Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Going Down Slow

"Going Down Slow" mp3
by St. Louis Jimmy, 1941.
available on That's Chicago's South Side

"Going Down Slow" mp3
by Howlin' Wolf, 1961.
available on Moanin' in the Moonlight

by Jason Gross

Every song has a story and this blues standard is no different. It began life with James Burke Oden (1903-1977), a blues pianist who bounced around from his native Nashville to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago, following fellow keysman Roosevelt Skyes. In the windy city, he picked up the nom de plume St. Louis Jimmy and began cutting sides for Bluebird, an RCA subsidiary which specialized in blues and jazz (aka "race music").

In late '41, the 38-year-old musician recorded an original song, which would become the B-side of another original, "Monkey Face Blues." Heard in this first version, "Going Down Slow" sounded more like an R&B ballad than a blues tune, except when you listened to the lyrics: the original label itself classified it as "blues singer with instrumental acc." Oden is heard with just his piano and a bass backing him up. In the five verses, he sings in a nasal tone, speaking of his own demise, getting more and more desperate as the song goes along. He starts out with a rollicking piano intro as he passively accepts his fate, singing "I have had my fun/if I don't get well no more." You could say he's comforting himself in his last hours here. Then, when he can't soothe himself anymore, he comes out and faces down his miserable condition. " My health is failin' me/And I'm goin' down slow."

Any amateur M.D.'s wanna make a diagnosis here? Oden doesn't give you many clues or symptoms and we're left to wonder what's killing him. Maybe it's just life in general doing him in. But the fact that we can't pin it down adds a universality to the song and makes it a prime piece of suffering (masochism?) that would attract many other artists to the song.

Meaning and form change up in Oden's second verse:

Please write my mother
Tell her thee shape ah'm in
Pleeeeeeease write my mother
Tell her thee shape ah'm in
Tell her to pray for me
Forgive me for all my sins

He wavers between a soulful shout (on the 2nd 'please') to a labored recital of his words ("thee shape ah'm in"). Here, the words are revealing too as he asks for a letter to his mom, which makes sense for a guy like Oden (and later Wolf and many other bluesmen) who left his family in the deep South to make it up north in Chicago. These last two lines match up with what he told us at the start- his 'fun' is ultimately 'his sins.' It's that religious burden which lays out the rules where you pay hard if you play hard (you're going to hell for partying it up). This might also give us a clue about what's killing him also, related to his 'fun'- liver damage, alcohol poisoning, social disease, attack by a jealous lover. It's all divine punishment for his wicked ways. As we'll see, all of this becomes clearer and more vivid in Wolf's later version.

Oden's third verse lays out how desperate things are for him now:

Tell her don't send no doctor
Doctor can't do no good
Tell her don't send no doctor
Doctor can't do no good
It's all my fault Didn't do the things I should

There's no hope for him that he can see as he ends up blaming himself, again knowing that his partying ways left him as one hurtin' mutha. Religious guilt is a bitch, ain't it?

The fourth version doesn't provide much comfort either:

On thee next train south
Look for my clothes home
On thee next train south
Look for my clothes home
If you don't see my body
All you can do is moan

Oden labors "the" in the first line here but he's also so fucking delirious by now that he's already imagining his corpse being freighted back to his family. His clothes might make it back there even if he doesn't. What can do you, he shrugs. Moan and miss him. Pretty dire stuff and as we'll see, a little too dire for some admirers of the song.

Thoughts of his family return in the fifth and final verse:

Mother please don't worry
This is all in my prayer
Mother please don't worry
This is all in my prayer
Just say your son is gone
And out of this world somewhere

You figure that his words of comfort to his kin might be part of that letter he mentioned before and he's assuring them that he's trying to make good with God now, which he hadn't been doing before. He even tells them what to say about him after it's over - he's just a ghost drifting around now. With the song done, the suffering's done too and we can only hope that he's found peace though the torment we hear in the five verses makes you wonder.

(Oden would later re-record "Slow" for two other labels. For his 1955 version on Parrot Records, he did the song as an R&B trio with bass and a Chuck Berry-like guitar juicing up the later verses. For a 1960 Bluesville Records version, he did the song as a languid trio with Wolf/Muddy sideman Otis Spann on piano and Robert Jr. Lockwood on guitar - Oden skips the train verse there and Spann does an extended solo near the end).

Now let's zoom ahead twenty years from the original to 1961. Mississippi native Chester Arthur Burnett (aka Howlin' Wolf) had been recording for a decade and become a staple of Chicago music alongside Muddy Waters, his old friend and rival, with both of them signed to legendary blues label Chess. A bit of a late bloomer into his music career, Wolf's now 51 years old. Alongside him is guitarist Hubert Sumlin who was 20 years younger than Wolf and playing alongside him for over six years.

Earlier, Oden had recorded for Aristocrat Records (a Chess precursor) with Muddy playing alongside him. He was now peddling his songs to artists, looking for some more royalties. It's little wonder that "Goin' Down Slow" would fall into Wolf's lap then.

Another important figure here is Willie Dixon. Eventually, he'll get his due as one of the top American songsmiths of the 20th century alongside Rodgers/Hammerstein, Dylan, Hank, Biggie, etc. but for now, he's got another role to play. Like Muddy, Wolf had made his career at Chess by cutting many of Dixon's songs- for Wolf, this included such immortal and well-trotted tunes as "Evil," "Spoonful," "Back Door Man," "Wang Dang Doodle" and plenty of others. For a December '61 session, he had another pair of great ones for Wolf to record - "I Ain't Superstitious" (later covered by the Yardbirds, the Grateful Dead and Jeff Beck) and "You'll Be Mine" (also done by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dr. Feelgood).

But there was another song that they did for the session, which happens to the one in question here. Wolf and Dixon (who was Chess's house producer, not to mention its session bassist) transformed "Going Down Slow" radically. Not only did they make it their own but they also fleshed out meaning in it that Oden couldn't. As many later versions would do, they chopped out lines but while most of the other covers dropped a verse, Wolf/Dixon performed some radical surgery here- they cut out the last three verses and then added two of their own. If that wasn't enough, neither of the two new verses were sung- instead, they were recited. Such a radical transformation could have nabbed them a co-writing credit but they left it with Oden.

Where Oden's original had the air of languid R&B, Wolf's cover is done at a much slower, deliberate pace, adding heft to the struggle and pain we hear about in the song. The desperation of the words is finally matched by the music, much the same way that the bubbling funk of Sly Stone's original single version of "Thank You" compares to the deadly, zombified version on There's A Riot Goin' On.

Alongside Wolf, Dixon and Sumlin, there were other Chess Record regulars on hand for the "Slow" recording session: guitarist Jimmy Rogers (a recording artist in his own right and a member of Muddy's band), pianist Henry Gray (who'd also spent years working with Wolf) and drummer Sam Lay (who would later play with the Butterfield Blues Band and with Dylan at his fateful Newport Festival appearance four years later and on a little record called Highway 61 Revisited).

Wolf's version of "Goin' Down Slow" doesn't even start out with Wolf himself. Instead, we hear Dixon talking the first few lines, which was rare for these kind of sessions. In Dick Shurman's notes to the 1991 MCA Records, Howlin' Wolf box set, he speculates that there might have been tension in the studio between Dixon and Wolf over who'd do the quieter verses but one wonders how Wolf could have provided the right contrast there (later, we'll see how that went when he did try that in a live version).

In any case, it's Dixon we hear at the top, in this new first verse, speaking in a mellow, unhurried tone:

Man... you know I've enjoyed things that-
kings and queens will NEVER have

In fact things kings and queens can't never get

And they don't even KNOW about it
And good times? Mmmmmmmmm-mmm

While there's calm reflection in Dixon's voice, at the same time, he's also bragging and, as we'll later learn, trying to ease his own pain by remembering better days. Also, you gotta love how he savors the last line there, saying more in his "Mmmmm" than he could if he described his fun in detail. This intro also extends Oden's emotional turmoil, making it more gripping and descriptive, especially when Wolf comes in next.

Needless to say, Wolf doesn't take his verse calmly, instead applying his unearthly groan that he was famous for. The second verse here was the first verse in the original tune but now with some important differences. Wolf's voice finds the horror that Oden's words were only trying to convey, especially the way he belts out the last few words.

I have had my fun, if I never get well no more
I have had my fun, if I never get well no more
Whoa, my health is fadin'
Oh yes, I'm goin' down slow.

Along with Sumlin applying a wonderful rubbery guitar for the first two lines, Wolf (or Dixon) has some lyrical touches to add. Where Oden fretted about "if I don't get well no more," Wolf claims the more emphatic and final "never get well no more." Also, instead of having his health "failing," Wolf has it as "my health is fadin'," making for a much more rich, mysterious image and more downhome too.

The contrast and back-and-forth between Dixon's meditations and Wolf's death spiral is a stark one, repeating itself one more time in the song. In the third verse here, which is also a newly-penned one spoken by Dixon, he goes on to explain himself from the first verse, also ignoring the harrowing details of the second verse that just ended (maybe purposefully to avoid the pain of it).

Now looky here

I did NOT say I was a millionaire

But I said I have spent more MONEY than a millionaire
'Cause if I had a kept all of the money I've already spent,

I'd would have been a millionaire a loooong time ago

And women...? Greeeat, Googly Moogly...

The first few lines draw an important distinction. Dixon's character hasn't tucked away enough money to be rich but he's spent more money than a rich man. In other words, he's basically your average American consumer, tossing away money frivolously- something we now suffer through in our current economic woes. The last line about his lady friends is again a way to brag and comfort himself from the misery we hear in Wolf's verses. The contrast is stunning, considering that the two men are actually just talking up the same guy's grizzly fate from different angles.

Wolf's last verse (the 2nd verse of the original tune) brings us back to down the dire state of the narrator, buoyed along by Sumlin's guitar in the second line

PLEASE write my mama
Tell heeer the shape I'm in
Please write my mother

Tell heeer the shape I'm in

Tell her pray for me

Forgive me for my sins

Note that instead of "mother," Wolf calls her the more informal "mama" the first time. Also, when heard after Dixon's previous verse, we get more context here about what exactly "my sins" are- not just the wasteful spending but also "Great, Googly Moogly..." letting our imagination roam with how many skirts he's chased and cherries he's popped. But one place that Oden does have it over Wolf is in the last lines where the original did sound remorseful and sad about what he's done where Wolf's more powerful voice sounds almost like he's making demands - it's his mom's problem to get him right with God than any worry of his.

(Wolf's mom was indeed very religious and didn't approve of his fame, saying that he was playing the 'devil's music,' according to The Howlin' Wolf Story DVD)

And that's where Wolf and Dixon left it off. Nothing about the train, the doctor or comforting his mother. But in the way that they shuffled, cut, pasted and mashed up the original like a Frankenstein creation, they transformed the song. Oden had created a great blueprint for something that took on a life of its own. Where he served up a tasty morsel, Wolf and Dixon fried up a juicy steak.

But being a standard, "Going Down Slow" didn't end there. Even before Wolf sank his teeth into the song, it caught the ear of another famous singer. Ray Charles covered the song in 1949, renaming it "I've Had My Fun" (which sounds more upbeat, right?) and skipped the 4th verse, about the train. Like Oden, he also did it in a piano trio format, releasing it as a B-side to his single "Sitting on Top of the World" on the L.A. indie label Swing Time records.

But it was Wolf's version that spread the word and made the song more popular than ever, after it came out in 1962 as the B-side to "You'll Be Mine." For her Atlantic Records debut in 1967, Aretha Arives, the queen of soul did a nice bluesy version, using Oden's original lyrics but asks to write her father instead of her mom, skips the 4th/train verse and redoes the last verse. For a 1974 live album For the First Time...Live, with B.B. King, Bobby Bland also sticks close to Oden's original (nothing about "failin''' or 'mama') in a wonderful, soulful gut-wrenching version. For the 4th verse, Bland and King fight over who's singing it but then cut out the last verse.

Even Wolf himself would revisit the song, making it a concert staple. Heard on Rockin' the Blues- Live In Germany, 1964 (recently reissued by Acrobat), he takes all the verses of his own version himself, trumping Dixon. But even with Sunnyland Slim's lively boogie-woogie piano livening up the proceedings, Dixon's vocal absence is felt though he's still on stage playing bass- Wolf doesn't have the subtlety of Dixon so the contrast between the verses is missed. And though he skips the third (doctor) and last verse, he does tip his baseball cap to Oden by reviving the 4th verse, about the train. He also improvises some of Dixon's original dialog. Most significantly, right before the verse about writing his mom, Wolf says "I can't go home, I treat my mama wrong." Where before it sounded like he had to write to her because he moved to Chi-town for work, here he draws a different picture- just like in real life, Wolf's the errant son who doesn't have a place back home with his mom, at least until he's ready to be buried. But in the song, and the verse he ends with here, he warns that he might not make it back there when he does pass on.

He sounds so convincing that you really wonder if Wolf should be worried that he won't make it back South when he's ready to be laid to rest. Sure enough, he didn't make it back there in the end - even though an annual festival honors him near his Mississippi hometown, his gravesite remains in Chicago.


"Goin' Down Slow" mp3
by St. Louis Jimmy. 1955
available on Complete Works, Vol. 2

"Going Down Slow" mp3
By Howlin' Wolf, 1964.
available on Rockin' The Blues: Live in Germany 1964


"I've Had My Fun" mp3
by Ray Charles, 1949.
available on The Complete Swing Time & Down Beat Recordings 1949-1952

"Going Down Slow" mp3
by Aretha Franklin, 1967.
available on Aretha Arrives

"Goin' Down Slow" mp3
by B.B. King & Bobby "Blue" Bland, 1974.
available on Together for the First Time...Live


"I've Had My Fun" mp3
by Little Walter
available on The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967)

"Going Down Slow" mp3
by Guitar Slim, 1955.
available on Sufferin' Mind

"Goin' Down Slow" mp3
by Otis Spann with St. Louis Jimmy Oden, 1960.
available on Walking the Blues


Anonymous said...

God I love the Blues!! Great tunes!! I don't know which I liked best. Between B.B. King & St. Louis Jimmy.

Nicolas said...

Great song
I have acoustic versions by Mance Lipscomb, Guy Davis, Pink Anderson and Snooks Eaglin.
Drop me a line if you want to hear them
I'm running the River's invitation blog

Steve Pick said...

For those who sometimes worry that the internet is a bad place, I submit that something like this blog entry (or this blog in general) just never existed in the world before we had the web. Thank you for a fascinating post.

bob said...

hi. do you have a song called crazy hazy kisses by tennessee slim? great blog. thank you

Mark said...

I enjoy all the versions. Thanks! I hear the 1941 version by St. Louis Jimmy as a 12-bar blues (I-IV-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I) in a slow 4/4 time, with clear accents all four beats. But in his 1955 remake it sounds like a 24 bar structure in 6/8 time, with a couple jazzy variations on the chord structure. I hear a lot of doo wop that way, "I only have eyes for you," for example, with the piano chord hit six times per bar.

whiteray said...

Great post and exploration of a song that remains a classic. There is, on the first Duane Allman anthology, a version of the song with Duane taking the vocal as well as lead guitar. Recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1969.

whatsittoya said...

Wolf's studio recording is probably my all-time favourite blues track! Thanks for all the other versions, though none really compares with Wolf & Willie, IMHO. In fact a thousand thanks for the whole blog - as the man said, we've never had it so good!

Cherian said...

Great write up on a great song. Thank you very much. (I've been looking for the chords and have have not been successful. Anybody?)