R. L. Burnside's Acoustic Guitar Recordings--Playing Positions/Tunings

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R.L. Burnsides Acoustic Guitar Recordings--Positions/Tunings,
Compiled by John Miller

I thought it might be interesting to look at two of R. L. Burnside's early recordings on which he played acoustic guitar, to try and spot trends. The records are both currently available on Fat Possum Records, and are "R. L. Burnside's First Recordings", Fat Possum 80365-2, and "R. L. Burnside--Mississippi Hill Country Blues" (originally issued on the Dutch label, Swingmaster), Fat Possum 80341-2.

Here are the playing positions/tunings for the songs on "R. L. Burnside's First Recordings" and "R. L. Burnside--Mississippi Hill Country Blues" and an indication of the keys at which the various songs sound. The first recordings were recorded by George Mitchell in 1968. The other album was recorded mostly in 1980 and 1982, with three tracks recorded by George Mitchell in 1967. A performance slightly sharp of the indicated key will be followed by a plus sign, +, and one slightly flat of the listed key will be followed by a minus sign, -.

R. L. Burnside's First Recordings--Playing positions/tunings

1Just Like a Bird Without a FeatherE position, standard tuningC-
2Goin' Down SouthE position, standard tuningC#-
3Come On InE position, standard tuningD
4Little BabeE position, standard tuningEb
5Rollin' And Tumblin'E position, standard tuningC
6Jumper On the LineE position, standard tuningEb
7Skinny WomanSpanishG+
8Poor Black MattieSpanishF#+
9Long Haired DoneySpanishG-
11Walking BluesVestapol, slideEb
12Hobo BluesSpanishG-
13My Time Ain't LongE position, standard tuningE-
14Sat Down On My Bed And CriedE position, standard tuningE

R. L. Burnside--Mississippi Hill Country Blues--Playing positions, tunings

1Miss MaybelleSpanishG
2House Up On the HillE position, standard tuning>F#
3Gone So LongE position, standard tuningEb
4Skinny WomanSpanishF#
5See What My Buddy DoneA position, standard tuningG#
6Don't Care How Long You're GoneSpanishG#
7Lost Without Your LoveE position, standard tuningD+
8Shake 'Em On DownE position, standard tuning, slideD
9Bad Luck And TroubleE position, standard tuningEb
10Just Like A WomanSpanishG-
11Greyhound Bus StationA position, standard tuningG
12Crying Won't Make Me StayE position, standard tuningD+
13Rolling And TumblingE position, standard tuningE
14Mellow PeachesSpanishF#
15I BelieveE position, standard tuningEb
16Poor BoyE position, standard tuningE
17Poor Black MattieSpanishG#
18Jumper On the LineE position, standard tuningE
19Long Haired DoneySpanishG#

Some thoughts on the recordings:

Apart from the obvious duplicate titles on the two discs, the following songs appear on the two albums with different titles: On the "First Recordings" album, "Just Like a Bird without A Feather", "Peaches" and "My Time Ain't Long" are the same songs as those titled, respectively, "Lost Without Your Love", "Mellow Peaches" and "I Believe" on the "Mississippi Hill Country Blues" album.

One of the most striking differences in sound between the two albums is the absence in the 1980 and 1982 sessions of any of the extreme low-tuned numbers played out of E position in standard tuning such as Burnside had in the 1968 recordings, with "Just Like A Bird Without A Feather", "Goin' Down South" and "Rollin' And Tumblin'". I wonder if Burnside's use of extreme low tuning on some of his early recorded cuts indicates a Rosa Lee Hill influence on his music, for of the people recorded from that part of the world, she is most notable for use of extreme low tuning.

"Come On In", from the 1968 recordings, is essentially a version of "Catfish Blues", despite never using a catfish verse. It is based on Robert Petway's version of that song (or other versions based on it) even to the extent of utilizing two slightly different accompaniment licks at the end of each verse, as Petway's version did.

Burnside's repertoire on these two recordings show a consistent approach of vamping underneath his singing with the vocal phrases answered by signature licks. The variable factor in the renditions tends to be how long or short Burnside chooses to phrase his vocals. He is far more consistent in the expression of his signature licks. He is also consistent in his almost total lack of harmony and chord changes as part of his musical structures. He is very much a groove and line player as opposed to a chordal player on these recordings.

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