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Author Topic: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs  (Read 10615 times)

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Online Johnm

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Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« on: January 25, 2007, 01:08:46 AM »
Hi all,
I have been listening quite a lot to Tommy McClennan lately, after having picked up the JSP set, "Big Joe Williams and the Stars of Mississippi Blues", which includes, in addition to all of Big Joe's early recordings, all of Tommy McClennan's, all of Robert Petway's, all of Honeyboy Edwards' and all of Willie Lofton's (whew!) on five discs.  Being able for the first time to immerse myself in Tommy's recordings has been a real treat. 
According to the liner notes, Tommy was born in Yazoo City in 1908, and was given the opportunity to record after being "discovered" by Lester Melrose in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1938 or 1939.  He recorded 42 titles in a pretty compressed period of time, with his first session dating from November 22, 1939 and his last session occurring on February 20, 1942.    His recordings provide a fascinating picture of Mississippi blues in the period between the era when Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey and Son House were big names and before transplanted Mississippians like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and John Lee Hooker were to make a splash.
For reasons that are not clear to me, much of the writing on Tommy McClennan adopts a slighting tone in speaking of his musicianship; perhaps it is because musician friends/acquaintances of his spoke of his playing in that way and the writers who were interviewing them took their assessments at face value.  Hearing his entire recorded works puts the lie to the notion of him as some sort of ham-fisted strummer.  In fact there is a tremendous amount of nuance in his playing, made all the more impressive by its presence in a fundamentally rough and "country" sounding approach.  Of course, his singing was tremendously exciting, too; the sense I always get from his singing is one of absolute authority in his style and authenticity.  He loved spoken asides every bit as much as Charley Patton did, though he didn't employ Charley's trick of utilizing different voices for his asides.  In any case, here are the songs he recorded and the positions he played them in--if anybody is inspired to seek out his music and play some of it, so much the better.

TITLE                                           DATE RECORDED         POSITION
"You Can Mistreat Me Here"                 11/22/39                C, standard
"New 'Shake 'Em On Down'"                      "                      D, standard
"Bottle It Up And Go"                               "                      C, standard
"Whiskey Head Woman"                           "                      G, standard
"Brown Skin Girl"                                    "                      D, standard
"Cotton Patch Blues"                                "                      G, standard
"Baby, Don't You Want To Go"                 5/10/40               C, standard
"Baby, Please Don't Tell On Me"                 "                      E, standard
"I'm Going Don't You Know"                      "                      C standard, at D
"New Highway 51"                                   "                     G standard, at A
"She's Just Good Huggin' Size"                   "                             "
"My Little Girl"                                        "                      D standard, at E
"My Baby's Gone"                                    "                      G standard, at A
"It's Hard To Be Lonesome"                       "                               "
"My Baby's Doggin' Me"                            "                      C standard, at D
"She's A Good Looking Mama"                   "                      G standard, at A
"Whiskey Head Man"                             12/12/40              G, standard
"New Sugar Mama"                                  "                      C, standard
"Down To Skin And Bones Blues"                "                      D, standard
"Katy Mae Blues"                                     "                      G, standard
"Love With A Feeling"                               "                      C, standard
"Drop Down Mama"                                  "                      G, standard
"Black Minnie"                                         "                             "
"Elsie Blues"                                            "                      D, standard
"Des'e My Blues"                                   9/15/41                G, standard
"Cross Cut Saw Blues (Take 1)"                   "                            "
           "                  (Take 2)                    "                            "
"Classy Mae Blues"                                    "                            "
"You Can't Read My Mind"                           "                            "
"Travelin' Highway Man"                             "                            "
"Deep Blue Sea Blues"                               "                      E, standard
"I'm A Guitar King"                                    "                      D, standard
"It's A Crying Pity"                                    "                       D, standard
"Mozelle Blues"                                     2/20/42                 G standard, at B
"Blues Trip Me This Morning"                       "                      D standard, at G
"Mr. So And So Blues"                                "                              "
"Roll Me, Baby"                                         "                      G standard, at B
"I Love My Baby"                                       "                              "
"Shake It Up And Go"                                 "                      C standard, at E
"Blue As I Can Be"                                     "                              "
"Bluebird Blues"                                        "                      G standard, at B
"Bluebird Blues (Take 2)"                            "                                "

A couple of notes on the music:
   *  The keys/positions for Tommy McClennan are really eye-opening in a way.  42 titles recorded by a Mississippi bluesman from the Delta in 1939-1942, a grand total of two of which were played in E, standard tuning, and not a single tune played in Spanish tuning!  No tunes in Vestapol, A standard (not so surprising) or slide, either, were recorded by Tommy McClennan.  Instead, we see a heavy preponderance of songs in G standard, for which, I believe, Ishmon Bracey paved the way, C standard (huh?) and D standard, perhaps the most mysterious of all.  C standard at least has some precursors in Mississippi with the hot raggy playing of Sam Collins, a few select numbers from Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson, the sophisticated playing of Bo Carter and the playing of Mississippi John Hurt (which I'm not convinced anyone in Mississippi outside of his immediate area ever heard).  Tommy's approach to playing in D standard doesn't sound like anyone who preceded him that I have ever heard.  His sense of timing is unlike anyone who I have heard that preceded him, too.
   * Is "Catfish" "Catfish", even if it is not called that, and the catfish verse is never sung?  Tommy McClennan's "Deep Blue Sea Blues" is clearly his version of "Catfish Blues", though he never sings the verse that mentions catfish.  I believe Tommy's recorded performance is the model that was copied by South Carolinians Pink Anderson and Baby Tate in their recordings of that song from the 1960s.  Neither of them called the song "Catfish" either, and their verses and guitar parts closely track Tommy's.  As far as that goes, why didn't Tommy McClennan record more in E?  His two pieces in that position are sensational, and he remarks at the beginning of "Deep Blue Sea Blues", "Let's make this right now, it's the best one I got."
   *  Tommy McClennan was joined by an unknown bass player for the sessions on May 10, 1940 and September 15, 1941, and was accompanied by Ransom Knowling on bass for the February 20, 1942 session.
   *  Tommy was generally tuned a little bit sharp at his sessions with the exception of the December 12, 1940 session.  He switched to a National steel guitar for the last two sessions he did.  His style of singing (or living) must have been very hard on his voice; you can hear the toll it is taking at his last session, when he was only 34 years old.  He lived until 1962.
   * Tommy McClennan must have been amazing to see in his prime.  According to Honeyboy Edwards, he was tiny, about 4'10" tall and weighing in at 115 pounds.  It's hard to believe that raspy voice and powerful guitar picking came out of such a small guy.  It is not unrealistic to think we won't see his like again.
All best,
Johnm               

 
« Last Edit: January 25, 2007, 01:24:52 PM by Johnm »

Offline blueshome

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #1 on: January 25, 2007, 07:28:13 AM »
I always feel that the pieces in "D" are like Tommy Johnson in hyperdrive (or maybe without the canned heat!).

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #2 on: January 25, 2007, 11:14:57 AM »
I fully realise that what I'm about to suggest is totally out of context but if you go to

http://www.wirz.de/music/travmfrm.htm

and scroll down to TM 804 (1984) you can read a rather ancient piece of commentary on TM and his songs in the notes.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #3 on: January 25, 2007, 11:21:12 AM »
* Is "Catfish" "Catfish", even if it is not called that, and the catfish verse is never sung?  Tommy McClennan's "Deep Blue Sea Blues" is clearly his version of "Catfish Blues", though he never sings the verse that mentions catfish.  I believe Tommy's recorded performance is the model that was copied by South Carolinians Pink Anderson and Baby Tate in their recordings of that song from the 1960s.  Neither of them called the song "Catfish" either, and their verses and guitar parts closely track Tommy's. 
Give a listen to Muddy Waters's Chess "hit" Rollin' Stone and I think you'll recognise from whence MW's inspiration came for the approach and delivery of the song.

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #4 on: January 25, 2007, 12:01:01 PM »
I love everything  that Tommy McClennan did - his voice , his guitar, and not to forget the sympathetic string bass that thumps away in the background on many of the recordings.  For years I thought that the G numbers were all in Spanish - but they're not, as you point out, John. If I had to sum up the magic of both the vocals and the guitar playing in one word, it would have to be: phrasing.

Online Johnm

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #5 on: January 25, 2007, 01:40:24 PM »
Hi all,
I'm glad to see the interest in Tommy McClennan's music.  No apologies are ever needed for supplying a link to Stefan's page, Bunker Hill, and in this instance, the liner notes are very much to the point.  Thanks for that information.  I agree with you about Tommy's phrasing and time, Professor--it was sensational.  I'll have to think about the comparison between Tommy Johnson and Tommy McClennan's playing in D, Phil.  Their time was so different and the left-hand approach different, enough, too, that the resemblance had not occurred to me.  One player who does sound like Tommy McClennan playing in D:  J.D. Short, whose piece "My Rare Dog" from the recently re-released "J.D. Short--The Sonet Blues Story" on Verve is working very much the same territory Tommy did, in terms of both left-hand approach and timing.
All best,
Johnm

Offline GhostRider

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #6 on: January 25, 2007, 02:11:03 PM »
John:

I'm curious, what are the writer's credits for Cross Cut Saw Blues?

Tony Hollins?

Alex

Online Johnm

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #7 on: January 25, 2007, 03:16:41 PM »
Hi Alex,
I don't know who had the earliest recording of "Cross-Cut Saw", so I'll throw it open to Weeniedom.  Do any of you know who had the first recorded version of "Cross-Cut Saw", or to whom the song is most often attributed?
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #8 on: January 25, 2007, 04:06:33 PM »
The notes to my Wolf CD say it's a cover of Tony Hollins. But (working from memory here) that the label didn't release Hollins' version.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #9 on: January 25, 2007, 06:02:01 PM »
Thanks for getting me to listen to Tommy McClennan again, John. While I don't have the complete recordings, there's still great stuff on the CD I have, which is the Wolf disc. Actually I am wondering if the remastering is better on other issues - the out-of-print Bluebird set, the JSP set. The transfers on the Wolf seem to me not so great, given the dates of McClennan's recordings. Despite having a lot of the JSP set already on different discs, I think this is a purchase in my future. While I have the Petway, I could do with completing my Big Joe Williams and Tommy McClennan collections.

Anyway, to dip into contemporary waters for a moment, while I don't actually have a version of McClennan's "New Shake 'Em On Down", based on my recent relistening to "My Little Girl", Paul Rishell based his smokin' version of "Shake 'Em On Down" from his "Swear to Tell the Truth" CD on Tommy McClennan's version. (And now that I check the Internet, I see that is in fact the case. Saves me digging out the CD, which I highly recommend to all weenies.) This really is a damn cool arrangement, both McClennan's and Rishell's. Another favourite is "She's Just Good Huggin' Size".

For me, McClennan's rhythmic flair is hard to resist.

Oh, and the label that withheld Hollins' release, recorded four months before McClennan's according to Bob Groom's notes, was OKeh.

Edited to add: An aside but, Wow, Paul and Annie's site indicates that the Swear to Tell the Truth CD is out of print. I'd advise people to snap this up on sight. It is tremendous, one of Rishell's best.
« Last Edit: January 25, 2007, 06:15:31 PM by uncle bud »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #10 on: January 25, 2007, 11:56:06 PM »
The notes to my Wolf CD say it's a cover of Tony Hollins. But (working from memory here) that the label didn't release Hollins' version.
You are correct in that. To muddy the waters further the Binghampton Blues Boys recorded it in Memphis in 1964 for the XL label. The composer credit was to R.G. Ford a Memphis lawyer who dabbled in record production. Their version of Cross Cut Saw was a local hit with Albert King covering it for Stax in November 1966. King enjoyed a national R&B hit and R.G. Ford not only appeared as the composer on that but also on each subsequent re-release or covers by rock groups.

Offline MTJ3

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #11 on: January 26, 2007, 07:15:17 AM »
Thanks for the stimulating topic, as usual, Johnm.  IMHO, McClennan gets short shrift (sorry), and having access to his completed recorded works in the JSP set and being able to listen to it from top to bottom is, as Johnm put it, a real eye-opener.
1.  FWIW, when I finished the same analysis upon purchasing the JSP set, I had to pick my jaw up off the table--over 50% of his recorded songs in the guitar key of G, about 20% in each of C (!) and D, and less than 5% in E! And the "Big Road Blues" derived pieces in D are in standard, not drop D, tuning (contrary, I think, to Evans's assertion at page 273 of his book that is so titled).  Broonzy sort of contributed to the perception of McClennan's work as being less than interesting and stuck in a stereotypical key when he said: "Tommy McClennan had a different style of playing guitar.  You just make the chords E, A and B and rake your fingers across the strings and sing the blues, and change from E to A to B just when you feel like changing.  Any time will do.  You don't have to be in no hurry.  Jus' close your eyes."
2.  As far as I can tell, his accompaniments in C are unique for that key.
3.  A couple of observations on the JSP set.  First, "Boogie Woman" is shown as by McClennan.  He did, in fact (or at least "possibly" per B&GR), have the vocal on that, but it was originally issued as by Petway, who, I think, is in fact the guitarist.  Second, I heard the second take of "Bluebird Blues" as G in almost C; it is somewhat sharper than the first take, which I heard as G in B.  My guess would be that there is a mechanical reason for that rather than retuning as McClennan otherwise appears to my ear to be quite consistent within sessions.
4.  McClennan has composer credit for "Cross Cut Saw" on his recording of the song.
5.  If you're interested in reading about him, in addition to the usual sources for biographical information on McClennan, he pops up a number of times in David Edwards's autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, and of course, Broonzy talks about him in Big Bill Blues.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #12 on: January 26, 2007, 09:13:00 AM »
FYI--FWIW--Looks like someone else is interested in Tommy McClennan:

http://www.lyricsfreak.com/t/tommy+mcclennan/


Online Johnm

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #13 on: January 26, 2007, 10:55:52 AM »
Hi all,
Thanks for your message, MTJ3.  I do think that the notion that Tommy McClennan was less than a stellar player does derive from the reminiscences of Big Bill and Honeyboy Edwards primarily.  I do think, too, that in some people's eyes his playing may have suffered by comparison with that of his running buddy, Robert Petway, who was, in fact, terrific, as well as being exceptionally fast.  That having been said, I think Tommy was a great player in his own right, with nothing to apologize for in the instrumental department and superb heavy time with a great snap.  I agree that his playing in C has no precedence that I have encountered, either in his treatment of time or his note choices.
Re "Boogie Woman", the JSP set shows it as Tommy's cut, Document shows it as Robert Petway's.  I agree with your attribution.  It is definitely Petway, not Tommy on the guitar, and on the lead singing as well, though I believe Tommy chimes in with some spoken encouragement.  I didn't list it among Tommy's cuts for these reasons.
Thanks for the link, Stuart.  I will have to check that out and see what they already have transcribed.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Tommy McClennan--Keys/Positions for his Songs
« Reply #14 on: January 26, 2007, 11:52:46 AM »
Re "Boogie Woman", the JSP set shows it as Tommy's cut, Document shows it as Robert Petway's.  I agree with your attribution.  It is definitely Petway, not Tommy on the guitar, and on the lead singing as well, though I believe Tommy chimes in with some spoken encouragement. 
FWIW here's my two cents worth. The 1991 booklet notes to Mississippi Blues (Wolf WBCD-005) containing the complete Petway opines the following:

"The next session [20 Feb - BH] took place on the same day as Tommy McClennan's last. Petway's style here is more akin to that of McClennan and perhaps the references to his partner, in particular that of "partner looking good at me now" during his singing of "ln The Evening", would suggest that McClennan was sitting in the studio at the time. McClennan may well be the second vocalist on "Boogie Woogie Woman", as it sounds suspiciously like Petway refers to him as "Tom" during the spoken exchange."

The quality of the original used on the Wolf leaves much to be desired maybe those with better sounding versions might be able to discern what he says.

Is none of this commented upon in either of the respective JSP or Document booklets?

 


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