While a smoother, urban sensibility was emerging, rural blues was far from dead. In fact, some of the best and most successful country blues was still to be made, starting with an absolute classic in Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues.”
“Milk Cow Blues” (Decca 7026, 1934)
“Old Original Kokomo Blues” (Decca 7026, 1934)
From 1934 to 1938, James “Kokomo” Arnold recorded 88 sides for Decca, and his distinct voice and commanding slide guitar made him one of the most successful and influential blues artists of the decade. His first Decca single – pairing “Milk Cow Blues” and “Old Original Kokomo Blues” – provides the finest example of his work.
His guitar sounds fresh and lively on “Milk Cow Blues,” expertly walking the line between unpredictable and inviting. The finger work creates a riveting backdrop for the vocals and serves as a second, equally powerful voice. But as good as the guitar is, it is Arnold’s true voice that makes this song essential. It is one of the smoothest, most confident, most dynamic voices in blues, and it is not hard to see why he was one of the few blues artists to record regularly during the height of the Great Depression.
The high point of the record may be during the following passage: “Now you can read out your hymn book, preach out your Bible / Fall down on your knees and pray Dear good Lord will help you / ‘Cause you gonna need, you gonna need my help some day / Mama if you can’t quit your sinnin’, please quit your lowdown ways.” In the beginning of this stretch, Arnold’s voice is rich and mellow and drips character at every turn. The first time he sings, “You gonna need,” his voice jumps up to tease us for a moment with a low falsetto. The second time he sings it, he really lets loose and his voice soars even higher for brilliant emphasis. It is a remarkable moment in a song full of remarkable moments.
~ You may also like: Kokomo Arnold, “Back Door Blues” (Decca 7156, 1934)
On the flip side, “Old Original Kokomo Blues” is nearly as good. This is the song that introduced the phrase “Baby, don’t you wanna go,” and Robert Johnson later reworked it into “Sweet Home Chicago.” It also gave Arnold the name he would perform under for the rest of his career. (Kokomo was at the time a brand of coffee.) Arnold’s guitar work is faster and more aggressive here, and his vocals are biting each time he hits the refrain. With clever lyrics and Arnold’s outstanding delivery, it is easy to see why it proved so influential to Robert Johnson and others. I challenge anyone to listen to it without singing along: “Baby, don’t you wanna go!”
~ You may also like: Kokomo Arnold, “Policy Wheel Blues” (Decca 7147, 1935)
“Poor Me” (Vocalion 02651, 1934)
“Poor Me” is one of a handful of records that Patton recorded for the Vocalion label toward the end of his life. The sound quality is thankfully much improved from his earlier work on Paramount, giving us our best glimpse of the full power of his unique voice. Here that voice sounds even more weathered and scratchy than normal, infused with a weariness that goes beyond the song’s bleak subject matter. Patton’s health was failing when he recorded this song at the beginning of 1934. He would pass away in April of that year, and the full weight of his impending mortality resonates in every syllable. He manipulates the slow tempo skillfully, dragging key notes and syllables out for maximum impact. His guitar work is subdued but brilliant as ever, and his tortured vocals are absolutely haunting. It is a fitting eulogy for the man who both defined and transcended the Delta blues style.
~ You may also like: Charley Patton, “High Sheriff Blues” (Vocalion 02680, 1934)
“Moaning the Blues” (Decca 7037, 1934)
This record is a great example of why Memphis Minnie is remembered as “Queen of the Blues.” She had moved from Memphis to Chicago at this point, and her style is much more direct and confident than her earlier duets with Kansas Joe. Her powerful voice is cutting in its urgency, yet still soft and vulnerable around the edges. Each line starts off from the gut at full volume, but mellows in the middle and quickly fades to a tremble on the last syllable. At the end of the record, she “sings” an entire verse with no words: just a low, sustained moan punctuated by some excellent guitar work. It is an impressive vocal feat, its restraint making it that much more intimate.
~ You may also like: Furry Lewis, “Falling Down Blues” (Vocalion 1133, 1927)
Milestone Recordings in American Music
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