Shirley Griffith--Positions/Tunings/Keys for his Bluesville and Blue Goose Recordings

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Shirley Griffith--Positions/Tuning/Keys for his Bluesville and Blue Goose Recordings

Compiled by John Miller

I've long been a fan of the Indianapolis-based singer and guitarist Shirley Griffith, and believe he was one of the strongest country blues musicians to record for the first time in the 1960s or later. Here are the tunings, playing positions and the keys in which the performances from his three albums sounded. Where the keys are sharp or flat of standard pitch, a minus sign indicates the pitch is low and a + sign indicates that the pitch is high. His first album to be released was a duo album with his friend and neighbor, J. T. Adams.

Shirley Griffith & J. T. Adams--"Indiana Avenue Blues", Prestige Bluesville

1Walkin' BluesShirley & J.T., D position, standard tuningE flat
2Matchbox Blues (J.T., vocal)Shirley & J.T., E position, standard tuningA flat
3Indiana Avenue BluesShirley & J.T., E position, standard tuningE flat
4In The EveningShirley & J.T., A position, standard tuningA flat
5"A" JumpShirley & J.T., A position, standard tuningA flat
6Oh Mama How I Love YouShirley & J.T., A position, standard tuningA flat
7Kansas City (J.T., vocal)Shirley & J.T., E position, standard tuningE flat
8Bright Street JumpShirley, D position, standard tuning, J.T., E position, standard tuningE flat
9Done Changed the Lock on my DoorShirley, D position, standard tuning, J.T., E position, standard tuningE flat
10Blind Lemon's Blues (J.T., vocal)Shirley & J.T., A position, standard tuningA flat
11Naptown BoogieShirley & J.T., Dropped D tuningD flat

Shirley and J. T. were obviously playing partners of long standing. They communicated and listened to each other really well. One realization that came to me as I've listened to them play, is that in a duo setting, when the phrasing of the lead player is irregular or "crooked", whether the ensemble sound ends up making sense depends on the response of the player who is seconding. If the seconding player hears where the lead player is going with the phrase and shortens or lengthens the accompaniment as appropriate, all is well. When the seconding player stubbornly adheres to a metrically regular accompaniment, it makes the lead player sound inept. Some of you may have heard such instances with people backing Honeyboy Edwards or Robert Lowery and trying to shoe-horn phrase lengths which are being determined in the moment into a conventional "12 bars of 4 beats each" sort of treatment.
Bearing this in mind, J.T. Adams must be accorded very high standing indeed as a seconding country blues player, for he is with Shirley every step of the way, and is never thrown off when Shirley goes short or long.

Shirley particularly liked to sing in E flat and A flat, and it's interesting to note that he would pitch to E flat whether he was accompanying himself out of E position or D position in standard tuning. This trend holds true for all of his albums.

The duo's instrumental, "Indiana Avenue Blues", "A" Jump", "Bright Street Jump" and "Naptown Boogie" are all strong dance numbers, with J.T., for the most part, playing flat-picked boogie bass lines and Shirley delivering some scintillating leads. "Indiana Avenue Blues" is sort of a non-slide version of "Dust My Broom", and "Naptown Boogie" is especially strong, with J.T. quoting Charlie Christian's "Seven Come Eleven" a couple of times.

Shirley Griffith--"Saturday Blues", Prestige Bluesville

1Meet Me in the BottomE position, standard tuningE flat
2River Line BluesE position, standard tuningE
3Shirley's JumpE position, standard tuningE
4Take Me Back To MamaC position, standard tuningB+
5Saturday BluesE position, standard tuningE-
6Left Alone BluesG position, standard tuningG
7Big Road BluesD position, Dropped D tuningC#++
8Bye Bye BluesE position, standard tuningE-
9Hard Pill To SwallowD position, standard tuningD-
10Maggie CampbellSpanish tuningG
11My Baby's GoneD position, standard tuningE-

A solid portion of Shirley's repertoire came from his early models in Mississippi, where he was born: Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey. His covers of their material are superb and he captured many of the nuances of their recorded performances, as in the opening solo to "Maggie Campbell", where he goes long in the second four-bar phrase of the intro, adding an extra bar of the I chord just as Tommy Johnson and Charlie McCoy did on the original recording. Something about Tommy Johnson's music inspired and continues to inspire careful emulation; you get the same sort of feeling hearing how Houston Stackhouse did Tommy Johnson numbers.

A second strong thread in Shirley's repertoire shows the influence of Scrapper Blackwell, or perhaps of a shared Indianapolis style of playing common to most of the guitarists in Indianapolis of that era. In this program, "Hard Pill to Swallow" and My Baby's Gone" both show a strong Scrapper influence.

Perhaps the most exciting portion of Shirley Griffith's repertoire is that for which there is no known model. In this program, "River Line Blues" and "Take Me Back To Mama" both fall into that category. "River Line" is sensational, with a striking opening change from E7 to C#7 that I have never heard anyone else do in the same fashion, and a spectacular, very down vocal, wow! "Take Me Back To Mama" has a strong pre-blues feel, like a children's song.

Shirley Griffith--"Mississippi Blues", Blue Goose

1Shaggy Hound BluesE position, standard tuningE
2Big Road BluesD position, Dropped D tuningC#
3Going Away BluesE position, standard tuningE-
4River Line BluesE position, standard tuningE flat
5Mean MistreaterA position, standard tuningA flat
6Delta Haze BluesE position, standard tuningE flat
7Cool Kind Papa From New OrleansD position, standard tuningE flat
8One Room Country Little ShackE position, standard tuningE flat
9Bad Luck BluesD position, standard tuningE flat
10Bye Bye BluesE position, standard tuningE flat
11King of SpadesA position, standard tuningA flat-
12Maggie Campbell BluesSpanish tuningA flat-
13Flying Eagle BluesE position, standard tuningE flat++

The most exciting addition to Shirley's recorded repertoire on this album is the opening number, "Shaggy Hound Blues", which one would have to assume is his own invention. It is superlative, and ranks with the very finest blues performances of Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, et al. I believe this is on the Weenie Juke, and if you've never heard it before, it rates a request (or a few requests).

"Delta Haze Blues" is the same instrumental that was called "Shirley's Jump" on his solo Prestige album.

Although there is a fair amount of program overlap between this album and Shirley's solo album on Bluesville, listening to the same songs done over is not remotely disappointing, mostly because Shirley was always so present in his singing and playing. Even when playing set pieces, he never sounded like he was going on automatic pilot; he always sounded fully engaged, and as a result, each performance ended up sounding as fresh as paint.

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