Peter Green covers Robert Johnson 1968 – Part Two

Peter Green covers Robert Johnson 1968 – Part Two

BBC session, Radio One’s “Top Gear” – May 27, 1968 – ‘Dead Shrimp Blues’

‘Dead Shrimp Blues’ was the third song that Robert Johnson recorded on the third day of  his first recording session in 1936.

It was released as the B-side to his third release in 1937.

It would be a full thirty years before the song would again be commercially available after its original release.*

Peter Green’s cover of the song, performed for a BBC session in the Spring of 1968 would not be available commercially for over fifty years.  A studio version, featuring Hubert Sumlin and the Splinter Group would be released in 2000.

Johnson’s song was a risqué number, one of a few in his twenty-nine song catalog, but because it deals with male dysfunction (I got the blues!) rather than prowess, or a woman’s anatomy, it is one of the least often covered in his catalog.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson: guitar & vocal

Recorded November 27, 1936, Room 414, Gunter Hotel, San Antonio, TX

Originally released B-side of “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” (Vocalion 78)

Robert Johnson – Dead Shrimp Blues –

Shocking, (to me, at least) is that somehow, down the decades, the central metaphor has lost its “meaning” for so many. 

In the liner notes to the first LP to reissue the number, the writer states that “shrimp” was 17th century slang for “harlot”.

Aside from the fact that that information is completely irrelevant to twentieth century Blues Music, it makes no sense at all in the context of the song.

Writer / musician Elijah Wald in his excellent overview of Johnson and his work, “Escaping the Delta – Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues” (Amistad) also seems confused as to the idea behind the song and knocks it for its disorganized lyrics.

Johnson sings that he woke up in the morning to find that his woman has gone and that his “shrimp” is dead.

He continues to say that he knows that someone else is now fishing in his pond.  He had served his best bait, but she judged it as not good enough.  In his words, she has posted him out the hole where he used to fish.

Someone else is now catching his “goggle eyed perches and they barbequing the bone”.

The number ends with him offering his woman his shrimp and her turning him down, “I couldn’t do nothin’ till I got myself unwound”

It all seems pretty obvious to me, and based on his performance, Green certainly got the joke.

Unlike most of their contemporaries, rather than using their sessions for the Beeb to plug their latest single, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac took an opposite approach, apparently viewing the broadcasts as an opportunity to expose listeners to the artists that influenced them and that they themselves enjoyed listening to and playing. 

Of the approximately eighty-three performances done for BBC radio, thirty of them were “one-offs” songs for which we have no other recordings, in a studio setting or in concert.  Of these, twenty are covers of other artist’s songs. 

In that sense, their May 27, 1968 session for Radio One’s “Top Gear” was typical. 

Of the five songs recorded by the four piece band that day, (Danny Kirwan had not yet joined the band) four are covers with the one original being Spencer’s “psychedelic send-up” ‘Intergalactic Musicians Walking Through Pools of Velvet Darkness’ a.k.a. ‘Delta Head’.

Spencer also takes the lead on two of the others, placing his divergent tastes on display covering Elmore James’ arrangement of Leroy Carr’s ‘Mean Mistreating Woman’ and an accurately twee recreation of Tommy Roe’s ‘Shelia’. 

Green too casts a wide net, opening with a harmonica driven version of Jimmy Roger’s ‘If It Ain’t Me (Who Are You Thinking Of?) ’ the original of which had featured Big Walter Horton on harmonica and was titled on the broadcast, ‘That Ain’t It’, and then an acoustic solo rendition of Robert Johnson’s ‘Dead Shrimp Blues’.

Peter Green

Peter Green: guitar & vocal

Recorded May 27, 1968 – BBC session, Radio One’s “Top Gear”

Available on**: Original Live Broadcasts (London Calling 2019)

& Transmission Impossible: Legendary Radio Broadcasts From the 60’s & 70’s

(Eat to the Beat 2019)

Peter Green – Dead Shrimp Blues***

Where Green’s other number that day hewed closely to Roger’s original recording, Green fits himself within this number.  It is obviously a Robert Johnson song, but it is now shaped like a Peter Green composition.

Johnson’s original had a tight two minute and twenty-nine second running time.  Green’s cover rolls out at a leisurely three minutes and eleven seconds; and yet, Green has dropped a chorus and the two three line verses that conclude the number. 

Green stretches the number out by adding a beautifully played intro to the song, lasting just over forty seconds; Johnson starts his vocal within the first ten seconds. 

Critics contend that Johnson recycles the arrangement he had used for ‘Kind Hearted Woman Blues’ and ‘Phonograph Blues’ (both recorded four days earlier) but here, he subtly varies the tempo throughout the song; listen for the nimble filigree of dancing notes before the last two lines of the chorus; not repeated in the chorus’ reprise.

Green maintains a more laconic pace (the slide gave the arrangement a dreamy quality heard on his recording of ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ – to be reviewed later) both on guitar and vocally, (thus declining Johnson’s falsetto “oooh” in the first stanza and chorus) it is this air of resignation that brings out the humor of the song in Green’s performance.

Though I have to admit that just hearing Green sing of “google-eyed perches” and “barbequing the bone” would bring a smile to my face regardless of how it was sung.

When Green returned to this number thirty-two years later on “Hot Foot Powder” he sang all the lyrics, and even brought in Hubert Sumlin on guitar, along with a full band, and for me, this performance is definitive.

Peter Green Splinter Group

w/ Nigel Watson

Peter Green: vocal, guitar & harmonica /

Hubert Sumlin: guitar /

Peter Stroud: bass / Larry Tolfree: drums /

Roger Cotton: piano

Recorded 1999 – Released “Hot Foot Powder” (Artisan 2000)

Peter Green Splinter Group w/ Hubert Sumlin – Dead Shrimp Blues –

Green returns to Johnson’s original tempo here, and the full band, kudos to Roger Cotton’s piano playing and Green’s bemused vocal highlighting the humor better than the either Johnson’s original or Green’s first performance.

Cotton’s piano and Green’s brief harmonica break walk the number to the edge of “hokum” but don’t cross over.  Sumlin’s guitar break keeps the number firmly rooted in the blues.

*After the release of the original 78, this song was not available, commercially, until 1967. 

It was released in the U.S. on a compilation titled “Mississippi Blues 1927 – 1941”, the maiden release of the Belzona label (the precursor to Yazoo Records).

In the U.K., the song appeared on “Robert Johnson Mississippi Delta Blues Singer” on the Kokomo label the same year.  Among the collection’s sixteen songs was the at the time unreleased ‘Phonograph Blues’ and unreleased alternate takes of ‘Drunken Hearted Man’ and ‘Love In Vain’.

The original release was housed in a blank sleeve with the song selections “typed” on the back.

**Note on availability: With the expiration of the fifty-year European copyright on broadcast material there was a flood of BBC and radio broadcast material released to the market in 2019. 

I reviewed and annotated six of the Fleetwood Mac releases from that year here:

***The earliest bootlegs that I was able to find of this track all had terrible sound quality – they were marred by an oscillating whir in the background, static and pops. (for reasons unknown, the other songs from the same session were in far superior quality)  Johnson’s original, recorded in 1936, is far cleaner.  

This version, while still not as clean as one may prefer, is a tremendous improvement.

I have not heard either of the two commercial releases, so I cannot comment of the sound quality of either.

Peter Green covers Robert Johnson 1968 – Part 1 – ‘Preaching Blues’ can be found here:

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