Michael Messer’s top ten
slide guitar blues recordings for Blues Matters magazine June 2003
1. Muddy Waters - Country Blues (number one), from the Stovall’s Plantation recordings in 1949. This piece is generally known as Walking Blues and is probably the most played acoustic blues slide guitar song in the world. The “Stairway To Heaven” or “Smoke On The Water” of acoustic slide guitar blues. Muddy’s original recording of Country Blues, which was certainly a copy of Robert Johnson’s Walking Blues & Son House’s My Black Mama, has to be one of THE most important blues (and slide guitar blues) recordings ever.
2. Robert Johnson - Crossroads Blues, recorded in 1936. This was a difficult choice, like Muddy Waters, Robert’s Johnson is so important that I could easily pick six recordings for a best of list. However I guess that Crossroads Blues says it all and as an influential acoustic slide guitar blues, this has got to be one of the big ones. The shuffle rhythm and the classic riff at the twelfth fret. In the late thirties this was out there and way ahead of its time. Robert Johnson’s own take on local Mississippi Delta slide guitar blues was to influence generations of blues and rock musicians and create a set of ‘standards’ that in the blues world are like the complete works of Shakespeare. If the blues was ever represented by a musical genius, it has to be Robert Johnson.
3. Son House - Death Letter, recorded in New York, 1965, produced by John Hammond Senior. For National Steel blues guitar freaks this one of THE big hits. If you play a National guitar and you are into bottleneck delta blues, this album “Son House, The Complete 1965 Sessions”, is an absolute ‘must have’. In the 1930s Son House made some of the most important blues recordings of all time, but in the 1960s when he was rediscovered and recorded by the great John Hammond, he produced yet another set of some the most important blues recordings of all time. His re-recordings and different arrangements of those old classics, played on a 1930s National Style ‘O’ guitar in what had become a very primitive but powerful & emotional approach, are to this day some of the greatest blues ever recorded.
4. Bukka White - Jitterbug Swing, recorded in Chicago, 1940, and also features Washboard Sam. This song is a staple in the repertoire of numerous National Steel bottleneck blues players. There are various CDs available of these recordings, the best ones are the Catfish “Shake ‘em On Down” and Columbia Roots’n’Blues “The Complete Bukka White”. This is heavy hard drivin’ north Mississippi dance music, featuring Washboard Sam playing swing jive rhythm of the day and Bukka White in glorious form playing a kind blues version of a country 2 step dance tune. His melody lines on the slide guitar are classic old time banjo dance licks and sound incredible in the hands of one of the most powerful blues artists of his time.
5. Blind Willie Johnson - Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, recorded in Dallas in 1927. It was difficult to pick a Blind Willie Johnson recording, his up-beat gospel blues recordings of songs such as “Nobody’ Fault But Mine” & “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond”, have influenced numerous slide guitar players and singers from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton. In many ways his recordings of those songs has become THE text book on how to play acoustic slide guitar blues in open ‘D’ tuning. But it has to be his unique recording of the old Baptist hymn that gives him a place in this list. Blind Willie Johnson’s version of this very slow ‘call and response’ hymn remains one of the unique masterpieces of American music. In the mid 1980s when Ry Cooder used it as the basis for his soundtrack recording for the movie, Paris, Texas, there wasn’t a slide guitarist in the western world that didn’t do a version of this incredible piece of music. The depth, emotion & power of this performance is awesome. Available on Columbia Roots’n’Blues series “The Complete Blind Willie Johnson”, but the cleanest and best sounding version released to date has to be on the Catfish, “Classic Slide Guitar Blues” series. The 78 record which was used for the mastering is one of the cleanest sounding ones in existence.
6. Casey Bill Weldon - WPA Blues, recorded in Chicago in 1936. Once again it was difficult to choose one song from such a master who was so influential to slide players, both blues & country. He played a National guitar flat on his lap Hawaiian style and he tuned his guitar in various tunings including variations of high bass ‘G’ tuning. That was and is still not a common tuning for blues players. It was originally used by Hawaiian guitarists in the 20s & 30s, and later by country Dobro players from the 1940s to the present day. Casey Bill played in a unique style which was sometimes low down & bluesy and sometimes up-tempo good-time swing music. Whatever style he played, his slide guitar solos were always stunning and very emotional and his influence on Chicago Blues, although not often credited for it, was enormous. WPA was the first recording most of us heard by Casey Bill Weldon as it was released in the late 1960s on a “Paul Oliver Story Of The Blues” LP. The Catfish Records “Guitar Swing” is a great compilation, so are the Document & Yazoo Records compilations. Casey Bill certainly stands in my list as one of the greats of blues slide guitar.
7. Muddy Waters & Johnny Winter - I Can’t Be Satisfied, recorded in 1977. I wasn’t going to include more than one song from each artist, as there are only ten I thought it a waste to mention one artist twice….but we are talking about Muddy Waters here! This particular recording was a last minute idea at the end of a day’s recording session. The recording technique was old style - just a pair of microphones in front of the musicians to make a live stereo recording. Muddy played rhythm guitar and Johnny Winter sat down and played some of the best acoustic blues slide guitar that has ever been committed to a reel of tape. This is a definite desert island choice for National Steel acoustic blues slide guitar freaks. It also stands as one of Muddy’s greatest performances.
8. Robert Nighthawk - Annie Lee & Sweet Black Angel, recorded in Chicago in 1964. The street recordings of Robert Nighthawk made for the Mike Shea movie, “And This Is Free” later released as “And This Is Maxwell Street”, represent some of the best in raw electric Chicago blues slide guitar. Which track to pick was once again a difficult choice, but my final decision of Annie Lee & Sweet Black Angel is an amazing recording. Robert Nighthawk’s electric slide guitar playing is really a force to be reckoned with - a very under-rated member of blues aristocracy. Robert Nighthawk played at Muddy Waters wedding and I believe was a major influence on his electric guitar style. The recordings made on Maxwell Street in Chicago in 1964 are essential slide guitar recordings.
9. Earl Hooker - I’m Your Main Man, recorded in California in 1969. Like Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker is a very under-rated blues guitarist. I guess because they never made great records they never made it into the history books, but to hear Robert Night hawk or Earl Hooker live was about as good as it gets. Earl Hooker was known in town as a musician’s musician, and according to Louisiana Red, was looked up to by all the leading names. “I’m Your Main Man” appears on an Arhoolie Records CD called “Earl Hooker, The Moon Is Rising”. Check it out - Earl also plays great regular style electric guitar and comes highly recommended. This album, The Moon is Rising, is a classic live blues recording.
10. Elmore James - Dust My Blues, recorded in New Orleans in 1955. I kept this until last, not because it sits at number ten, but because it is so important and influential that it sits on a different list, “The ten most famous guitar riffs of all time”. Elmore James tuned his electric guitar to open ‘D’ tuning, he used a glass radio tube as a slide and played some of the most soulful and important blues ever recorded. His playing, which was based on the styles of Robert Johnson and other Mississippi blues guitarists from the thirties, was raw, powerful and cut through the band like a hot knife through hashish. This man, along with Muddy Waters, was one of the greatest electric blues guitarists, blues singers & performers ever.
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