I’m getting a helluva musical education by accident. Without any plan or forethought, I plunged into the idea of making a list of songs that have something to do with the Mississippi River. Now, 171 songs later, I’m amazed at how complicated this has become. One of the major complications is that I decided early on that I wanted to include the original version of a song, so that person got proper credit. It sounded all high and noble but, honestly, it’s been a pain in the ass to figure that out for some songs.
I keep a list of songs to check out, to vet for Mississippi River relevance, before including them in the list. One of the songs on that list was Deep River Blues by Doc Watson, a fine song that I think he first recorded in 1964. The writing credit was “Traditional/Watson”, which I took to mean that it was an old song for which he published a new arrangement. Listening to the lyrics, I didn’t hear anything about the Mississippi specifically, so I was ready to file it in the “generic river song” category and move on.
When I was searching for other songs called Deep River Blues (I’m obsessive about these things!), I found a fewer older ones that I assumed must be a variation of the “traditional” version that Watson had recorded, so I didn’t feel any rush to listen to them. When I finally did, though, I heard a completely different song, one that mentions the Mississippi river specifically. So now I have to put Deep River Blues back on the list.
After some digging around, I found out that this Deep River Blues dates to 1924 and was written by Eddie Green and Lucile Marie Handy, the daughter of W.C. Handy—the self-styled Father of the Blues. Now I had to figure out who made the first recording, a tricky task. I found two women, Rosa Henderson and Katherine Handy (another child of WC’s?), both recorded in 1924. This isn’t rocket science or American Idol, so I put them both on the list, along with a version by Willard Robison, because I like it. I haven’t had time yet to figure out if this song had legs like the other Deep River Blues. Maybe it’s been recorded a lot; maybe it’s been languishing since the 1920s. I don’t know, yet.
So I went back to Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues to see if I could find an early recording of it, and the trail led me to a song called I’ve Got the Big River Blues recorded and written by the Delmore Brothers in 1933. They’re from Alabama, so I felt OK saying this song didn’t connect to the Mississippi River. The case seemed closed, until a read an article about songs that were written about or inspired by the cataclysmic flood of 1927 along the lower Mississippi River. While this song wasn’t mentioned specifically, it was written just six years after the flood and could have been inspired by it. So, this song is still in the “to be determined” file until I can read more, but it could ultimately make the list as a second (but unrelated) Deep River Blues.
Other songs that I added to the list recently include:
• Dusky Stevedore by Mary Dixon; her 1928 recording was apparently the first, although Louis Armstrong’s version was a much bigger hit.
• In 1998, Shady Mix, one-time residents of southern Illinois, recorded a CD called Bottomlands that has several songs about the Mississippi, including the title track, River Road, Mississippi Lullaby, and Down to the Levee. All are evocative of life along the river and all are included in the list.
• Another recent addition is Mississippi Mud by Hank Williams III, an unapologetic anthem to drunkenness and drinking next to the river and one of my new favorites. Hank III is a good reminder that in gifted families, talent sometimes just skips a generation.
For the whole list, go here.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011