Peter Green covers Robert Johnson 1968 – Part Three
‘Preachin’ Blues’ – BBC session, Radio One’s “Top Gear” – August 27, 1968
Three months to the day after Green performed a cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Dead Shrimp Blues’ for the BBC, he chose to do another at a marathon session meant to build a backlog of material for broadcast during the band’s upcoming American tour.
The band cut eleven songs that day; Green performed four (three covers and one original) as did Spencer (all covers). Danny Kirwan, who had made his live debut with the band roughly a week before, performed three numbers, all originals.
Of the three songs that Green covered at the session, only ‘You Need Love’ could be considered comparatively well known, having been recorded by The Small Faces in 1966 (titled ‘You Need Loving’) and closing Savoy Brown’s second LP, released a few months before this show.
‘Wine, Women, Whiskey’, originally recorded by Papa Lightfoot, was arguably even more obscure than the Robert Johnson number Green chose to do.
Johnson’s ‘Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)’, like ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ had been released on the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” LP in 1961, and is most likely where Green first heard it.
The number was unusual in Johnson’s catalog in that it was a fast-tempo number seemingly designed as a showcase for his guitar prowess. It certainly succeeds in that regard and as such has attracted a large number of covers since this version, though again, this is the first caught on tape to my knowledge.
As with the two previous songs, Green has again taken liberties with Johnson’s song, mixing and matching influences much as Johnson himself did when he recorded the number.
Green could be thought of as simply following Johnson’s lead, or taking it to its logical conclusion, in drawing from Son House for his approach.
Johnson took the opening couplet from House’s ‘Preachin’ the Blues’ and the two verses describing “the blues” as a “low down shaking chill” and an “achin’ heart disease” (House sang “worried heart”) from ‘Jinx Blues’, but where House’s guitar style conveys the raw power and brute strength of a plow horse, Johnson’s playing on this number brings to mind a “show pony”; a prancing, high-stepping beauty being put through its paces at dazzling speed before being brought up short with a staggered counter-rhythm setting up the next verse. This of course makes the next display of flashing slide all the more exciting.
Green’s playing on the number is closer to House’s and he matches his vocal to his guitar style. Ironically, this approach better fits the song’s title.
Johnson never mentions “preaching” in the song, except for a spoken aside to describe his guitar playing.
Green is the one who sings the song as if he is preaching.
Johnson sings the song like a man whose appetites simply cannot be contained. He needs to experience life at its fullest at all times. If that means accepting a fight with an opponent that he knows he can’t beat, (the blues) that’s fine. He may not win, but until he can no longer raise his hands, he’ll give as good as he gets.
That is Johnson’s second verse, where after taking the blues’ right hand, he is “tore all upside down” and sent back out on the road and told not to return. Green jettisons this verse and moves directly into the stanzas from House’s ‘Jinx Blues’.
When Johnson sings them, there is a wryness to his vocal; when someone tells him that he too has had the blues, Johnson knowingly begs to differ, and warns him with a smile to be careful what he wishes for. Johnson stretches these verses out, taking the time to indulge in some wizard-like string work, impressing upon the person that he knows whereof he speaks.
This is now the second verse in Green’s performance and he has no time for such niceties; the force and speed at which Green plays the song shows that he has no patience for such idle boasting; he calls the person out in their lie and tells them that they should only hope that they never have them.
This leads into the final verse, the first line of which has been subject to much speculation. Johnson’s words are very difficult to understand but most singers interpret them as having to do with rain.
Elijah Wald, in his “Escaping the Delta – Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues” writes instead that Johnson is singing “acceleratin’” and to me, this not only sounds right, but makes the most sense.
Johnson is portraying a man who embodies the expression, “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.”
In spite of, or perhaps because of, all that this person has been through, he is going to hop in his car and drive as fast as he can; he knows that he can’t outrun the blues, but it sure is fun to try. It is a long road stretching out before him and his first stop will be the distillery, where he’ll stay all day.
Green sings that it “started raining” and while he seems to welcome the weather’s ability to “drive his blues away”, the song’s final lines now take on a note of resignation; the storm will wash him of his sins, but he still has every intention of spending his day at the distillery.
When Green began his tentative return to recording in 1996, after a nearly ten year absence, he returned most frequently to the songs of Robert Johnson. He played them mainly as they were originally performed. Where he once customized them, he seemed content now to build replicas.
Those later recordings will be the subject of another blog on some later day.