“Dyin’ Crapshooters Blues”
This is one of my favourite songs ever written. I like it for it’s macabre wit – “dig my grave with the ace of spades”, incredible melody, and narrative. But mostly I like the way Blind Willie McTell could command a room with nothing but an acoustic and that voice.
My version is a toned down version to say the least. I leave out and mangle lyrics. I don’t attempt any of his harder guitar licks, and focus on mainly trying to keep up.
I love playing it more than anything, though, I’ve played it poorly for years.
But, there’s no getting around the topic of the song – that Blind Willie swore was true – as often folk singers would to get people more engaged before a rendition of a murder ballad.
“The police walked up and shot my friend Jesse down, said ‘boy, you’re gonna die today’”.
Looking at the state of the world now, compared to the 20’s when he wrote it – why you wouldn’t take him at his word is beyond me.
In the 1940’s Lomax, a famous sound engineer/collector/folklorist – who gathered recordings of ageing blues-singers and folk players from all around the world, Ireland included, recorded Blind Willie McTell.
He found him singing at a drive-in cinema, going from car to car busking for change.
Lomax couldn’t believe his ears. He’d heard of Blind Willie McTell before, been searching for him in Atlanta. He’d heard his one-off vinyl “Atlanta 12 String Blues”. An incredible album, which went nowhere as the blues scene of the twenties gave way to The Depression. He recorded him in exchange for ten dollars, and some corn liquor.
A decade later McTell would be recorded again. This time by Ed Rhodes. The record store owner tried and tried but couldn’t temp him to sing on another recording. “I’ve never seen any money from recording” – McTell said, having sworn them off after 12 String. But McTell owed Rhodes one. After a night busking, he’d gotten so drunk, he’d passed out with all his change and his guitar in the street. He’d have been robbed if Rhodes hadn’t brought him safe home.
McTell came the next day to Rhodes’ record shop to thank him, and apologise. There he drank a cup of whiskey, picked up his guitar and sang the last recording ever made by one of the best bluesmen of all time. He told Rhodes that if the record made any money, not to receive any as he’d only “drink himself to death”. That was last time Rhodes saw him, McTell dying a few years later of a stroke.
On that record “The Last Session” McTell plays “Dying’ Crapshooters Blues”, but beforehand he tells the story behind it.
Jesse was real. The cops shot him for gambling and left him for dead in the street. On his death-bed he made the boys feel less of the pain by telling them the lavish funeral he’d have.
“He got everything he asked” said McTell, “except the women from Atlanta.”
Now with the recent surge of protest songs in support of Black Lives Matter, I think it’s important to share this song, as not only one of my favourites, but as a reminder that today’s police issue is so old it’s entered the realms of folklore – except these wolves are still on the loose.
When Lomax asked if any of his other songs were “complaining songs”, i.e. protest or resistance songs, Blind Willie McTell got very quiet, declined, then quickly changed the topic of conversation.
Why he was frightened was blatant.
Why Jesse died was blatant, too.
We should keep singing his songs until this changes – and long after that.