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Roots of Rock and Roll: Gus Cannon; Leadbelly; Blind Willie Johnson

I’ve been listening to a lot of early recordings and these three are favourites.

Gus Cannon – He’s in the Jailhouse Now

Gus Cannon was a blues musician and (black) minstrel performer (it’s complicated and fascinating).

He’s in the Jailhouse Now is a rag rather than blues, but there’s something about the syncopated banjo and little guitar riffs – and about Gannon’s voice – that hint at early rock’n’roll. It’s funny too.


I first heard of Leadbelly on Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York, where they played Where Did You Sleep Last Night? I had assumed that Leadbelly was a Seattle grunge band (!) and forgot about it… until now.

This is a beautiful recording with great lyrics and harmonies. Creedence Clearwater Revival did a great cover of it that shows how easily a faster tempo and a rock beat tip it into country-rock territory, but Leadbelly does it best.

Blind Willie Johnson – The Soul of a Man

Johnson, apparently blinded by his stepmother in a household argument when he was a child, went on to become a “gospel-blues singer, guitarist and evangelist”, often playing guitar using a knife-blade or bottleneck as a slide.

Dark Was the Night (Cold was the Ground) is more influential in terms of its guitar (and was one of twenty-seven songs sent into space on a gold-plated 12-inch record on NASA’s Voyager probes), and Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed and John the Revelator are good too, but this one asks the best question, and it’s stuck with me. His chest-voice is unforgettable, and carries – like all his songs – the weight of a lifetime of pain and of the consolation of his faith.


See also:

Get Back: Thoughts on Watching The Beatles
Hinterland (2): The Beatles Live at the BBC

Primitive Communism and Armadillo Legs; Jangle, Fuzz and Transcendence
Number in Time
Podcast recommendation: Dolly Parton’s America
Where’s the scene?

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...