engineer: Jesse Fuller was a one-man-band street musician from San Francisco who recorded his first album in 1958 at the age of 62. He played a 12-string guitar, a harmonica, a kazoo, a high-hat with his left foot, and with the right foot a fotdella – a bass foot-piano of his own invention. Fuller was the main inspiration for the Old Man Kelly one-man-band show that I used to do, and “The Monkey and the Engineer” was a staple of that show. I think I was 18 years old when I first learned it. I’ve done it here without the foot percussion because I sold my drum kit last year.
6. Trouble In Mind: Another blues standard, this one written by Richard M. Jones and recorded by Thelma La Vizzo in 1924. My reference is mostly the version by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.
7. Take This Hammer: The imagery of the hammer appears in work songs throughout the American south: e.g., “Nine Pound Hammer”, “John Henry”, “Spike Driver Blues”. I don’t even remember where I came by “Take This Hammer”, but probably as a descendant of Leadbelly’s 1940 recording.
8. Key To the Highway: The song’s authorship is unknown, but William “Big Bill” Broonzy brought it to the public in Chicago and beyond by way of his 1940 recording. I first heard it from my friend Bob Browder when we played together in the Jugbusters. My version is partly from Browder and partly from Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. It’s often the song I play when the bartender hollers for last call and it’s time to drink up and go home.