“Dust My Broom”: The Story Of A Song

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    The passionate, hard-driving blues song “Dust My Broom” has been filling dance floors and exhilarating listeners for more than 60 years. The song’s been covered by countless performers – a quick search on youtube turns up versions by Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, The Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, Johnny Winter, Canned Heat, Ike and Tina Turner, Taj Mahal, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Junior Brown and Warren Haynes, R.L. Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, James Son Thomas, ZZ Top, Gary Moore, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, G. Love, Todd Rundgren, and the list goes on. Along the way, the song’s been adapted to piano, accordion, acoustic guitar, and, most of all, electric guitar.

    The best-known version, by Elmore James, begins with the world’s most recognizable slide guitar riff. Typically performed in open D or open E, this riff delivers propulsive full-octave glides played with the passion of the procreant urge. Since the 1960s, mastering this lick and the song’s subsequent solo as played by Elmore James has been a right-of-passage for up-and-coming slide guitarists. Sonically, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the song’s lyrical message, which in its later incarnations concerns a man’s dissatisfaction with – and profound desire for – a woman. Perfect fodder for the blues.

    What exactly does “dust my broom” mean? In the 1800s, the expression “get up and dust” meant to leave in a hurry. Long before that, “dust” was commonly used as a synonym for “depart.” Perhaps it’s biblical in origin. In the Gospel of Matthew, 10:14, Jesus Christ says: “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.” In other words, complete dissociation. One thing is certain: In the Depression-era South, where the song probably originated, “dust my broom” meant to get out of town in a hurry. Big Joe Williams, who grew up in the Mississippi Delta, explained it as “leaving for good,” as in “I’m putting you down. I won’t be back no more.”

     

    The Earliest Versions

    In 1927, William and Versey Smith recorded a gospel song for Paramount called “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home,” but this song is unrelated to any blues songs bearing this title or phrase. The earliest direct predecessor of “Dust My Broom” is probably on an old Victor 78 credited to “Pinetop and Lindberg.” Pinetop and Lindberg were, in fact, pianist Aaron “Pinetop” Sparks and his twin brother Milton “Lindberg” Sparks, who sang with a strong, high-pitched voice. They hailed from Tupelo, Mississippi, and according to their weighty police files, were quite the rowdy pair. At their very first session, held in Atlanta on February 25, 1932, the Sparks brothers recorded “I Believe I’ll Make a Change.” The melody is familiar to anyone who’s heard “Dust My Broom,” and the opening lines, “I believe, I’ll believe I’ll go back home,” would resound in other early versions. (For an excellent Sparks Brothers bio, check out http://sundayblues.org/archives/122 .)

    The next likely “Dust My Broom” predecessor was a raucous affair indeed. At their first session, held in New York City in August 1, 1933, Jack Kelly and His South Memphis Jug Band recorded the plaintive “Believe I’ll Go Back Home,” with Jack Kelly and Dan Sane on guitars, Doctor Higgs on jug, and Will Batts sawing away on violin. Sung by Kelly, the song began:

    “I believe, I believe, I believe I’ll go back home,

    I believe, I believe, I believe that I’ll go back home,

    I’m going to acknowledge to my baby that I have done her wrong”

    In this early version, the singer accepts blame for being unfaithful and longs for home, a lyrical sentiment that would continue for a few years, and then disappear in the Robert Johnson and Elmore James recordings. (In 1960, John Lee Hooker would quote Kelly’s opening verse in his mournful but melodically unrelated “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home.”)

    Another ancestor was Carl Rafferty’s “Mr. Carl’s Blues,” on Blue Bird. A relaxed singer about whom very little is known, Rafferty was ably accompanied by a pianist at his only recording session, held on December 11, 1933, in Chicago. While the Victor file card lists Napoleon Fletcher as the pianist, Fletcher himself indicated that Roosevelt Sykes played at the session, and the style does sound like Sykes. In all, Rafferty recorded two songs that day – “Mr. Carl’s Blues” and “Dresser with the Drawers.” Both songs were credited to “C. Fletcher.” Parts of two of the verses in “Mr. Carl’s Blues” would find their way into “Dust My Broom.” In the second verse, Rafferty sang:

    “I’m going call up in to China, just to see if my babe over there,

    Going to call up in China, just to see if my babe’s over there,

    I’ll always believe my babe’s in this world somewhere”

    Even more telling is his final verse, which introduced the notion of the singer leaving town and permanently abandoning his lodgings:

    “I do believe, I believe I’ll dust my broom,

    I do believe, I do believe I’ll dust my broom,

    And after I dust my broom, anyone may have my room”

    Recording as “Pinewood Tom,” Josh White did a masterful version called “I Believe I’ll Make a Change” at his August 1, 1934, session in New York City. White sang and played acoustic guitar while Walter Roland manned the piano:

    “I believe, I believe I’ll make a change,

    I believe, I believe I’ll make a change,

    For this life I’m livin’ won’t let me stay here long”

     

    Kokomo Arnold

    A month later, blues singer and slide guitarist James Arnold recorded his version. Raised in Georgia, Arnold had been living in Chicago for several years. As “Gitfiddle Jim,” he’d made a Victor 78 in 1930. After a four-year recording hiatus during which he worked as a bootlegger, Arnold began recording for Decca Records under the name Kokomo Arnold. At the first of these sessions, held on September 10, 1934, Arnold cut four songs. His final selection that day, “Sagefield Woman Blues,” echoed a verse from the Rafferty record, and this, in turn, became a variant of the title verse of “Dust My Broom”:

    “And I believe, I believe I’ll dust my broom,

    I believe, I believe I’ll dust my broom,

    So some of you lowdown rounders, Lord, you can have my room”

    In those days, a “rounder” meant a dissolute person.

    At his next session, in January 1935, Kokomo Arnold recorded “Sissy Man Blues.” The melody and slide figures of this record bear a similarity to “Sagefield Woman Blues.” The second verse of “Sissy Man Blues” resurrects the China reference in the Rafferty version, which Robert Johnson would in turn use in his rewrite:

    “Now I’m gonna ring up Chiney, yeah man, see can I find my good gal over there (ride it Kokomo, ride it),

    I’m gonna ring up Chiney, see can I find my good gal over there,

    Say if the good book tells me, then I got a good gal in this world somewhere”

    On August 16, 1935, blues recording star Leroy Carr recorded his version of “I Believe I’ll Make a Change.” As Carr sang and played piano, his partner Scrapper Blackwell – a vastly under-appreciated blues guitarist – soloed to Carr’s encouragements like “Lay it on down, son” and “Boy, it’s gonna be a killer.” His version resembles the Pinewood Tom record and uses the line “’Cause this life I’m livin’ won’t let me stay here long.”

    Before we move on to Robert Johnson, a word about a curious post-Johnson variation recorded by Big Bill Broonzy in September 1938. Broonzy wove “Prodigal Son” imagery into the lyrics of his “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home,” as well as a close cover of the verse from Jack Kelly’s 78:

    “I believe, I believe, babe, I believe I’ll go back home,

    I believe, I believe, babe, I believe I’ll go back home,

    I am going back to my mother and acknowledge that I have done wrong”

    There’d be no such acknowledgement of the singer’s wrongdoing in the most influential versions of the song, performed by Robert Johnson and Elmore James.

    .

    Robert Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”

    Robert Johnson, the Mississippi Delta’s most skilled blues guitarist of the 1930s, drew some of his inspiration from 78s. Portions of recordings by Leroy Carr, Lonnie Johnson, Hambone Willie Newbern, the Mississippi Sheiks, and others made it into Johnson’s repertoire. Kokomo Arnold was among his favorite performers. Johnson recast Arnold’s 1934 hit “Old Original Kokomo Blues” (along with its predecessor, Scrapper Blackwell’s 1929 “Kokomo Blues”) as “Sweet Home Chicago,” and mined the 78’s flip side for a line for “Milkcow’s Calf Blues.” In Arnold’s “Sagefield Woman Blues” and “Sissy Man Blues,” Johnson found inspiration for the song he’d title “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.”

    Johnson recorded his version at his first session, held at a hotel in San Antonio, Texas, on November 23, 1936. After cutting two takes of the song he’d auditioned with some months before, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” Johnson retuned his guitar from standard tuning to an open-E chord (E, B, E, G#, B, E) and launched into “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”:

    “I’m gonna get up in the mornin’, I believe I’ll dust my broom,

    I’m gonna get up in the mornin’, I believe I’ll dust my broom,

    Girlfriend, the black man you been lovin’, girlfriend, can get my room”

    Johnson’s next verse would reappear in the Elmore James version:

    “I’m gonna write a letter, telephone every town I know,

    I’m gonna write a letter, telephone every town I know,

    If I can’t find her in West Helena, she must be in East Monroe, I know”

    In the third verse, Johnson sang “I don’t want no woman wants any downtown man she meets” and calls her a “no good doney,” which probably meant a “no good woman.” Johnson used the tried-and-true “I believe, I believe I’ll go back home” to open his fourth verse, but resolved it in a new way with “You can mistreat me here, babe, but you can’t when I go home.” His fifth verse repeats the opener, and then Johnson resolves the song with:

    “I’m gonna call up Chiney, see is my good girl over there,

    I’m gonna call up China, see is my good girl over there,

    If I can’t find her on Philippine’s island, she must be in Ethiopia somewhere”

    While Robert Johnson did not play the song with a slide, his high-pitched triplets set the template for future slide versions, and his shuffle bass pattern anticipated how electrified blues bands would arrange the song.

    A curious side note: Frank Law, who was present at the session, later recalled that Johnson faced the corner of the hotel room. Law attributed this to Johnson’s stage fright, since other musicians were present, waiting to record. In our 1990 interview, Ry Cooder, who’s extraordinarily insightful on the subject of old blues records, challenges this notion: “Look at Robert Johnson’s picture and listen to his singing and his forceful personality. This is a guy who was afraid of the audience?! Hell, no! This is chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out kind of a guy. I think he was sitting in the corner to achieve a certain sound that he liked. In other words, if you’d have said, ‘Robert, I’m gonna boost the midrange, take off . . .’ Because it’s a dry sound, the acoustic guitar, finally. It’s a boring sound for Robert. He wants to hear wang! He wants to hear the electric. He wants to hear that boosted midrange. And I’ll bet you that if you could have done that for him with equalizing and headphones in the modern era, he’d have been very glad. I’ll bet you if you’d have given him a Marshall amp to play it through, he’d have been extremely glad! But sitting in the corner, he could achieve something like that.” (Read the whole Cooder interview here: Ry Cooder: Talking Country Blues and Gospel .)

    Robert Johnson never recorded with an electric guitar, but he did live just long enough to hear some of his own recordings, which were issued on the Vocalion label and ARC subsidiaries such as Oriole, Perfect, and Romeo. By the time of his death in 1938, the Sears, Roebuck company had even begun carrying his 78s in its Conqueror line. “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” backed with “Dead Shrimp Blues” was the first of these releases. It would be a dozen years before new versions of “Dust My Broom” would make it onto records.

    The Early Postwar Versions

    Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, who’d inspire young Elvis Presley, recorded the first postwar version of “Dust My Broom” in March 1949. With Ransom Knowling on bass and Judge Riley on drums, Crudup conjured a laid-back, almost lounge-like sound on his Victor 78. Some of his lyrics owed a debt to Robert Johnson’s 78, but his guitar licks bore little hint of the tension Robert Johnson had conjured – a tepid interpretation, at best.

    Of far more interest are the 1951 versions recorded by Robert Lockwood, Jr., who in his youth had learned first-hand from Robert Johnson. “He taught me how to play the guitar,” Lockwood remembered in an interview with Peter Lee for Guitar Player magazine. “He followed my mama home. That’s how I met him. She couldn’t get rid of him. He hung around and hung around. He and my mama stayed together, off and on, ten years. My mother’s home was his home. That’s how I learned to play guitar. The first thing I was playing was [Johnson’s] ‘Sweet Home Chicago. Yeah, that’s the first thing Robert taught me. He started recording, and I had them records around there to play.”

    On March 22, 1951, Lockwood inaugurated his recording career with two takes of “Dust My Broom,” cut in Chicago with Sunnyland Slim on piano and Alfred Wallace on drums. Neither of these were issued at the time, although they later came out on albums. In November, Lockwood re-recorded “Dust My Broom” for Mercury, this time backed by Sunnyland Slim and bassist Big Crawford, who’d both accompanied Muddy Waters. Issued as Mercury 8260, Lockwood’s “Dust My Blues” moves to a fast, kicking arrangement, with Lockwood expertly navigating Johnson’s slideless guitar figures. Other early versions included Earl Brown’s “Dust My Broom,” cut in 1952 with Lowell Fulson on guitar, and Bobby John’s “Dust My Blues” circa 1954.

    Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom”

    At the time of Robert Johnson’s death, his contemporary Elmore James was already moving toward adapting traditional Delta blues music to a blues band setting. A rhythmic, rollicking slide guitarist and superb vocalist, James was born in rural Mississippi on January 27, 1918. He plucked his first notes on a diddley bow, and then fashioned a one-string guitar from a can, board, and wire. When his distant cousin Homesick James first met him in Canton, Mississippi, around 1930, the shy 12-year-old was going by the name Elmore Brooks. By his late teens Elmore had acquired a National resophonic guitar and was playing at Delta juke joints and restaurants. “He never wanted to work in the field,” an old neighbor recalled. “He would just take off with his guitar and move from town to town.” James took up slide after meeting Robert Johnson, who shared his penchant for drinking hard, womanizing, and playing the blues.

    After serving in the Naval Reserves during World War II, James returned to Canton, Mississippi, and went to work in his adopted brother’s radio repair shop. He developed a heart ailment that required treatment in nearby Jackson. For a while in 1947 he roomed in Belzoni with harmonica player Aleck “Rice” Miller, who invited him to play with him on local radio broadcasts. When Miller took a job in West Memphis, James moved back to Canton, where he gigged around with Willie Love and His Three Aces. In early 1951, Miller asked James to accompany him on some recordings he’d agreed to make for Trumpet Records, an independent label owned by Lillian McMurry in Jackson, Mississippi. That January and August, James recorded as a sideman for Willie Love and for Miller, who’d use the name Sonny Boy Williamson II on his 78s.

    In early August, Elmore and Sonny Boy demoed “Dust My Broom” for Mrs. McMurry, who immediately signed Elmore to an artist contract. The following day, Elmore James recorded his first song as a leader, “Dust My Broom,” laying down 2:43 of pure dynamite. His backing band consisted of Sonny Boy Williamson II, bassist Odie Johnson, and drummer Frock O’Dell. This performance was among the very best James would ever give. He based his lyrics on Robert Johnson’s version, with some variations:

    “I’m gon’ get up in in the morning, I believe I’ll dust my broom,

    I’m gon’ get up in the mornin’, I believe I’ll dust my broom,

    I quit the best girl I’m lovin’, now my friends can get my room

    “I’m gonna write a letter, telephone every town I know,

    I’m gonna write a letter, I’ll telephone every town I know,

    If I don’t find her in West Helena, she’s in East Monroe I know

     .

    “And I don’t want no woman wants every downtown man she meets,

    No, I don’t want no woman want every downtown man she meets,

    Man, she’s a no good doney, they shouldn’t allow her on the street

     .

    I believe, I believe my time ain’t long,

    I believe, I believe my time ain’t long,

    I’ve got to leave my baby and break up my happy home”

    .

    Aural evidence suggests that Elmore played on an acoustic guitar outfitted with a soundhole pickup, using his bare right-hand fingers rather than a guitar pick.

    Apparently, the bluesman had nothing else to record that day. In a 1986 interview with Living Blues magazine, Mrs. McMurry recalled, “Elmore was supposed to have been getting another side to record, but he just couldn’t come up with it.” James high-tailed it back to Canton. Unable to secure a B side from Elmore, Mrs. McMurry released the song paired with Bobo Thomas’ “Catfish Blues.” Both sides of Trumpet 146 were credited to “Elmo James,” although James did not play on “Catfish Blues.” The 78 became Trumpet’s biggest hit, reaching No. 9 on the R&B charts in March 1952.

    Due to the single’s success, James was asked by producers to re-record the song or recast its famous slide riff several times over the next decade. His “Dust My Blues,” for example, was virtually the same song, with the word “blues” substituted for “broom.” But it’s a mistake to brand him a one-lick wonder or Robert Johnson imitator, as many have done. Elmore James played in a variety of styles, almost always with unstoppable body rhythm. His ferocious, anguished vocals were as fearless as his solos. “He’s the guy,” Ry Cooder once told me after we’d listened to one of James’ slide songs. “Elmore is so in the middle of the music all the time, just covering the whole thing like a great horn player. Ain’t no problem memorizing what Elmore plays – it’s how he doesn’t play. The killer shit isn’t the notes themselves, it’s the sympathetic stuff going on around the notes and that feeling that’s strictly body rhythm.”

    Beginning in 1952 James divided his time between Mississippi and Chicago. For a while, his band with his cousin Homesick James, the Broomdusters, was so incandescent that people showered their stage with dollar bills. As Robert Palmer wrote in his liner notes for The Sky Is Crying, “The Broomdusters were one of the greatest electric blues bands. In terms of creating a distinctive and widely influential ensemble – and in terms of sheer longevity – the Broomdusters’ only real rival was the Muddy Waters group that included Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, and Otis Spann. And judging from the recorded evidence, the peaks of intensity reached by the Waters band in full cry were at a level the Broomdusters reached before they’d finished warming up.” While “Dust My Broom” remained James’ signature song on stage and record, he also composed the enduring blues songs “The Sky Is Crying,” “The Sun Is Shining,” “Madison Blues,” and “Done Somebody Wrong.”

    In November 1959 Elmore James recorded a version of “Dust My Broom” that rivals, if not surpasses, his Trumpet original from eight years earlier. The session was held in Chicago for the Fire/Fury/Enjoy labels. Bobbie Robinson sagely arranged to produce the session in stereo. James’ band consisted of J.T. Brown on tenor sax, Johnny Jones on piano, Homesick James on bass guitar, and Odie Payne on drums. With James on electric guitar, the lineup cut five songs: “Bobby’s Rock,” “The Sky is Crying,” “Held My Baby Last Night,” “Dust My Broom,” and “Please Set a Date.” James’ otherworldly slide tone on these records has yet to be duplicated. “Elmore’s beautiful sound is the greatest thing in the world,” described Ry Cooder, “but it’s only on the Chicago sides that he cut for Fire and Enjoy. Even the Fire and Enjoy sides from New Orleans and New York sound different. He had something else he used on those. I don’t think it was his Kay with a pickup, because there’s no way a Kay with a pickup can sound like those Chicago sides. I am sorry – I’ve been through everything, and it cannot. That ‘unknown amp’ is the real mystery.”

    In 1993, Homesick James and I discussed the 1959 Chicago session. Regarding Elmore’s slider, Homesick explained. “He used a tube cover. Elmore used a light piece of metal, and Elmore had some big fingers too. He’d take one of those slips – protector tubes – from an old amplifier and put it on his finger. If he got a smaller one, then he would split it open – take a hacksaw and saw it open. That’s what we played with all the time. I don’t think no man should use them big old heavy slides. You can’t. The sound ain’t there. Like you go to a store and buy them – whew, that’s too much weight on your hand.”

    Asked about what amplifier Elmore used at the Fire session in Chicago, Homesick replied, “Mine. A Gibson. A big one. A GA-53, I think it was. I got it when I was in the Army. The amp is brown on top and gray tweed at the bottom. It had letters on it, but by travelin’, someone done knocked them off. It’s about two-and-a-half feet high, and it could fit one 10 and one 12 speaker in the cabinet. Elmore didn’t have no amplifier, and he didn’t have no good guitar. Okay, I want to tell you this too: That was a studio sound that people try to figure out. They’ll never get that. The people at the studio knew how to operate that stereo sound into it. That’s what that is. That’s an echo sound.”

    Homesick also confirmed that Elmore kept his guitar in open-D tuning. “The only people I really know who played in open D was me and Elmore. He had it in open D when he made [the Trumpet version of] ‘Dust My Broom,’ because Sonny Boy was playing a G harmonica. I always told him, ‘Don’t never tune that string up too high,’ because if you tune that thing up to open E, you got too much pressure on your guitar neck. So you just let the strings back down. And that wasn’t no bass I played with Elmore. That was guitar tuned low. Elmore played bass too. We had a way of playing these guitars that no man would be able to do these things. In the key of D, I would keep four [high] strings tuned into that Vastapol [D, F#, A, D], and we would run those other two strings, the A and E, down lower, just like a bass, so it sounds like a bass. A lot of time when we’d be playin’, Elmore would be runnin’ that bass like I did while I be runnin’ slide. See, all he would do is [sings the ‘Dust My Broom’ riff] and run back to the bass pattern. All he could do was go to D. But he wasn’t able to go to G and A in the D tuning. I’d let him play his part when it got to it, and I’d catch those other chords. We was workin’ so good together. We were just a team. He’d run that real high note and then jump to the bass, and I’d jump right there. You couldn’t tell when one switched to the other. See, we studied this stuff together, how to come up with ideas. We was the hottest band in Chicago. That’s the way we were.” Elmore James passed away on May 23, 1963. Thirty-five years later, his version of “Dust My Broom” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

     

    The British Connection

    At the time of Elmore James’ death, his music was already a touchstone for up-and-coming British musicians, especially future members of the Rolling Stones. In fact, according to Bill Wyman, if Brian Jones hadn’t learned to play Elmore’s version of “Dust My Broom,” the Rolling Stones as we know them may have never existed. As Bill recounted in the film Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey, “The very first time Brian heard it, he played Elmore James’ ‘Dust My Broom.’ And Brain said the earth shattered and seemed to go off its axis, it was such an important moment in his life. He just went away and just tried to learn to play like Elmore James. And he sat in with the band, the Alexis Korner band, and played ‘Dust My Broom.’ By pure chance, that day Mick and Keith and a couple of their mates who’d been trying to put a band together in Dartford – unsuccessfully – went to see the Alexis Korner show as well, after reading about it in the music press. And they saw Brian Jones sitting onstage, this little white cat, sitting onstage and doing Elmore James, and it blew them away! So that was the Stones. Elmore James was a very, very important part, and if that hadn’t happened – that moment – maybe the Rolling Stones wouldn’t be here.”

    During our 1994 interview, Keith Richards also referenced this evening: “Brian, in the beginning of this band, he was a little ball of energy, man. When this band started – this is like when it really started from absolute scratch – Brian was dedicated and a very inventive musician who’d studied. Because we’d all just met up in London, coming from various parts of England, you know. And we’d all meet in this blues club, Alexis Korner’s place. And Brian, he stunned us playing this Elmore James shit on slide onstage with Alexis, along with Cyril Davies, Nicky Hopkins, and Jack Bruce on bass, I think. Or it might have been Ginger on drums. All of those guys were gathering together in these few spots in London.”

    Elsewhere in England, others were drawn to Elmore James. In 1966, the Yardbirds performed “Dust My Broom” in concert and over the BBC, probably with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Beck on guitars. (Following his stint in the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page would briefly join forces to record their instrumental “Tribute to Elmore.”) The Spencer Davis Group, with Steve Windwood providing vocals, did a rocking version titled “Dust My Blues” on the Autumn ’66 album. The following year, young Peter Green played the slide parts behind John Mayall’s vocals on “Dust My Blues,” for Mayall’s A Hard Road. His next band, Fleetwood Mac, also performed the song, with co-guitarist Jeremy Spencer delivering Elmore James’ fire-breathing slide figures.

    .

    Back Home in America

    By the 1960s, “Dust My Broom” was well on its way to becoming a blues standard back home in the land of its creation. B.B. King played a beautiful band version in Los Angeles circa 1962. Koerner, Ray & Glover included the song on their 1963 debut album Blues, Rags, and Hollers. The following year John Henry Barbee recorded it during a European tour. And it must have been a real thrill for Europeans when Howlin’ Wolf, backed by Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin (playing guitar fingerstyle rather than with a slide), Willie Dixon, and drummer Clifton James, did a mighty cover during the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival. (Hear it here: http://www.archive.org/details/HowlinWolf-DustMyBroom .) That same year, piano great Otis Spann included the song on his The Blues Will Never Die album, and Robert Nighthawk was taped playing it on Chicago’s Maxwell Street.

    Other great renditions by esteemed bluesmen and prescient rockers followed in quick succession. In 1964, Margaret Lewis gave it a rockabilly spin. The Rising Sons (with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder) recorded it in 1965, and Homesick James made it a part of his Chicago/The Blues/Today set. In 1966, J.B. Hutto and Ike & Turner Turner covered the song, followed by Eddie Boyd, Juke Boy Bonner, and Canned Heat in 1967, Luther Allison in 1969, John Littlejohn in 1970, and Freddie King in 1971. Later in the decade, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers tore it up. Two other 1970s versions are well worth seeking out: On “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home,” from the Arhoolie album King of the Bayous, zydeco master Clifton Chenier plays James’ riff on accordion. And ZZ Top delivered a high-octane “Dust My Broom” on 1979’s Deguello. “That was done on a Scrotchtone with an open-D tuning,” ZZ guitarist Billy Gibbons told me in ’81. “That cut was done on the first take, and the guitar is a little out of tune.”

    In more recent times, Willcox, James Cotton, Ben Harper, Peter Green, Etta James, Cassandra Wilson, Melinda Doolittle, and many, many others have kept the song alive and well. And while many have championed Elmore James’ reading in particular, the bluesman’s favorite saying still holds true: “I’m Elmore. After me there won’t be no more.” Luckily, his rousing “Dust My Broom” and its myriad covers still deliver plenty of insight and get up and go!

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    For more on Chicago Blues:

    Otis Rush: The Complete Living Blues Interview

    Papa Charlie Jackson: The First Popular Male Blues Singer

    Tampa Red: The Guitar Wizard

    Jimmy Rogers on Songwriting, Muddy Waters, and Chicago Blues

    Willie Dixon on Songwriting, Bass Playing, and the Blues

    Johnny Shines: The Complete Living Blues Interview

    “Rollin’ and Tumblin’: The Story of a Song

    Transatlantic Blues: How Britain’s Blues Boom Saved American Rock and Roll

     

    Thanks to Stefan Wirz for some of the 78 label artwork. Stefan’s American Music website at www.wirz.de/music/american.htm is an outstanding resource for blues and roots discographies.

    Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.

    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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      6 comments on ““Dust My Broom”: The Story Of A Song

      1. Charles Shaar Murray on said:

        Beautiful job, Jas … another major contribution to the scholarship!

        Just one tiny pointette — relating to Peter Green, John Mayall and Fleetwood Mac. Mayall himself played the slide guitar (one of his specialities) on the BluesBreakers’ version found on the A Hard Road album. And in Fleetwood Mac, PG’s original co-guitarist Jeremy Spencer — a MAJOR Elmore nut — did ALL the Elmore stuff, sliding and singing alike. (He was pretty much a one-trick pony, and imitating Elmore was his trick.)

        In private, and in low-key situations, Peter G played beautiful acoustic slide — and you can hear him doing it a lot on the (much) later ‘comeback’ albums with Splinter Group as well as one a few ’60s rarities. But he never did it with Mayall, and hardly ever with F. Mac.

        And The Yardbirds occasionally played BMB live (you can hear them do it on a collection of BBC airshots). However, by the time they went into the studio to cut the album later renamed Roger The Engineer, they’d written their own lyric … and called it The Nazz Are Blue.

      2. Alan Balfour on said:

        Joe Turner’s performance of Low Down Dog at the Spirituals To Swing Concert on Friday 21 December 1938 has an extra stanza at the end being the first lines of Robert Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom. The significance of which I guess is obvious (RJ was to have been a participant at the event) but was the inclusion “off the cuff” or perhaps previously suggested to Turner by John Hammond?

        This was first released on an LP, Unissued Boogie 1938-1945: The Piano Blues Vol. 21 (Magpie PY4421, 1984) but now must be on CD.

      3. Peter Green did do some Elmore James covers around the time of the outset of Fleetwood Mac that stuff is available nowadays…I think he did some with Duster Bennett as well if I recall. That time frame is a bit murky to me. I am not that up on recording dates for Blue Horizon

      4. Henk Maaskant on said:

        Hello Jas A beautiful Job about this beautiful song. I’ve been collecting versions of this song for years. And found some really great versions.
        If you wanna know more just look at my website about it.
        Very good story.

      5. erwin on said:

        A very decent and well researched essay !
        Always a pleasure to read,
        erwin

      6. Volvo Slim on said:

        Although credited to Otis Spann, the album The Blues Never Die is actually shared with James Cotton, who sings on half of the songs. Dust My Broom is one of Cotton’s tracks on this album (of course with Spann on piano).

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