Peg Leg Howell Guitar Keys and Positions

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compiled by John Miller

What a wonderful player and singer Peg Leg Howell was! Here is a listing of the positions/tunings for his '20s recordings. I have not included several tracks that have been tentatively attributed to Peg Leg Howell, in particular the Sloppy Henry recordings of "Canned Heat Blues", "Say I Do It", "Long, Tall, Disconnected Mama", and "Royal Palm Special Blues", because I do not believe that Peg Leg Howell played on these tracks. Where pitch varies from standard tuning by less than a semi-tone, sharpness is indicated by a plus sign (+) and flatness by a minus sign (-).

1. Coal Man Blues 11/8/26 solo Spanish tuning C
2. Tishimingo Blues 11/8/26 solo Spanish tuning D flat
3. New Prison Blues 11/8/26 solo EAEGBE tuning G+
4. Fo' Day Blues 11/8/26 solo A position, standard C+
5. New Jelly Roll Blues 4/8/27 Howell and Henry Williams, guitar, Eddie Anthony, fiddle Howell, Spanish, Williams, C standard B
6. Beaver Slide Rag 4/8/27 As on New Jelly Roll As on New Jelly Roll B
7. Papa Stobb Blues 4/8/27 As on New Jelly Roll Howell, Spanish, Williams, C standard B flat+
8. Sadie Lee Blues 4/8/27 solo F, standard E
9. Too Tight Blues 11/1/27 As on New Jelly Roll Howell, Spanish, Williams, C standard C
10. Moanin' and Groanin' Blues 11/1/27 As on Too Tight Blues as on Too Tight C
11. Hobo Blues 11/1/27 As on Too Tight Blues as on Too Tight C
12. Peg Leg Stomp 11/1/27 As on Too Tight Blues as on Too Tight C
13. Doin' Wrong 11/9/27 solo G, standard A-
14. Skin Game Blues 11/9/27 solo Vestapol, slide F#-
15. Please Ma'am 4/20/28 solo Vestapol, slide A flat
16. Rock and Gravel Blues 4/20/28 solo Vestapol, slide A flat
17. Low-Down Rounder Blues 4/20/28 solo C tuning E
18. Fairy Blues 4/20/28 solo C tuning E
19. Banjo Blues 10/27/28 Howell, guitar, Anthony, fiddle C, standard B +
20. Turkey Buzzard Blues 10/30/28 As on Banjo Blues As on Banjo Blues B +
21. Turtle Dove Blues 10/30/28 solo F, standard F
22. Walkin' Blues 10/30/28 solo Spanish A -
23. Broke and Hungry Blues 4/10/29 Howell, guitar, Ollie Griffin(?), fiddle Spanish D flat -
24. Rolling Mill Blues 4/10/29 As on Broke and Hungry As on Broke and Hungry D flat -  
25. Ball and Chain Blues 4/13/29 Howell, guitar, Jim Hill, mandolin Spanish D
26. Monkey Man Blues 4/13/29 As on Ball and Chain Vestapol, slide A
27. Chittlin' Supper 4/13/29 As on Ball and Chain G, standard A
28. Away From Home 4/13/29 As on Ball and Chain D, standard E -

Some thoughts on Peg Leg Howell:

  • If ever a Country Blues player communicated a "tip of the iceberg" quality in his guitar-playing, Peg Leg Howell would be the one. No other player in my immediate recollection recorded so many one-offs with regard to playing positions. Howell had one finger-picking tune recorded in each of the following positions in standard tuning: E, G, A, and D (the tune with Jim Hill in G standard, "Chittlin' Supper", is a boom-chang accompaniment). What's a bit eerie about this is that not one of these renditions gives any indication of being a "weak sister" relative to the core of Peg Leg Howell's repertoire, which was certainly Spanish tuning. Every one of the songs played in these least-favored positions is exceptionally strong and notably inventive.
  • The tuning that I have designated "C tuning" for Peg Leg Howell's "Low-Down Rounder Blues" and "Fairy Blues" may, in fact, not be a C tuning. In any event, it is definitely not the Open C tuning much favored by John Fahey: C-G-C-G-C-E. Peg Leg Howell's tuning, expressed as a voicing of the major triad, plays out as follows: 5-Root-3-5-Root-3. Sonically, it is identical to the following C chord voicing played in standard tuning: 3-3-2-0-1-0. If you think of how to get to a tuning with these intervals from standard tuning with the minimal amount of pitch change on the various strings, the most logical choice is open B flat, which works out to: F-B flat-D-F-B flat-D. In this open B flat, no string is altered by more than one whole step. If Howell used this B flat tuning, based on where the two songs in question sounded, E, he would have had to have been capoed to the sixth fret. It's also possible that he did tune to an open C chord, G-C-E-G-C-E. He would have had to crank a bit hard on the bass strings, but he would have ended up with a capo on the fourth, rather than the sixth fret. In point of fact, as with any tuning/position sounding away from its concert pitch norm, there is no way of knowing to what extent the pitch at which the rendition sounds is a function of tuning versus capo placement. Suffice it to say that the renditions employed the tuning in some combination with capoing. Pitch is not so crucial in this case, in any event. I know of no other recording in all of the Country Blues in which a player used this tuning.
  • I think Peg Leg Howell deserves accolades for his tuning and tone production. He is always perfectly in tune, if not in the concert pitch sense, certainly relative to himself. I'm not nearly as enamored with the sound of the guitars on these old recordings as many present-day aficionados of the music; quite often they don't sound anything more than serviceable to me, even or especially when the playing is stellar. Peg Leg Howell is one of the very few players in the style whose sound is beautiful to me. He had a beautiful ringing, open tone, and sounded especially great in Spanish capoed way up.

Testament Recordings - The Legendary Peg Leg Howell

Here are the positions/tunings for Peg Leg Howell's songs on his Testament record, "The Legendary Peg Leg Howell", recorded on April 11, 1963, in Atlanta at a session supervised by George Mitchell, who with Roger Brown and Jack Boozer had found Howell living in dire poverty in Atlanta shortly prior to the recording date.

1. Blood Red River E minor, standard tuning E flat
2. John Henry Vestapol, slide D +
3. Uncle Sam Blues C, standard tuning B
4. Jack Rabbit Blues G, standard tuning F#
5. Worried Blues G, standard tuning F#
6. Jelly Roll Blues Spanish tuning A flat -
7. Jo Jo Blues E, standard tuning E flat
8. Skin Game Blues Vestapol, slide E flat -
9. Coal Man Blues Spanish G +
10. Let Me Play With Your Yo Yo G, standard F#

A couple of thoughts about these performances and their relationship to his early recordings:

  • One trend from Howell's early recordings holds true: While playing several tunes in Vestapol and Spanish tunings, he plays only slide in Vestapol (no non-slide pieces) and only non-slide pieces in Spanish (no slide pieces). There is no obvious technical reason for things to have turned out this way, so to utilize those tunings in such a sharply defined way is interesting.
  • In these later recordings, G in standard tuning assumes a predominance of preference that it did not have in Peg Leg Howell's early recordings. These later accompaniments in G are for the most part, boom-chang, and pretty simple, certainly nothing like the nifty guitar parts of his early recordings. But then, in 1963, he was a very tired and unwell old man who had not played in years.
  • Peg Leg Howell's "Blood Red River" is probably the keeper of the session, a very ominous rendition in minor with a spooky melody. In general, though, it is surprising, considering that he had not played for many years, how many songs he played at this session that he did not record in the '20s. It makes you think that his repertoire in his active period as a street performer must have been much larger than what was documented on his early recordings.