Saturday, 25 February 2012

Funeral instructions from a dying crapshooter

The dying crapshooter was an actual person. The song re-works elements of "St James Infirmary Blues," which in turn is related to "The Young Man Cut Down in his Prime," to be found in the British Isles a couple of centuries ago, and the Western ballad "The Streets of Laredo" is a cousin, too.

Enough of the folk archivist. Here's one of the classic blues singers rewriting an old and well-known blues to fit the dying wishes of a man who must have known "St James' Infirmary." That transmission, from oral song tradition which crossed the Atlantic, to an old blues, to an historical character's dying wishes, back into a classic blues song by a great bluesman (who inspired one of Bob Dylan's best middle-period songs) - really rather wonderful, don't you think?

Powerful medium, the wishes of the dying about their funeral, so proceed with caution, dear reader. We won't all have a compassionate and generous Blind Willie McTell to look after things for us, or to sing over our graves.

"I started writin' the song in '29, though I didn't finish it, I didn't finish it till 1932. Mister Williams—his name was Jesse Williams—see, he got shot here on Coral Street. And after gettin' shot, I'd taken him home. 'Cause he was sick about three weeks after I'd taken him home, sick from the shot. And so he give me this request. And then he wanted me to play this over his grave. That I did.

"See, I had to steal music from every which-a-way to get it, to get it, to get it to fit. But I messed it up anyways somehow or other just to suit him. I finally played what he wanted, but he got everything he wanted but the women from Atlanta—he didn't get the women from Atlanta. 'Cause, see, it was too far for 'em to come. He's buried in New York. I'd taken him there in ambulance. Cost me two hundred—I think it was two hundred and eighty-two dollars—I think, and eighty-five cent I think the man charged me for carrying him home. But he was ill.

"His father give him anything he wanted. Give him everything he wanted but the women in Atlanta. He didn't have the sixteen women, the twenty-two womens out the Hampton Hotel—he didn't have that. He didn't have the twenty-nine outta North Atlanta. And he didn't have the twenty-six offa South Bell, that which mighta we called Hell Street. That's where he hung out at, you know, doin' his, doin' his women-lovin' time, you know.

"Jesse gettin' shot; I carried him home. I'd sit by his bedside every day, and he would tell me what he wanted. I would tell his daddy. So after he died, daddy said, well, everything he want I'm gonna get it. So he got everything about it but the women from Atlanta. So I had to play the Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues. That's what I was s'posed to name it."

("Please note: Although I transcribed this spoken introduction, the words are Blind Willie McTell's, not mine. I make no claims as to their accuracy," writes
"russianracehorse" on YouTube, so thanks to him for this riveting transcription and a fine video.)

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