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Willy Brown

5Sep

The Swansea String Band play a blues classic, Willy Brown. Some of the history is here courtesy of one of radio's legends Charlie Gillett.

If you’re a casual blues fan, chances are the name “Willie Brown” may not mean a lot to you. Perhaps you’ve heard the name in the lyrics to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (famously covered by Cream, tho the Cream version is essentially a different song). In Johnson’s first recorded take of “Cross Road Blues,” he sang, “You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown.”

Although Willie Brown is a common name (& there was another Willie Brown from Mississippi who recorded blues), the odds are high that the “Willie Brown” in Johnson’s song is also the Willie Brown of “Future Blues.” The odds are in favor of this because this Willie Brown traveled in the same circles as Robert Johnson—he was a duet partner with both Charlie Patton & Son House. In fact, Brown accompanied Patton on what are arguably some of his best sides.

When Stefan Grossman asked Son House in a 1960s interview who was the better guitar player, Patton or Brown, House was unequivocal, describing Brown as “twice better than Charley,” & noting that while Patton was a better singer, even Patton recognized Brown as the more skilled guitarist, saying “on those beats & things, Willie could beat him & he knowed it.”

“Those beats & things.” Yes, those beats—that is what makes “Future Blues” such a spectacular piece of music. The syncopated bass line, complete with Brown “snapping” the strings with a force, volume & crispness that would do the funkiest electric bass player proud, make this a great guitar showpiece. For non-string players out there, “snapping” or “slapping” is done by plucking a string up with sufficient force that it will “slap” back down on the fretboard. It’s a staple technique amongst funk bassists, & was also a common technique amongst early acoustic blues players—but no one did it better than Brown.

But in addition to the great tone Brown got with the snaps, the bass line itself is played on “offbeats.” In other words, rather than being played on “1-2-3-4,” as a bass line commonly occurs,” the bass line is played on the “&s” between the notes! 

Stefan Grossman claimed (in his Oak Anthology of Blues Guitar: Delta Blues) that “Future Blues” is the Delta blues. Quite a claim, but there’s some justification for it. “Future Blues” was imitated in a number of songs, some of them also classics from the Delta region. Son House recorded “Jinx Blues,” which is very close to “Future Blues,” & Patton seemed to have been particularly fascinated with the song, as his songs “Moon Going Down,” “Bird’s Nest Bound,” “High Water Everywhere,” “Screamin’ & Hollerin’ the Blues” & others all rely on elements derived from “Future Blues” (of course, it’s also worth noting that Brown was accompanying Patton on the existing recordings of some of these songs.)

“Future Blues” is not an easy song to play; I’ve never been able to come up with a version of it I find satisfactory (but I’m still trying!) There’s a great tension, I think, between the underlying relaxed tempo & the “attack” on the bass line—as a result, even putting aside the complicated syncopation, there’s a tendency to try to play it too fast. For those who are interested, “Future Blues” is played in open G tuning (as are the related Patton & House songs)—this is important because of the fact that the notes on the 6th & 4th strings are both D, but an octave apart—& that facilitates the characteristic bass line. Otherwise, it’s more regular than some of Patton’s songs, which have an odd number of measures—it is easily recognized as a 12-bar blues (with a slight variation.)

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