12 String guitar – early blues masters….Blind Willie McTell and Barbecue Bob
Why do I like blues music? First it is the simplicity driven through with emotional depth – real expressive music. I also like the link with West African music (check John Lee Hooker meets Ali Farka Toure) . Like with Jazz I also like the possibilities for improvisation. Being a harp player I will refrain from moving into great harp players (perhaps a future blog) and take a look at 12 string guitar players.
During the Roaring ’20s, Atlanta, Georgia, was home to a thriving community of blues guitarists whose styles were as distinctive as their counterparts’ in Mississippi, Memphis, and Chicago.
My particular favourite Atlanta 12 string player is Blind Willie McTell, truly in a class of his own, he blended ragtime and country blues, emerging as one of the greatest bluesmen of any era.
Blind Willie McTell, had it all—a shrewd mind, insightful lyrics, astounding nimbleness on a 12-string guitar, and an instantly recognizable voice. He was sensitive, confident, and a beloved figure in the various communities in which he moved, and he played sublimely, a result of both natural talent and constant playing. McTell’s records reveal a phenomenal repertoire of blues, ragtime, hillbilly, spirituals, ballads, show tunes, and original songs. He was able to fully exploit the range of the 12-string and bring out new tonal colors. He could emulate the syncopated rhythms of a ragtime piano on a tune like “Georgia Rag” and recreate a rail journey on “Travelin’ Blues,” complete with bottleneck train whistles.
Willie Samuel McTell was born circa 1898 near Thomson, Georgia. He started performing as a teenager and had acquired his first 12-string guitar, probably a Stella, by 1927. At first he used a bottleneck for slide and later switched to a metal ring or thimble. He favored standard and open-G tunings, and many of his songs had a pronounced ragtime influence.
All of McTell’s initial Victor 78s were hardcore blues. In October 1929, he moonlighted for the first time with Columbia Records, which would release many of his more adventurous sides. McTell was in extraordinary form at his debut Columbia session, recording the classics “Atlanta Strut” and “Travelin’ Blues.” In “Atlanta Strut” he sang of meeting up with a “gang of stags” and a little girl who looked “like a lump of Lord have mercy,” while his booming 12-string imitated a bass viol, cackling hen, crowing rooster, piano, slide guitar, even a man walking up the stairs! He fingerpicked “Travelin’ Blues” with extraordinary finesse, using his slide to mimic a train’s engine, bell, and whistle, and then did a note-perfect chorus of “Poor Boy.” Columbia identified him on records as Blind Sammie, but for anyone who’d heard the Victor 78s, there was no mistaking who this artist was. Issued in early 1930, “Travelin’ Blues” sold more than 4,200 copies, but with the onset of the Depression, blues record sales soon plummeted. When “Atlanta Blues” came out in May 1932, only 400 copies were pressed.
In November 1940, folklorist John Lomax and his wife found McTell wailing away at the Pig ‘n’ Whistle (a drive-in rib joint) and brought him to their hotel to record for the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song. (On the drive to the hotel, the story goes, McTell called out directions and pointed to landmarks as if he could see them.) The non-commercial session yielded a breathtaking array of folk ballads and spirituals, as well as a blues, a rag, a pop song, and insightful monologues on old songs, blues history, and life itself. McTell laced “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” one of his most ambitious and picturesque compositions, with hip gambling images and an unforgettable melody. His lonesome slide during the spirituals “I Got to Cross the River Jordan,” “Old Time Religion,” and “Amazing Grace” resembled Blind Willie Johnson’s old 78s, although unlike Johnson, who played in open D, McTell played his in open G capoed up two frets. In less than an hour, McTell gave Lomax some of the finest records he’d ever make.
Blind Willie McTell died in August 1959, and his wish to be buried with his 12-string guitar was not honored. While McTell, Curley Weaver, the Hicks brothers, Peg Leg Howell, and their prewar contemporaries created stacks of terrific blues recordings, precious little of their influence resounds in modern music. Unlike contemporaries such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters in the Mississippi Delta and Tampa Red in Chicago, their sound did not become a cornerstone of postwar blues and rock ‘n’ roll, but rather a glimpse back to a bygone era. Fortunately, virtually everything they recorded is now available on CD, and it’s just as remarkable and exhilarating as when it was first recorded.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar magazine, October 2002, No. 118.
Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks), Laughing Charley Lincoln (Charley Hicks), and Curley Weaver favored open-tuned 12-string guitars played with zesty bass runs and highly rhythmic bottleneck. The three had grown up together in the cotton-field country around Walnut Grove, Georgia, and it’s likely that Weaver’s mother, Savannah “Dip” Shepard, tutored them on guitar. By 1918, the Hicks brothers were performing at fish fries and country balls, playing songs like “John Henry” and “Po’ Boy.” Around 1923 Charley moved to Atlanta, found work, and acquired a 12-string guitar. His younger brother joined him there the following year and soon had a 12-string as well.
Barbecue Bob’s 12-string playing had plenty of pizzazz, with its thumbed bass parts and speedy slide, which he apparently played with a ring. He favored one- or two-chord song structures and was equally adept at fast, clean, highly rhythmic playing and slow blues.
For added effect, he’d occasionally snap the lower strings, howl and growl, or launch into solos at unexpected times. He usually tuned to open G and would sometimes capo up four frets to play in B. His original titles displayed streetwise confidence, wry humor, and a familiarity with popular blues and vaudeville themes.
Bob’s style was his own employing almost exclusively open tunings in open A/G (“Spanish”), and occasionally open D/E (“Vestapol”), using a fingerstyle and bottleneck technique. Like all bluesmen he used a few melodies that he then re-arranged to suit a new vocal arrangement.
More on the 12 string guitar (tuning etc) and early blues players in the next blog.