On under-caffeinated mornings, when internal fog rivals the external for opacity, music helps clear the fumes on the way to work. Sometimes it’s Satie or Paul Desmond, but my stationary front this week has been implacable so I enlisted Elmore James whose lyrics include: “The sun is shinin', although it's raining in my heart.” Today we celebrate his ninety-third birthday (he died in 1963, age forty-five) and listen to his signature song, “Dust My Broom,” recorded Aug. 5, 1951, for the Trumpet label in Jackson, Miss.
The song is Robert Johnson’s, by way of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, but the guitar riff is James’. Subsequently, it was paid the compliment of being turned into a blues cliché and recycled even by James himself in “Please Find My Baby” (recorded in 1953, and a greater, louder, harsher song). The title “Dust My Broom” is curious, and here’s Ted Gioia’s gloss in Delta Blues (2008):
“`Dust my broom’ signifies packing up one’s bags and leaving—much like the biblical passages [Luke 9:5, among others] about shaking the dust off one’s feet—and the song has come to symbolize in twelve-bar form the rambling ways of the blues musician.”
For a century listeners have noticed that blues, purportedly songs of misery and lament, often rouse our spirits and make us happy. James sings, “And I don't want no woman, /wants every downtown man she meets,” and we smile. Is it because we share the collective human pool of suffering, or is it James’ steamroller guitar and the contained hysteria of his voice? I remember at age fourteen finding “Dust My Broom” on a blues compilation album at the library. I didn’t know anything about downtown men and the woman who throws herself at them, but I loved the song’s energy. Like most of the other songs on the record, it was less polished and thicker with experience than most of the music I knew.
In “Falling Into Place” (The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, 2008), Peter Guralnick (born 1943), the biographer of Presley and Sam Cooke, says he fell in love with the blues about the same time he resolved to become a writer. We share a lot:
“When I was fifteen, too, I fell in love with the blues: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell. I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized it—don’t ask me why. It was like the writing of Italo Svevo or Henry Green [more enthusiasms I share with Guralnick]: It just turned me around in a way that I am no more inclined to quantify or explain today than I was then.”