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Author Topic: Peg Leg Howell--Positions/Tunings for his Pre-Rediscovery Recordings  (Read 2714 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Hi all,
I've been listening to Peg Leg Howell again a lot after a bit of a lay-off from his music.  What a wonderful player and singer he 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 (-).  Here goes:

   TITLE                             SESSION DATE    PERSONNEL         POSITION/TUNING   PITCH
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    Howell, Spanish at     B
                                                              Williams, guitar,    Williams, C standard   B
                                                            Eddie  Anthony, fiddle
6. Beaver Slide Rag               4/8/27          As on New Jelly Roll   As on New Jelly Roll  "
7. Papa Stobb Blues              4/8/27           As on New Jelly Roll  Howell, Spanish at B flat+
                                                                                         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        C
                                                                                          Williams, C standard  C
10. Moanin' and Groanin' Blues  11/1/27       As on Too Tight Blues    as on Too Tight      "
11. Hobo Blues                       11/1/27       As on Too Tight Blues    as on Too Tight      "
12. Peg Leg Stomp                  11/1/27       As on Too Tight Blues    as on Too Tight      "
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,               C, standard          B +
                                                            Anthony, fiddle
20. Turkey Buzzard Blues         10/30/28     As on Banjo Blues         As on Banjo Blues  "
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                Spanish             D flat -
                                                           Ollie Griffin(?), fiddle
24. Rolling Mill Blues               4/10/29     As on Broke and Hungry  As on Broke and     "
25. Ball and Chain Blues          4/13/29       Howell, guitar                  Spanish             D
                                                            Jim Hill, mandolin
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.

I have a copy of the George Mitchell-recorded Testament album of Peg Leg Howell from the 1960s and will do a tuning/positions analysis of the songs from that recording as well, to see to what extent Howell's tuning/position preferences changed between his last 1929 session and when he was next recorded in the '60s.   
All best,
« Last Edit: March 09, 2014, 06:49:35 AM by Johnm »

Offline uncle bud

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Hi John - Thanks for this! Especially since Peg Leg, unlike say Blake, changed things up so much, and it is not always immediately obvious to the ear what he is doing.

There's so much great material in here. I am surprised looking through the list of songs at how little they have been covered by contemporary players. Paul Geremia did Skin Game, and that's all that comes to mind right now. Amazing.

Offline Johnm

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Thanks for the good words, Andrew!  I couldn't agree more about the quality of Peg Leg Howell's repertoire; it is stellar and quite varied.  It's hard to say why his renditions have not inspired more covers.  I remember John Koerner did a cover of "Low-Down Rounder's Blues" on the first "Blues, Rags and Hollers" album, but apart from that performance and the one you cite by Paul Geremia, I can't think of any others. 
Peg Leg Howell shares a quality with Lemon and Texas Alexander in that his lyrics have a way of showing up all over the place.  I sure wish he had recorded more titles.  I think he may have left a lot unsaid, relative to what he could have done.
All best,

Offline GhostRider

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There's so much great material in here. I am surprised looking through the list of songs at how little they have been covered by contemporary players. Paul Geremia did Skin Game, and that's all that comes to mind right now. Amazing.

Tim Williams covered "Skin Game" on his latest.



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