|The BLUES ROOTS
of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND
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
I also have to thank Gary Marker for
remembering a number of the songs played live by the early Magic Band.
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
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.
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
In My Home (aka Somebody Walkin' In My House)
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
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
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'
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.
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.
another one played live in the early days, although no recording
exists. Did they get it from the Wolf or from the Rolling Stones
another one played
live in the early days. Note the 'tail
drag'n the gravy' line from 'Grow Fins'.
Back Door Man
live by the early Magic Band.
Originally recorded by the Wolf at the same session, and as a b-side
to 'Wang Dang Doodle'.
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
the male soul mate of Big Joan. Look out for the 'hoy, hoy' lyric.
Who Will Be The
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.
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
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.
Diddy Wah Diddy
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.
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'
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!
Man (1954) :
played live in 1976
I've Got My Mojo
Workin' (1954) :
played live by the early Magic Band
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.
Blues (1950) :
another variation on the 'Sure Nuff ...' theme.
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
sung acapella and with band backing by Don on the 1972 and 1973
(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).
another possible source for the Sugar Mama/King Bee blues workout
from the 1973 tour.
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
the origin of the 'Tarotplane' pun. The original Terraplane was
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'...
Death Letter Blues
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
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.
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
'You'll find smooth blacks and high
yellows, boy and those mellow browns' sings Lonnie Johnson on Chicago
'I don't love no high yella, I ain't
crazy 'bout no brown' is on Pink Anderson's Every Day of the
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
this earlier version is the main source both lyrically and musically
for the song on 'Safe As Milk'
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
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
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
another song played by the blues-based Magic Band of the 1964-66
period. Can be heard on the live 1966 Avalon recording
Big Boss Man
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'
The Sun Is Shining
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
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
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).
St. James Infirmary
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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'.
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 ..."
if Don sorted through Mr Gilbert's stock with Frank?
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