Search “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” at www.youtube.com, and more than 300 versions pop up. You’ll find recent performances by Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck and Imogen Heap, Imelda May, Cyndi Lauper, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Gov’t Mule, to name just a few, as well as older readings by Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Johnny Winter, Cream, The Yardbirds, Captain Beefheart, Canned Heat, Bonnie Raitt, R.L. Burnside, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, and many others. Over at www.archive.org you can hear 1920s renditions and an array of live covers by the Grateful Dead, Steve Kimock Band, Derek Trucks, and the North Mississippi Allstars – some recorded as recently as last month.
Seldom has one song connected so many musicians. With its mesmerizing riff, distinctive structure, and catchy melody, the song first appeared on 78s by some of the earliest bluesmen on record. Variations soon showed up in the repertoires of Mississippi-based Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. The song journeyed north to Chicago with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James. It crossed over into British blues and rock via covers by the Yardbirds and Cream. It was injected into mainstream American rock and roll by Johnny Winter, Canned Heat, and others. A century after its creation, the song still fills dance floors and provides an unsurpassed avenue for self-expression.
No one knows for sure where “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” started, but it’s likely one of the earliest blues strains. Following an AAB lyric pattern, the song typically has verses but no chorus. It does not follow the traditional 12-bar structure, but begins with two measures on the IV chord before resolving to the I chord. In some versions, the IV chord moves to IVb7 in the second measure. In its most cathartic version, by the Baby Face Leroy Trio, words give way to moans, whoops, and wails. More on that in a moment.
The Early Recordings
In January 1928, Memphis-based Cannon’s Jug Stompers recorded “Minglewood Blues” for Victor Records. This creaky-sounding jug band arrangement featured Gus Cannon on banjo and jug, Ashley Thompson on guitar and vocal, and harmonica ace Noah Lewis, who was credited with writing the song. As far as I know, this is this first recording to feature the “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” melody. Its lyrics drive straight into the heart of the blues:
“Don’t you never let one woman rule your mind
Don’t you never let one woman rule your mind
Said, she keep you worried, troubled all the time
“Don’t you think your girl was li’l and cute like mine
Don’t you wish your girl was li’l and cute like mine
She’s a married woman, but she comes to see me all the time”
The next essential version, by Hambone Willie Newbern, gave the song its most familiar lyrics. Newbern made his recording in March 1929, when a field unit for OKeh Records set up shop in Atlanta, Georgia. Playing with fingers and slide on a guitar tuned to an open-G chord, Newbern framed his “Roll and Tumble Blues” as a dance tune. He began by singing:
“And I rolled and I tumbled and I cried the whole night long
And I rolled and I tumbled and I cried the whole night long
And I rose this morning, mama, and I didn’t know right from wrong
“Did you ever wake up and find your dough roller gone
Did you ever wake up and find your dough roller gone
And you wring your hand and you cry the whole day long”
Newbern hailed from Ripley, Tennessee. His nickname suggests that he wore a smoothed piece of hambone on his finger to gliss the guitar strings, a common practice in the prewar South. Sleepy John Estes, who was born in Ripley and took guitar lessons from Newbern, recalled hearing Newbern play the song sometime between 1913 and 1917. It’s likely that when Newbern played the song at gatherings, it extended beyond the three-minute limitation of a 78 RPM record.
In the song’s next notable appearance, Charley Patton used the melody for “Banty Rooster Blues,” recorded for Paramount Records in June 1929. Three months later Sleepy John Estes, with Yank Rachel sitting in on mandolin, used Newbern’s melody and “dough roller” imagery for “The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair.” Estes began his Victor 78 with the lyric “Now I’m goin’ to Brownsville, take that right hand road,” which showed up in later versions by Memphis blues great Furry Lewis. In November 1930, Noah Lewis recycled the melody from the Gus Cannon recording he’d appeared on. Credited to the Noah Lewis Jug Band, his “New Minglewood Blues” on Victor featured Estes on guitar, Rachel on mandolin, and Ham Lewis blowing jug.
By the mid 1930s, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was a staple at Southern house parties, fish fries, and juke joints, where its simple melody could be easily played on guitar, fiddle, harmonica, mandolin, piano, and other instruments. It was especially popular in the Mississippi. Robert Johnson certainly knew the song. At his 1936 session in San Antonio, he revitalized it as “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” climaxing his jacked-up arrangement with stratospheric slide. Johnson’s traveling companion, Johnny Shines, recorded his adaptations of the song during the 1950s and 1960s.
The Parkway Version
My favorite version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” by far, is the magnificent two-part 78 credited to the Baby Face Leroy Trio. (I named my book, Rollin’ and Tumblin’ : The Postwar Blues Guitarists after this record.) Recorded in a warehouse for Chicago’s Parkway Records in January 1950, the trio consisted of Baby Face Leroy Foster on drums and lead vocal, Little Walter on harmonica, and Muddy Waters on electric slide guitar. The moonlighting Waters, who was under contract to Aristocrat Records, laid back on most of the other tunes they recorded, but couldn’t resist tearing loose with slides and moans during their wild “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Foster began the first part of this two-sided 78 with this variation of Newbern’s original:
“Now, I roll and tumble, baby, cry the whole night long
I roll and I tumble, baby, cry the whole night long
Well, now, I woke up this morning, baby, all I had was gone”
Some years ago, I played “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ – Part 1” to bottleneck expert Ry Cooder. Ry listened intently, then said of Muddy Waters’ guitar playing, “To me, that track’s an example of somebody who transcends anything we think we know about the guitar. I mean, that could’ve been a one-string there, it could’ve been a post with a string, it could’ve been any of my guitars – it wouldn’t make any difference. What’s great about when guys play like that is you don’t feel frets and six strings and a scale length. It’s beyond construction and principles. Muddy’s playing where he knows those notes are, and they are locking into this spirit thing of playing, the movement of the song. And he goes past the note – the note isn’t just there at the fret, because there are degrees of the note. It’s like Turkish music in some ways – degrees. There’s 5,000 notes. The great thing about this is it liberates you from these idiotic frets. So sometimes he’s expressing some excitement by alternating between playing a note and going sharp. And that’s where all those old guys hear that stuff. There are nuances – no phrases come down the same. When you need a lift, you go sharp, and when you need to sour it up and make it feel a little darker, you go flat. But you don’t think about it. You just do it.
“It is staggering to have that quality of performance on a record, though, knowing what we know. If you listen to Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Little Village’ with Leonard Chess, how did records ever get made when assholes like that were running the show? It’s amazing to me. They made these records under such duress, conditions that ultimately we see all around us today. They talk about slaves singing code songs – it’s hardly any different. But the really amazing thing is that you can get that kind of free expression and excitement and even joy, perhaps, in a white guy’s recording studio. It takes a lot of power and amazing strength of personalities. These aren’t wimpy guys. They’re pretty heavy-duty characters, and it’s coming out. They’re just blasting away. We’re very lucky this stuff got recorded at all. It’s a miracle that it did, when you look at the record business and the people that ran it.
“Baby Face Leroy’s ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’ is not chord-based. You don’t feel chord in it. And it’s greater than anything African. This is taken to another planet. This is the beauty of the American music. Listen to those big string bends – whoa! Slap bass. It’s incredible. Nobody in Africa can do that. I mean, as great as African music is, it all comes together in this country. Mister Microtone! I guess that’s what you’d have to say, finally, about Muddy: He’s Oriental in his approach.”
Upset at hearing his most prominent artist on another label’s release, Leonard Chess firmly advised Muddy not to record for anyone else. To compete with the Parkway 78, Chess quickly paired Muddy with bassist Big Crawford for a less visceral but satisfying two-part “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” that came out on Aristocrat. The Parkway 78 also helped convince Chess to finally allow Muddy to begin recording with his club band. Soon after, Aristocrat became Chess Records. Muddy based what became his first national blues hit for the new label, “Louisiana Blues,” to a slowed-down version of the “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” melody. (He’d record “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” again for 1974’s “Unk” in Funk album.)
A few months after Foster and Waters 78s came out, John Lee Hooker framed his “Rollin’ Blues,” recorded in Detroit, with slideless guitar playing and foot-tapping. His opening lyrics paid homage to Newbern’s version, and he ended the same way as Baby Face Leroy’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ – Part 1”:
“Engineer blew the whistle and the fireman rung the bell
Engineer blew the whistle and the fireman rung the bell
Lord, I didn’t have time to tell my baby ‘Fare you well’”
Eddie “One String” Jones
Another monumental version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was recorded on February 14, 1960, by Frederick Usher, Jr. According to the liner notes on One String Blues, the Takoma album on which the song was originally released, Usher and Dick Barlow were in Los Angeles’ skid row area on business when they chanced upon two derelict men. One asked for a quarter, while the other waited across the street with something in his hand. Usher described the second man as “a long-boned form, shoulders slightly rounded, jean overalls, jacket and cap dusty and dirt polished. Grasped in his hand was a rough 2×4, which I knew, instinctively, to be a musical instrument.”
Usher asked him to play. “Laying the ‘instrument’ along the low sill of a store window,” Usher wrote, “ he reached into a jacket pocket, fished out a half-pint flask style whiskey bottle, unscrewed the cap, slid out a whittled stick, and began tuning up. The tuning took only a few seconds, but his movements were impressive – the firm delicacy of virtuosity in paradoxical contrast to his instrument, primitive and crude in the extreme. About three feet of discarded 2×4, hacked off at both ends, a steel wire strung from a nail at each end and raised off the wood surface by bridges – a wooden block at the open end and a pill bottle at the other end under the resonator, a gallon paint can, wired onto the 2×4 and split up the side part way to pass over the string.
“Bending over the instrument with the whittled stick, One-String beat out rhythm, striking the wire near where it passed into the resonator, while the half-pint bottle in his left hand slid over the wire to change tone. With the bottle palmed under the thumb, he was free to stop to string with his first and little fingers with a sort of rocking motion – an intimate choreography, so visually fitting to the ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ Blues’ that he was playing. His confident pride made it obvious that he had played for something more intangible than the pocket change Smitty [the other man] had asked for. It was an electrifying experience – the open string drone, the steel-ringing glides, the percussion rhythm, now driving, now hesitant, the deep rough voice expressing incredibly archaic, down-home words and phrases – what seemed to be almost prototype blues.”
Usher and Barlow rushed off to get a tape recorder and recorded the man in an alley for the first of three sessions. Try as they may to get more information, Usher writes, “he persistently refused to say much about himself. Even more, he had nothing to say about the origins of his instrument – whether he’d invented it himself or whether he’d developed something that he’d seen someone else play. There is an elusive precedent for wire strung instruments of the simple zither type in the older cultures of West Africa, but his style of playing – drumming on the string with a stick and changing the tones with a bottle to a crude outline of the most primitive blues harmonies – seems to be entirely his own. He was even vague about his name. His name may be Eddie Jones or Jessie Marshall.”
Whatever the man’s name, his instrument was based on the diddley bow, a common one-string instrument in rural Mississippi and other parts of the South. I once asked B.B. King if he’d ever made a one-string as a child. King responded, “Yeah. We take the cord from around a broom, and you put a big nail up there [points about five feet up the wall]. Take another one and put it down there [about three-and-a-half feet lower], and you put the string on the nails. Then you take something like a brick – we always found that a brick was really good for sustaining tones. Put it in down there between the string and the wall, tighten it, put another brick up there on top, tighten it, and then you bang on it.” In essence, Eddie Jones’ instrument was a portable diddley bow with an attached paint can acting as a resonating chamber.
The 1960s and Beyond
Around the same time Eddie “One String” Jones was recording in a skid-row back alley, Elmore James was in New York City, cutting a band version for the Fire label. Elmore gives a fire-breathing vocal performance and the drummer is fabulous, but if you’re looking for any of Elmore’s slide guitar fireworks, forget it. His version emphasizes saxophones and bass, with a lackluster solo that sounds like it’s by someone who barely knows how to play guitar. Go figure.
With its root-true slide guitar, Howlin’ Wolf’s 1961 “Down in the Bottom,” recorded for Chess Records, was a far more interesting variant. Wolf set unique lyrics to the “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” melody, beginning with the memorable verse:
“Well, now, meet me in the bottom, bring me my runnin’ shoes
Well, now, meet me in the bottom, bring me my runnin’ shoes
Well, I come out the window, I won’t have time to lose”
Willie Dixon took credit for the lyrics; Howlin’ Wolf played the slide.
As the decade progressed, several elder bluesmen performed the song on albums. Sleepy John Estes re-recorded his early version as the title track of his Brownsville Blues on Testament. In Memphis, Furry Lewis released several stark versions as “Brownsville Blues” and “Roll and Tumble Blues,” his voice as haunting as the whining slide that echoed his words and finished his lines. Down in Mississippi, Joe Callicott, who like Estes and Lewis had prewar recording credentials, played fine, countrified versions on at least three of his albums.
“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was a special favorite around Como, Mississippi. One of the area’s leading musicians, the blind fiddler Sid Hemphill, led a string band for a half-century. His three daughters all played stringed instruments, as had his father, Dock Hemphill, a Choctaw Indian. All of the members of this family were known to play “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” In 1959 Alan Lomax came through the area and recorded Sid’s daughter, Rosa Lee Hemphill, playing her version (Ken Burns used this recording in the first episode of his 2001 Jazz documentary). A generation later, Rosa’s niece Jessie Mae Hemphill played an unforgettable version for her acclaimed Feelin’ Good album, accompanying her electric guitar with the rhythm of ceremonial Choctaw bells strapped to her leg. Mississippi Fred McDowell, who’d been playing around Como, Mississippi, long before he began making records in 1959, cut his deep, roots-true version in 1962. Later in the decade one of his disciples, R.L Burnside, taped the first of many renditions he’d record throughout his life.
By the mid 1960s, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was making a transition into rock and roll. Cream blasted a mighty version on 1966’s Fresh Cream. The Yardbirds, with young Jimmy Page on guitar, sped up the song and renamed it “Drinking Muddy Water.” Playing for the BBC, Jimi Hendrix quoted it in “Catfish Blues.” On film, Canned Heat cranked it up at the Monterey Pop Festival. Johnny Winter played it on 1968’s The Progressive Blues Experiment and would re-record it later in his career. On the weirder end of the ’60s spectrum, Captain Beefheart delivered a raving interpretation and the Chilean band Aguaturbia turned it into a psychedelic trip. The Grateful Dead paid homage to Noah Lewis’ old “New Minglewood Blues” 78 on their first album, although this version does not contain the classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” riff or melody. (The Dead played a much truer version of “Rollin’and Tumblin’” during their 1995 tour, their last with Jerry Garcia; several of these versions can be heard at www.archive.org).
“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” continues to hold its place among blues and rock performers, as evidenced by the 300+ youtube postings mentioned above. It’s been reinterpreted and recorded countless times and performed everywhere from country back porches to Carnegie Hall. And notable versions keep coming: Eric Clapton, for instance, framed the song for acoustic slide and handclaps on 1992’s Unplugged album, electrified it for the Cream reunion projects, and returned to the Robert Johnson version, “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” for 2004’s Me and Mr. Johnson. Rory Block followed suit, covering the Johnson version on 2006’s The Lady and Mr. Johnson, the same year Bob Dylan recast “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” with new words for Modern Times.
A final observation: During a 1990 field trip, I visited R.L. Burnside at his home outside of Holly Springs, Mississippi. At least a dozen of his children and grandchildren were gathered under a tree. R.L.’s teenaged son Dwayne saw my old Silvertone acoustic and asked if he could try it. Thumbing a shuffling rhythm, he began playing – you guessed it – “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” All of the younger children instantly locked in to what he was doing, as if it the song was encoded into their DNA. They began dancing, clapping, and chanting along, a joyous celebration of a transcendent song both ancient and modern. I have high hope that “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” will continue to be passed down from one generation to the next.
Recommended reading: “Dust My Broom”: The Story of a Song
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.