Tommy McClennan Guitar Keys and Positions

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compiled by John Miller

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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.

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. He 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.

Track Title Date Recorded Position/Key
1 You Can Mistreat Me Here 11/22/39 C standard
2 New 'Shake 'Em On Down' " D standard
3 Bottle It Up And Go " C standard
4 Whiskey Head Woman " G standard
5 Brown Skin Girl " D standard
6 Cotton Patch Blues " G standard
7 Baby, Don't You Want To Go 5/10/40 C standard
8 Baby, Please Don't Tell On Me " E standard
9 I'm Going Don't You Know " C standard, at D
10 New Highway 51 " G standard, at A
11 She's Just Good Huggin' Size " G standard, at A
12 My Little Girl " D standard, at E
13 My Baby's Gone " G standard, at A
14 It's Hard To Be Lonesome " G standard, at A
15 My Baby's Doggin' Me " C standard, at D
16 She's A Good Looking Mama " G standard, at A
17 Whiskey Head Man 12/12/40 G standard
18 New Sugar Mama " C standard
19 Down To Skin And Bones Blues " D standard
20 Katy Mae Blues " G standard
21 Love With A Feeling " C standard
22 Drop Down Mama " G standard
23 Black Minnie " G standard
24 Elsie Blues " D standard
25 Des'e My Blues 9/15/41 G standard
26 Cross Cut Saw Blues (Take 1) " G standard
27 Cross Cut Saw Blues (Take 2) " G standard
28 Classy Mae Blues " G standard
29 You Can't Read My Mind " G standard
30 Travelin' Highway Man " G standard
31 Deep Blue Sea Blues " E standard
32 I'm A Guitar King " D standard
33 It's A Crying Pity " D standard
34 Mozelle Blues 2/20/42 G standard, at B
35 Blues Trip Me This Morning " D standard, at G
36 Mr. So And So Blues " D standard, at G
37 Roll Me, Baby " G standard, at B
38 I Love My Baby " G standard, at B
39 Shake It Up And Go " C standard, at E
40 Blue As I Can Be " C standard, at E
41 Bluebird Blues " G standard, at B
42 Bluebird Blues (Take 2) " G standard, at B



Some notes on the music:

* 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.

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