Blind Willie McTell Volume 4 …and last for a while.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, vast gangs of, mainly black, workers were employed in the pine growing areas of Northern Texas to siphon off resin and distil it into turpentine.
Not only was it dirty and dangerous work, it was also pretty lonely as the logger camps were usually buried deep in the woods, far from the nearest town.
So forestry owners started to build Barrel Houses. Wooden shacks, built in the logger camps, designed as places where their workers could drink, dance and socialise with women without the need to leave camp.
In the Barrel House the piano was the instrument of choice, because its volume, uniquely in the days of pre-amplification, meant it could compete with the raucous atmosphere created by the loggers, the alcohol and the women who frequented the camps.
And in the Barrel House of the 1910s and 1920s it was the Boogie Woogie that was king.
Boogie Woogie had (apocryphally) been invented in the 1890s by William Turk who was so fat that he couldn’t reach the keys with both hands in front of his stomach. So he played with his left hand out to the side, beating out a steady rhythm whilst his right hand played improvised riffs significantly higher up the keyboard.
‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ was originally recorded about 30 years later, in 1928, by Pinetop Smith, who got his name from the pine forests of Northern Texas where the Barrel Houses were thick on the ground and the Boogie Woogie first became a recognised and named musical style.
Pinetop’s original is a significant recording. It was the very first Boogie Woogie ‘hit’ record. And by deciding to include his ‘rapping’ to an imaginary audience - exhorting them to dance – rather than just the piano instrumental, he recorded more than just a Boogie Woogie; he recorded for posterity a little of what an evening in a Barrel House, deep in the woods, on a Saturday night might really have sounded like.
Unfortunately it was Pinetop’s only hit because when he wasn’t trying to replicate the Barrel House experience in the studio, he was still playing live inside the real thing. And a real live Barrel House was a dangerous place - as Pinetop was to confirm when he was shot dead inside one within 12 months of the release of his hit record.
20 years later, in 1949, Blind Willie McTell who had released his first record in the same year as Pinetop was still going strong. But his recording career wasn’t. The one-off, by chance, session recorded by Alan Lomax in late 1940 (see ABON 0181) had failed to re-ignite his recording career and he hadn’t released a single song on vinyl since that session in 1940.
Then, early in 1949, Willie and lifelong, guitar-playing, friend, Curley Weaver, heard a radio ad placed by Regal Records seeking recording talent. They replied and recorded 20 or so songs for the label, some of which were released over the next few months, but all of which failed to sell in numbers.
However, they did raise Willie’s profile again and later that year he came to the attention of the newly created Atlanta Records, who signed him for a solo session of 15 tracks. They released only one single, ‘Kill It Kid’, and it too didn’t sell. So the remaining tracks were shelved, only finally being released in 1972, 23 years later.
Willie’s version of ‘Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie’ is from that Atlantic session.
Maybe, as he sat in the studio, in 1949, aged 51, with a long recording career already behind him, Willie was in a reflective mood. Pinetop’s original piano-based ‘Boogie Woogie’ had been released in the same year as Willie’s first guitar-based Blues recording (see ABON 0162). Back then there was intense rivalry between piano Boogie Woogie-ists and guitar-based Blues Men.
But, in 1949, by re-interpreting Pinetop’s original for guitar so emphatically and so profoundly - so profoundly in fact that it’s quite possible to listen and never for a moment suspect that the original sprang to life on a keyboard or even ever had anything to do with the Boogie Woogie - Willie signalled very clearly the imminent dominance of the guitar over the piano in modern progressive music.
Of course this prescience did Willie and his career little good as the track was not released at the time. Instead Willie went back to busking the streets of Atlanta and after being recorded once more, in 1956 - informally on a tape recorder in a record shop by the owner who happened to recognise Willie walking by outside - he retired and eventually died in 1959. 13 years before this wonderful track was first released.
Available on the CD, ‘Atlanta Twelve String’, alongside all of his other 1949 recordings: Amazon
I’ve also posted Pinetop’s original in the news section for comparison purposes.