It’s a new year! And that means new public domain material! My dear friend Andrew and I got together and put together some of our favorite selections of public domain music. We mostly focused on stuff recently entering the public domain, but, as this was the first year we’ve done this, we opened it up to prior releases as well. This put us at original recordings up to 1923 and musical compositions up to 1928.
I recorded 6 tunes of public domain goodness. I see these six songs as my adoptive babies. Well. Five adopted babies and one Franken-Baby I made from parts of four other babies.
The songs I chose all mean something to me, even if that meaning is just that it makes me feel good to hear it.
“Devil’s Gonna Git You,” is a Porter Grainger tune originally performed and recorded by Bessie Smith in 1928. It’s a wonderful blues tune about a two-timing man, and the spite he deserves. I couldn’t find a chart for this song anywhere, so a couple of my voicings might be interesting choices, but, if you’re interested, I can certainly make he chart available. It starts with a creepy, groovy walk down before modulating a half step to a showy sorta blues. It’s the first tune I had in mind when we first talked about this project nearly a year ago, so I’m thrilled to put it out. Also, that last line, “Devil’s gonna get you as sure as you were born to die,” is so hardcore and I love it.
“St. Louis Blues” is a W. C. Handy tune from 1914. It’s contentiously called the first blues composition, but that title could be held by his own 1923 composition, “Memphis Blues,” which was originally a campaign song for Edward Crump under the name “Mr. Crump.” It could also be held by “I Got the Blues” by Anthony Maggio in 1908 or “Dallas Blues” by Hart Wand in 1912. Of course we’re talking about first blues songs that were officially published and put under copyright. Blues is a tradition going back decades, and to say when it exactly started is a blurry line that’s hard to define, but it’s easier to say when the first songs entered the popular music scene.
W. C. Handy was from Florence, Alabama, and I lived there for a number of years. There’s a music festival in his name. I worked a play every year about his life. I’ve heard “St. Louis Blues” a billion times, but I wanted to put my spin on it. Solo instrumental, it was just me and my guitar (and some percussion I added after the fact). The melody swings wildly from a strict, melancholy line to what we know as a traditional 12-bar blues. It’s a wonderful exercise of a song, and I think I did it justice.
“Big Rock Candy Mountain” is special to me. It opened up one of my all-time favorite movies, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Also known by “The Big Rock Candy Mountains,” this tune varied wildly through the years as the songwriter, Harry McClintock, busked with this song as early as the 1890’s. These are the words in his original version featured in the movie I saw so many years ago. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a huge influence on me as a musician. It was some of my earliest exposure to traditional folk and roots music. I’m still obsessed with Skip James to this day because of that version of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” We don’t James’ material in public domain for another three years, but be assured that I will be recording some Skip James for 2027!
“Big Rock Candy Mountain” is also the only folk song I played on this album. I leaned heavy into the blues, but I have just as much of a background in folk. It’s also the softest song I played, and the only one without the fuzz turned on my guitar. It’s a softer song, and I like that.
“Peg Leg Howell Blues” is a medley I put together of four Peg Leg Howell tunes. Andrew had a record filled with musicians I didn’t know, and Howell was one of them. He was playing “Tishamingo Blues” (sic), and, given that I travelled through Tishomingo to see my parents for ten years, I felt driven to play it. I also wanted to do “Coal Man Blues,” “New Prison Blues” (which opens up with the most badass line), and “Fo’ Day Blues.” So. I just did all of them. I mashed up the songs in a story that seemed to make sense to me. It’s really interesting to note that Howell reused the same lines throughout these songs, and would swap between 12 and 16 bar blues. I stuck with 12 bar, but made it a minor blues. Why? Because I like minor blues.
“Hey May Be Your Man (But He Comes to See Me Sometimes)” is a track Andrew brought to me. It’s a fun Vaudeville blues. There are several versions of this track, but there are some arrangements I liked more than others. The one I ended up with skips the first verse. The original first verse deflects the story as a narration of what some other woman said. Leaving that verse out, like I did here, makes it more of a proud proclamation. And I loved that. Plus, I got to do a kazoo solo.
“‘lectric Chair Blues” is a Blind Lemon Jefferson tune from 1928. It’s by far the most radical transformation I did on a song. I once again went to a minor blues, but I stuck with his variation on the 12 bar blues, by hanging on to the 1 chord longer. It ended up a droning, groovy tune. I channeling Dan Auerbach vibes for sure. I gender-bent the lyrics, replaced “Lemon” with “Deathray,” slowed it down, and made it fuzzy. Some looped drums, a sampled kick, bass, and organ all tied together to make this one of my favorite tracks.
So those are the songs I chose. You can listen to the whole thing, and I encourage it! I’ve got it linked above!
This was a long post, but I wanted to share my thoughts on this project. It’s one of my favorites, and I’ve done some cool things in this past year alone.