Addendum: The Roots of ‘Do You Give a Damn For Me’ – Bukka White’s ‘Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues’

A few years back, I got an e-mail from a Peter T. who was writing to inform me that in an earlier blog about various covers of ‘Show-Biz Blues’ I had neglected to mention that Peter Green’s original performance of the number owed a debt to Bukka White’s ‘Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues’. 

And while I did write of White’s influence on Green’s multiple attempts at the song (five versions, including the final one, are currently commercially available) in my book, it was in relation to White’s train songs, such as ‘The Panama Limited’ and ‘Streamline Special’. 

Going back to see what I might have missed, I listened once more to White’s original recording of ‘Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues’. 

Bukka White

Bukka White: steel guitar & vocal

Washboard Sam: washboard

Recorded March 08, 1940, Chicago, IL

Released, B-side Okeh 78 ‘Sleepy Man Blues’

Bukka White – Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues (2:34) –

I was at a loss.  While there were insinuations of White’s playing in Green’s recordings, in my mind, listening to White’s original simply reinforced my original contention.

But having tumbled down too many rabbit holes over the years, I knew I could not just leave it at that.   

I felt I had to continue to look into Peter T’s claim, and thankfully, this time, the journey proved worth it.  Tracing White’s own performances of the song over the years, I could hear what Peter T. heard.   

White was born in Mississippi in on November 12, 1904 and recorded his first sides in Memphis, Tennessee in 1930.  He recorded fourteen songs in a day; four songs from the session would be released, two 78s, a year apart, under the name Washington White.  The first two to see release were gospel numbers, with backing vocals from Memphis Minnie; the other two were blues.

The remaining ten numbers have never been found and it is now widely accepted that the metal masters from the session were destroyed.

Seven years later, he recorded two songs for Lester Melrose for release on the Vocalion label, including what would become one of his best-known songs, ‘Shake ‘em on Down’. 

White had recently been convicted on a shooting charge and sentenced to two years in Parchman Farm.  The record made him something of a celebrity at the prison and he was spared from the hardest work details.

Upon his release, he cut twelve songs over two days.  All were released, across six 78s, with ‘Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues’ the B-side of the final 78.

He would not record again for another twenty-three years.

Bob Dylan’s cover of White’s ‘Fixin’ to Die’ on his debut LP in 1962 sparked guitarist and blues enthusiast John Fahey’s curiosity.   

In 1963, Fahey posted a letter addressed to “Booker T. Washington White (Old Blues Singer) c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi”, presuming that he still lived there.  The letter was forwarded to Memphis, Tennessee where White was working in a tank factory.  After receiving a response, Fahey and his friend Ed Denson showed up at White’s home and recorded him in his living room, releasing the results Fahey’s Takoma label.

Bukka White

Bukka White: steel guitar & vocal

Recorded 1963, Memphis, TN

Released, Mississippi Blues” (Takoma 1963)

Mississippi Blues – The Incredible Bukka White” (Sonet 1969 U.K.)

Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues (4:11) –

In the twenty-three years since White had first recorded the number, he had transformed the song, accelerating the tempo and intensifying his attack with percussive hand slaps on the guitar. 

What one had to strain to hear echoed in ‘Do You Give a Damn For Me’ in White’s original recording, has now begun to coalesce, emerging fully formed in this performance at the 1967 American Folk Blues Festival:

Bukka White

Bukka White: steel guitar & vocal

Recorded October 09, 1967 for WDR TV, Cologne, Germany

American Folk Blues Festival 1967

Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues (incomplete) (3:09) –

The clip picks up with White at the end of the intro (the original clip has narration in German providing background on White) but nothing can diminish the power of White’s performance. 

Despite there being more than a year between this performance and Green’s first attempt at what would become ‘Show-Biz Blues’ it is easy to believe that had Green seen this (the band was in England at the time) that it would have been something Green kept in the back of his mind and let steep until he found the right time to use it.

Fleetwood Mac’s second LP had been released in England in August of 1968.  They followed that up at home with a lone single in November (granted that single, ‘Albatross’ would eventually go to Number One on the U.K. charts) but in January of 1969 they were recording in New York City, at the start of a major American tour, attempting to get enough songs on tape for a third LP.

The pressure was on Green to come up with the material (the new kid, Danny Kirwan seemed to have plenty) and he was not happy about it.

The earliest take that we have of Green’s frustration with the whole situation is also the most vehement. 

Fleetwood Mac

Peter Green: guitar & vocals

Recorded January 08, 1969 Tempo Sound Studios, NYC, NY

1st released on: “The Vaudeville Years of Fleetwood Mac:

1968 to 1970 Vol. 1” (Trojan 1998)

Available on: “Men of the World – The Early Years” (Sanctuary 2005)

Do You Give a Damn for Me (3:45) –

One can easily imagine Green sitting alone in the studio, literally separated from his bandmates and the producer by the glass of the control room, looking right at them as he shouts out the opening question / accusation.

The little laugh heard as he reprises the line may have been meant to take the edge off, or it may indicate the relief he felt at finally letting out how he felt.

This take has his most “conversational” vocal, where it really feels as if he is telling us a story.  The extended instrumental breaks between the verses are also part of the story, building upon and highlighting the emotions that he is trying to convey.

This approach reaches its apex during the last two verses.  When he sings of how he doesn’t need anybody but “old me” those two words are swamped by the guitar, as if he finds them hard to say out loud, and can deny that was what he said if he is called out on it. 

He also allows the tension to build after stating how “…you’re sitting there so green…” compulsively picking at the strings before releasing it with the admission that he is “…just the same…”

His final words are an acknowledgement of what his “job” is: to make people “laugh, cry and be satisfied” and the final burst of guitar can be heard as the sound of someone thrashing against the restraints that he has been placed in.

This first take may have been considered a bit too “raw”, the emotions too close to the surface. 

Sixteen takes would be logged that day, with the twelfth being released on Show-Biz Blues: Fleetwood Mac 1968 to 1970 Vol. 2” (Trojan 2002)

The song would undergo two more title changes as Green continued to modify it musically, lyrically and vocally over the next six months.

In the end, the version that would appear on “Then Play On”, titled ‘Show-Biz Blues’, comes off as less urgent in comparison to this earlier version, as if Green were more concerned with the sound of the song rather than its meaning and in the end, that is how it should be.

That recording’s status as a fan favorite would seem to attest to the wisdom of Green’s choice; to quote Irving Thalberg, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”.  

Green wasn’t the only one constantly searching, bringing something new to a song each time they played it.

I’ll leave you with this clip of Bukka White recorded two months after the German broadcast.  Enjoy:

Bukka White

Bukka White: steel guitar & vocal

(Possibly) Recorded December, 1967 for KCTS, Seattle, WA Public Television Station

Released on Masters of the Country Blues” (Yazoo DVD 1991)

Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues (4:26)

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