The BLUES ROOTS 
of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND

"I haven't listened to that much blues" (Don Van Vliet, 1983)

These notes were originally compiled to accompany a compilation tape I circulated to a number of Beefheart fans and friends. This 'Blues Roots' tape had 31 songs on it and was constrained by having to fit on a 90 minute tape and by what was available from my collection. There were a number of songs I was unable to fit on at the time and since then I have acquired, or been told about, a few more. So I thought it was time to update my notes ...

This isn't intended as some definitive collection of songs that influenced the Captain and the Magic Band. There is no way to know what songs influenced them or which version of what song may have been the main influence. Some are obvious, others are not. What I've tried to do is put together the well known (or less well known) original versions of some of the songs that the band played, recorded, or may have borrowed from the lyric or the tune. Some are included because they have been mentioned as influences or they are quoted from on one of the circulating live or out-take tapes.

Don may not own up to listening to blues but Elliot Ingber, Gary Lucas and Gary Marker all at one time or another compiled blues tapes for him. Gary Lucas recalls that Don's '...favorite country blues singers was One String Sam and his pithy "I Need a Hundred Dollars"...also Bukka White'. Gary Marker says that Don '...used to travel with his own private inspirational collection of blues 45rpm 7inch records. Once, he forgot a stack of 'em, left them at my house--and later told me to keep them when I asked if he wanted them back. Lots of classic Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, all emblazoned with his own unique scrawl, alternating between "D. Vliet" and "Don Van Vliet." One, "Mojo Hand" by Hooker on the Lauren label is a bit of rarity'.

I also have to thank Gary Marker for remembering a number of the songs played live by the early Magic Band.

HOWLIN' WOLF

I offer no apology for the inclusion of so many Howlin' Wolf songs, but it's the obvious place to start as Don's voice seems to have developed as a copy of the Wolf's.

Don once named Wolf's 1959 album "Moaning In The Moonlight" as a favourite - the full track list for the album is Moaning At Midnight; How Many More Years; Smokestack Lightnin; Baby How Long; No Place To Go; All Night Boogie; Evil; I'm Leavin You; Moanin For My Baby; I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline); Forty Four; Somebody In My Home - that's some track list and a great place to start if you're looking for Don's blues roots!!

Smokestack Lightnin' (1956) :
was played live by the early Magic Band and was the inspiration for 'Plastic Factory' (written by Beefheart in irritation at friend Don Aldridge's day job). It's a great song and gave the Wolf his first commercial hit. I've always heard 'Moonchild' as a speeded up version of this ... anyone else ?

Evil (is going on) (1954) :
played live by the Magic Band in the early days. Appears on the Avalon 1966 tape.

No Place To Go (1954) :
the riff (not the lyrics) was used by the Magic Band to sometimes accompany Don's blues outings on the 1973 tour

Somebody In My Home (aka Somebody Walkin' In My House) (1957) :
another song that was played live by the early Magic Band. A studio version also exists, although I've not been able to find out when it was recorded.

Down In The Bottom (1961):
this is one of the many songs that draw on the same riff as 'Rollin & Tumblin' and is an inspiration for 'Sure Nuff 'n' Yes I Do'. Don does sing snatches of the song on one of the 1971/72 out-take tapes. 

There are a number of songs that draw on this tune. A few years back I came across a book ("From Blues to Rock" by David Hatch & Stephen Millward ) which included a section that attempted to trace the development of this tune. In the process it mentioned 'Sure Nuff...' and the Grateful Dead's 'New, New Minglewood Blues' as well as 'Rollin & Tumblin' and 'Down In The Bottom

The original version of 'Minglewood Blues' was recorded by Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers in 1928 and the earliest recorded version of 'Roll & Tumble Blues' was that of Hambone Willie Newbern in 1929. But, ultimately, it is one of the many blues tunes whose origins are lost in the mists of those pre-recording days.

The Natchez Burnin' (1956) :
played live regularly during the 1975 European tour as part of a blues jam. Both John Lee Hooker and Gene Gilmore did songs about the same incident but the lyrics are different.

In 1940, the renowned Natchez blues bar the Rhythm Club burned to the ground. The movers and shakers of the Natchez African-American community had packed the club to hear a band from Chicago. The inside of the tin building was festooned with Spanish moss, laced with a petroleum-based insect repellent. Shutters were sealed shut with nails to keep gate crashers out. The door swung in to the club's only entrance. The Rhythm Club fire killed 208 people. The inferno wiped out the leadership of the black community, and the smell hung heavy in the damp air for days. 

Spoonful (1960) :
the riff from this is used as the basis for 'Gimme Dat Harp Boy'. Probably one of the earliest recorded versions was 'A Spoonful Blues' in 1929 by the legendary Charlie Patton, who taught Howlin' Wolf to play guitar.

Little Red Rooster
another one played live in the early days, although no recording exists. Did they get it from the Wolf or from the Rolling Stones cover version?

Tail Dragger
another one played live in the early days. Note the 'tail drag'n the gravy' line from 'Grow Fins'.

Back Door Man (1960) :
played live by the early Magic Band. Originally recorded by the Wolf at the same session, and as a b-side to 'Wang Dang Doodle'.

Wang Dang Doodle (1960) :
the colourfully named characters in this song seem to me to be directly related to those that appear in 'I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby'. Koko Taylor did an excellent version too.

My Country Sugar Mama (1964) :
this is the source of lyrics for blues jams on the 1972 and 1973 tours. Often mixed in with 'King Bee' and improvised lyrics this would be sung acapella on occasions, or with a full band backing.

300 Pounds Of Joy (1963) :
the male soul mate of Big Joan. Look out for the 'hoy, hoy' lyric.

Who Will Be The Next? (1955)
this has turned up a number of times. The first recorded instance was a blues jam at the 1969 Amougies Festival which included Frank Zappa on guitar. The lines 'Blessed be your heart, Cursed be your name' are used as part of the regular 1974 live blues workout with the Tragic Band. Don would trade lines with the keyboard player, Michael Smotherman. He also sang this as part of an extended improv section with Zappa and the Mothers on the Bongo Fury tour in 1975.

SLIM HARPO

Baby Scratch My Back (1965) :
what an great song. Don quotes the lyrics of this briefly during a jam with Bill Harkleroad (although this is now thought to be Elliot Ingber) on a 1971/72 out-take tape and then asks if Bill can play it, which he does. Unfortunately they don't develop it.

I'm A King Bee (1957)
what a killer bass line. The lyrics are used along with the Wolf's 'Sugar Mama' during the 1972 and 1973 tours. Muddy Waters does a song called 'Sugar Bee' but that doesn't seem to have any connection to these apart from the title.

BO DIDDLEY

Diddy Wah Diddy (1955) :
the original of Don's first hit single. This term for 'heaven' or just a good place to be had already appeared in a blues song title as 'Diddie Wa Diddie' by Blind Blake, although it's origins may lie within the even older English mummers plays. 

LIGHTNIN' SLIM

Mighty Crazy (1957) :
the 'keep on rubbing' lyrics were used as part of a blues workout with the Tragic Band. It's on the Cowtown 1974 tape among others. Don often mentions Lightnin' Slim in interviews as a favourite, especially the song 'Bed Bug Blues' (Lonnie Johnson did a version of that one in 1927) and 'My Starter Won't Work'.

Lightnin' Hopkins picked up this song too, recording various versions titled 'Mighty Crazy' or more often 'Ain't It Crazy'.

The song itself has older origins. The first recorded version was probably by Lovin' Sam Theard (aka The Mad Comic) in 1934 as 'Rubbin' On That Darned Old Thing (Rub That Thing)'. It was soon recorded by others including the State Street Swingers, Leonard Blue Scott And His Blue Boys and Oscar's Chicago Swingers with alternate titles 'I Kept On Rubbing That Thing' or just 'Rubbin' Rubbin''. In 1947 Sonny Boy Williamson #1 recorded 'Rub a Dub' which is almost identical to the Lightnin' Slim version.

The suggestive nature of this song, the idea of rubbin' and 'washing clothes' is also probably the source of a similar reference in 'Lick My Decals Off Baby'

CHUCK BERRY

Almost Grown (1959) :
a very fast studio version exists. So fast, in fact, that Don seems to be having great difficulty keeping up with the Magic Band and he garbles the lyrics. This probably explains why the song is often incorrectly labelled on bootlegs as 'Leave me alone' or 'Don't Bother Me'. A bit of an oddity.  Apparently Don would often encourage the band to play faster even though he would be unable to fit in all the lyrics!

MUDDY WATERS

Hoochie Coochie Man (1954) :
played live in 1976

I've Got My Mojo Workin' (1954) :
played live by the early Magic Band

Rollin' 'n' Tumblin' (1950) :
also played live in 1976 as well as in 1968 (and possibly before). This version of the song is probably the main inspiration for 'Sure Nuff...'. Muddy Waters version is not very different from Hambone Willie Newbern's 1929 song.

Louisiana Blues (1950) :
another variation on the 'Sure Nuff ...' theme.

Rollin' Stone (1950) :
the phrase 'sure nuff' recurs throughout the song and at one point Muddy sings 'sure nuff n yes I will'

JOHN LEE HOOKER

Black Snake (1959) :
sung acapella and with band backing by Don on the 1972 and 1973 tours.

Crawlin' King Snake (1949 & 1959) :
played live by the early Magic Band. The original recording of this song was probably by Mississippi singer and guitarist, Tony Hollins who recorded it in 1941 (and then again in 1951).

Sugar Mama (1952)
another possible source for the Sugar Mama/King Bee blues workout from the 1973 tour.

Tupelo Blues (1959) :
played live by the early Magic Band. On the Avalon 1966 tape. The story of a disastrous flood in Tupelo, Mississippi.


BIG BILL BROONZY

Key To The Highway (1941) :
the song makes a very brief appearance during Don and Bill H's jam on the 1971/72 out-takes tape. Although it's possible they were more familiar with the song from the Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee version.

ROBERT JOHNSON

Terraplane Blues (1936) :
the origin of the 'Tarotplane' pun. The original Terraplane was a car.

Last Fair Deal Gone Down

If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day (1936) :
another 'Sure Nuff...' source. See what can done with the same tune! Check out much of Robert Johnson's work (esp. Travellin' Riverside Blues) and then listen to the guitar work on 'Strictly Personal'...

SON HOUSE

Death Letter Blues (1965):
the inspiration for 'Ah Feel Like Ahcid'.

My Black Mama pt. 2 (1930) :
original source of 'Death Letter Blues'. Part 1 has the same tune but doesn't have the lyric content.

Grinnin' In Your Face (1965) :
lyrics combined with those from 'You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond' and used as the basis for 'Tarotplane'

BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON

You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond (1930):
lyrics used for 'Tarotplane'. There are two versions of this song one of which is actually the last song ever recorded by Blind Willie. Don also sang this live without the 'Tarotplane' references in 1968 and 1974 shows.

SAM BUTLER

Some Scream High Yellow (1926) :
bit of a tenuous link here but I thought it was worth including. I'm not sure if Don ever heard this song but it was the only example available, although I have heard others, of the term 'high yellow' (see 'Ellaguru'). In this context it refers to a lighter skinned black woman - other terms were used for other shades of brown and black. But Don, of course, took the colour theme to another level.

The phrase 'Some Scream High Yellow' also crops up in the Blind Willie McTell song 'You Was Born To Die';

'You'll find smooth blacks and high yellows, boy and those mellow browns' sings Lonnie Johnson on Chicago Blues

'I don't love no high yella, I ain't crazy 'bout no brown' is on Pink Anderson's Every Day of the Week

 

ROBERT WILKINS

Old Time Religion (?) :
give me that 'Moonlight on Vermont'... it's good enough for me. I have found a version that was recorded in the early/mid 1960s but it's possible an older version exists.  Reverend Robert Wilkins was one of a number of performers who found it difficult reconciling religion and the 'devil's music'.

ROBERT PETE WILLIAMS

I've Grown So Ugly (1960) :
this earlier version is the main source both lyrically and musically for the song on 'Safe As Milk'

Ugly (1966) :
Henry Kaiser told me that Ry Cooder used this version as well as the older one as a source. It's interesting to see how Robert Pete has allowed the sing to develop over the years...or can't remember how he used to play it.

MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT

Candy Man (1971) :
a brief appearance on the 'Trout Mask Replica' rehearsals tape. Played by Doug Moon before 'China Pig'. Don sings it in a over exaggerated vocal style. The original version dates from the 1920s but it varies very little from how Mississippi John Hurt was performing it in the 1970s!

Red Cross Store
Don locked Magic Band guitarist Moris Tepper in a cupboard for several hours forcing him to listen to this song. However, I've yet to locate a version by Mississippi John Hurt - I've come across ones by Leadbelly and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON 

Don't Start Me Talking
another song played by the blues-based Magic Band of the 1964-66 period. Can be heard on the live 1966 Avalon recording

JIMMY REED

Big Boss Man (1959)
almost definitely a close cousin to 'Plastic Factory'.  Don cited Jimmy Reed as another favourite picking out the songs 'Little Rain' (1957) and 'Take Out Some Insurance' (1959).

The Sun Is Shining (1957)
another song played by the blues-based Magic Band of the 1964-66 period. Can be heard on the live 1966 Avalon recording

The album 'I'm Jimmy Reed' was influential as Jerry Handley recalled this as being one of the first blues records he acquired and no doubt playing it to the other Magic Band guys.

AL SIMMONS with SLIM GREEN & CATS FROM FRESNO

Old Folks Boogie (1957) & You Ain't Too Old (1957)
these two songs were merged and performed as 'Old Folk's Boogie' by the 1966 Magic Band. Gary 'Magic' Marker, who often stood in on bass at this time, says he would always ask that they play this particular song.

Both these songs borrow very heavily from Little Junior's Blue Flames 1953 song 'Feelin Good' (which also seems to have been the inspiration for Canned Heat's lengthy live boogie workout captured on the 'Livin The Blues' album).

LOUIS ARMSTRONG

St. James Infirmary (1928)
was played live by the early Magic Band, with much emoting and use of finger cymbals from Don apparently.

I've listed the Louis Armstrong version only because his was probably the first recording of this blues standard. Also known as 'Gamblers Blues' or 'Gamblers Lament' it was written by someone called Joe Primrose, although it may be a 'traditional' tune from the end of the 19th century.

St James Infirmary has been covered by numerous people over the years - Cab Calloway, Snooks Eaglin, Big Joe Turner - so the Magic Band could have heard this from anyone.

BUSTER BROWN

Fanny Mae (1959)
another DVV favourite that was played live by the early Magic Band. Buster Brown was a harmonica player from Georgia and this was his one and only hit recorded when he was 48. The Rolling Stones also played this live in 1965.

LIONEL HAMPTON

Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop (1945)
cropping up in 'Woe Is Uh Me Bop' this phrase had probably been in 'jive' use for sometime before being committed to shellac by Lionel Hampton during the swing, jump and jive era

GUITAR SLIM: The Things I Used To Do
JOHNNY 'GUITAR' WATSON: Three Hours Past Midnight

A key figure in the early musical experiences of the young Don Vliet was Frank Zappa. Zappa was heavily into rhythm and blues and would 'test' potential friends by making them listen to certain records. If they liked the music then Frank knew they were worth getting to know - presumably Don went through this testing too. The two songs mentioned above were a couple of the key ones Frank used.

On 21st November 1968 Frank was the guest on Radio KPRC playing some of his 50's record collection. When asked by the DJ how he found out about these records Frank told this story:

"Oh, you snoop around. I lived in Lancaster, which is a cruddy little town up in the desert. There's this little place called 'Gilbert's Dime Store' ... and Mr Gilbert made the awful mistake of having a rack of jukebox records in the front of his store and, you know, he'd sell them for a dime apiece ... and he'd have all the latest hits by, like, George Gibbs and The Gloria Sisters and things like that. We wouldn't buy those ... we'd hit on Mr Gilbert to let us check through the batch of records when they came in to get all the ones ... we explained to him 'no-one will ever buy these records and we're gonna help you out, we're gonna get rid of them for you'.

So we'd go back in and pick out things like 'I'm A King Bee' by Slim Harpo and a bunch of other stuff that was on Excello that you couldn't get in record stores because some of these labels, like for instance, Excello's policy for the record store is that you have to take their gospel line if you want to take their R'n'B line. And although there may be some market among white teenagers for the R'n'B material that comes out on Excello the record store owner figures that he's probably not going to sell too many of their gospel items so he won't take the line, and so some of these things are hard to get. Just a few record stores will carry it. So we'd get them for, like, a dime apiece ... and what we couldn't buy we'd steal ..."

I wonder if Don sorted through Mr Gilbert's stock with Frank?


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