Tommy McClennan,
Whiskey Head Woman:
The Complete Recordings 1939-1940

(Document, 2002)

When Keith Richards first heard a recording of Robert Johnson, he asked "Who's that playing with him?" He thought he was hearing two guitars. Unlike Johnson, Tommy McClennan is not renowned for his guitar playing. He does accompany himself effectively, but it's his voice -- rough, exuberant, singing with an enthusiasm so strong that it's hard to believe that it's coming from just one person.

Who was Tommy McClennan? He was a Mississippi juke-joint singer, a hard-living blues man whose life ended in obscurity. His recordings were among the last bestsellers of the pre-World War II blues period. His music is now considered as important as that of better-known legends like Son House, Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. The songs on this collection were recorded between November 1939 and December 1940. A second volume will be coming out soon.

You've probably heard some of the songs on this disk before even if you aren't a hard-core blues fan. Bob Dylan recorded "Baby, Don't You Want to Go?" in the early '60s, and McClenan's "New Highway 51" resurfaced as "Highway 51 Blues." Canned Heat covered "Whiskey Head Woman" several years later. And, of course, many rhythm and blues artists have recorded his songs. But for sheer energy and joy, nothing beats the original.

McClennans's voice is strong, raspy and loud -- his style has been described as "hollering" rather than singing. On several tracks, he uses two voices in a call-and-response technique. He sings in one voice and speaks in a second, spoken voice between phrases, sometimes between breaths, encouraging, cajoling and commenting on what the first voice is singing. It sounds spontaneous, but Honeyboy Edwards said McClennan often practiced performing in front of a mirror for hours.

He sometimes asks himself questions:

"Ummhhhuh, baby don't you want to go?" "Go where?"

"I done told you once baby, and I ain't goin' tell you no more" "Why?"

He gives himself encouragement: "Yonder come that greyhound, his tongue stickin' out on the side." "Yes, yes."

And on several tracks, he gives himself this advice: "Take your time now, and play it right."

Several bars into "Brown Skin Girl" he says, "Take your time. Get this one right, it's the best one you've got."

It is one of his better songs, but I'd be hard pressed to choose one single "best." My personal favorites include "Baby, Don't You Want to Go?" laid-back and swinging, plus the mournful "New Highway 51" and the legendary "Bottle Up and Go," which he sings with an exuberance and enthusiasm that makes me wish I had been there to watch him. His charisma comes right out through the speakers and fills the room. He must have given some amazing live performances.

Edwards described McClennan's style: "He just play the blues. Play straight blues. There wasn't nothin' betwixt nothin'. Just straight go."

And these songs certainly do go. His distinctive mix of guitar banging, string slapping and raspy shouting, note bending, laughing, talking and wailing is unforgettable. This is the blues at its very best.

This is a must-have album for everyone who loves Delta Blues.

- Rambles
written by Janice Snapp
published 30 November 2002

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