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|Single by Son House|
|B-side||My Black Mama Part 1|
|Released||May 28, 1930|
|Recorded||Grafton, Wisconsin. May 28, 1930|
The song incorporates the lessons Johnson absorbed from Son House. It takes its first verse and title from one of House's favourite verses. The melody and text structure are those of House's "My Black Mama".
Prior to 1930 there were several recorded songs with the title "Walking Blues" which bear no relation to this song. There were songs with the line Woke up this morning feeling down to my shoes, and innumerable songs with the half-line I got the [epithet] blues. Son House combined these to make the couplet
- Woke up this morning, feeling round for my shoes
- You can tell by that I got the walking blues
At his 1930 Paramount recording session, House made a test pressing (unissued and lost until 1985) which incorporated the couplet in the usual blues structure, i.e. with repeated first line:
- I got the blues so bad, until it hurts my tongue to talk
- I got the blues so bad, until it hurts my tongue to talk
- If I had the walkin' blues, it would hurt my feet to walk
- I woke up this morning, feeling round for my shoes
- I got up this morning, feeling round for my shoes
- You know by that, people, I must have got the walking blues
The remaining verses were mostly on the woke up this morning theme, but one extended the walking theme.
- And I started a-walkin, I'm gonna walk from sun to sun
- Well I started a-walkin', I'm gonna walk from sun to sun
- I'm gonna keep walking, until my time is done
In 1941 a field recording of House performing a different "Walking Blues" with his band (Willie Brown, Fiddling Joe Martin and Leroy Williams) was made by Alan Lomax and John Work for the Library of Congress/Fisk University Mississippi Delta Collection. The session made a great impression on Lomax, which he attempted to describe many years later in The Land Where the Blues Began. No other verse of this song shared the walking theme, the melody was different and the verse structure was very different, i.e. with the whole couplet repeated:
- Well got up this morning, feeling 'round for my shoes
- Know about that, I got the walkin' blues
- I said I got up this morning, I was feeling 'round for my shoes
- I said you know about that now, I got the walkin' blues.
A year later, Lomax returned and recorded a solo song from House with the title "Walking Blues" which was different from both previous songs. It consisted of the sequence of verses House later called "Death Letter Blues". House had recorded this sequence at the Paramount session as part of "My Black Mama", the song which best displays the melody, the structure, the guitar figures and the declaiming style that Johnson used on "Walking Blues".
Like House in his 1930 song, Johnson follows a morning theme.
- I woke up this mornin', feelin' round for my shoes
- Know by that I got these old walkin' blues, well
- Woke up this mornin' feelin round for my shoes
- But you know by that, I got these old walkin' blues
- Lord I feel like blowin my old lonesome horn
- Got up this mornin, my little Bernice was gone, Lord
- Lord I feel like blowin my lonesome horn
- Well I got up this mornin, whoa all I had was gone
- Well, leave this mornin' if I have to, whoa, ride the blinds
- I feel mistreated, and I don't mind dyin'
- Leavin this mornin', if I have to ride the blind
- Babe, I've been mistreated, baby and I don't mind dyin'
- Well, some people tell me that the worried blues ain't bad
- Worst old feelin' I most ever had
- Some people tell me that these old worried old blues ain't bad
- It's the worst old feelin', I most ever had
- She's got Elgin movements from her head down to her toes
- Break in on a dollar most anywhere she goes
- Ooh, from her head down to her toes
- Lord, she break in on a dollar, most anywhere she goes
The first verse is from Son House. The second may have been local or composed by either singer. It formed the basis of the song by their younger neighbour Muddy Waters published by the Library of Congress as Country Blues and by Aristocrat as I Feel Like Going Home. The third verse was in circulation and had been recorded by Mamie Smith in 1920 in Fare Thee Honey in the form
I’m leavin’ town to wear you off my mind; I’ve been mistreated an’ I don’t mind dyin’.
As a male singer, Johnson could plausibly speak of the dangerous hobo practice of "riding the blinds" defined as "To cadge a lift by standing on the platform attached to the blind baggage car ... a car that ain't got no door in the end that's next to the engine." The fourth verse is extremely common. The final verse, with reference to the widely advertised Elgin watch, was first used on record by Blind Lemon Jefferson in Change My Luck Blues in 1928.
Edward Komara has compared Johnson's Walkin' Blues with House's My Black Mama. Of the guitar accompaniment, he writes:
- Johnson retains many of House's features, including the thumbed strum on the lower strings, the fingerpicking on the treble strings, and in a later chorus the snapped beat during the IV chord. However, instead of the ascending bottleneck motif, he plays only an ornamental pitch on the top string.
Komara also notes that Johnson accelerates the tempo "building a momentum not present in House's original".
In Elijah Wald's judgement:
- Johnson's debt to House is clear in his vocal approach, which is stronger and rougher than on his more commercial sides. Nonetheless, his record's strengths are quite different, and it would be wrong to class it as an expert imitation. ... Given the advantage of good fidelity, his guitar sounds fuller and warmer than House's, and his vocals show more dynamic variation. He mixes a conversational flavor with the Delta growl, and adds some well-placed falsetto.
"Walkin' Blues" was not a commercial success when issued into the Black race record market. Of this and other recordings in the style of Son House, Wald comments:
- In the commercial music market of 1936, this was archaic, countrified material, and from a professional point of view it is a bit surprising that Johnson recorded any of it. This was the end of the session, though, and since he clearly enjoyed this sort of music, the producers may have figured that such songs were good enough for B-sides, and they might even sell a few extra records to some old folks.
However, these songs were received with great enthusiasm by a small White group of jazz record collectors and critics. Most notably, John Hammond, chose "Walkin' Blues" and "Preachin' Blues" as the records to be played at his 1938 From Spirituals to Swing concert, such was his disappointment that Johnson himself could not appear. (Johnson had died a few months earlier.) The 1961 reissue King of the Delta Blues Singers was marketed to White enthusiasts. According to most sources, John Hammond was involved in the production and the selection of tracks. It included the two House-style songs and a song with House-style guitar figures "Cross Road Blues", and excluded songs in the commercial style of the late 1930s. Notable exclusions were Johnson's one commercial hit Terraplane Blues and songs which he passed on to the main stream of blues recording "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Dust My Broom". This issue led to Johnson's enormous popularity and perceived importance in the history of the Blues. Walkin' Blues became a standard covered by several commercially successful artists.
Artists who have recorded Walking Blues include Cee Lo Green, Muddy Waters, Colin James, Paul Butterfield, Johnny Cash, Hot Tuna, The Grateful Dead, Rory Gallagher, John Kay, R.L. Burnside, Jon Lord, Eric Clapton, Todd Rundgren, Hindu Love Gods, Ash Grunwald, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Joe Bonamassa, Peter Green Splinter Group, Roy Rogers, Bonnie Raitt and The Toy Dolls.
- My Black Mama Part I , Part II Paramount Pm 13042.
- Haymes, Max. I Need-A Plenty Grease In My Frying Pan (roots and influences of vaudeville & rural blues: 1919-1940)
- Unissued test pressing. Now available on CD, e.g. Legends of Country Blues JSP Records JSP JSP7715
- Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began (1993) Methuen. ISBN 0-413-67850-4. pp 16-19.
- AFS 4780-B-2. Available on CD e.g. Legends of Country Blues
- AFS 6607-B-3a. Available on CD e.g. Legends of Country Blues
- AAFS 18.
- Aristocrat 1305. Also Chess 1514.
- Max Hamyes. See above.
- Fare Thee Honey Blues.OK 4194.
- Calt, Stephen (2009). Barrelhouse Words, A Blues Dialect Dictionary. University of Illinois. ISBN 978-0-252-07660-2. p 24.
- Paramount Pm 12639.
- Komara, Edward (2007). The Road to Robert Johnson. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-00907-9. p.25.
- Wald, Elijah (2004). Escaping the delta, Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Amistad. ISBN 0-06-052427-8. p 159.
- Wald p. 158
- Wald. pp 228-229.
- Pearson, Barry Lee & Bill McCulloch (2003). Robert Johnson, Lost and Found. University of Illinois. ISBN 978-0-252-07528-5. pp. 27-28.