As I reclined in my big blue worn-out listening chair letting Tom Waits work his magic on my stereo, I jolted forward with a burst of excitement. Hearing ol’ grizzly voice there singing the line “John, John, he’s long gone…” during a middle verse of “Gun Street Girl,” a track on Rain Dogs (1985), more than a few connections were made in my brain. Waits is referencing a famous escape song “Long John.” Waits however takes his John in a different direction, as he’s “gone to Indiana, ain’t never coming home.” This however isn’t the first instance I’ve heard of altering John’s narrative. When I began to dig a little deeper into the history of the song, starting with a 1951 recording of Brownie McGhee and a rollicking recent version from Woody Pines, as well as some instrumental takes from bluesmen Sonny Terry and Reverend Gary Davis, I realized that there was a lot more going on. A good introduction to “Long John” is in 1920 when W.C. Handy, the so-called “father of the blues,” published a version of the song with words from black songwriter Chris Smith, based on an earlier form of this song, which also sometimes goes by “Lost John,” “Long John Dean,” “Long Gone,” or “Long Gone John (From Bowling Green),” Supposedly the song’s narrative was based on an escaped black prisoner from Bowling Green, Kentucky, but it is likely that this was fabricated by Handy. It’s probable that this cycle of songs extends back to the 19th century, starting as a negro work song. Versions that are called “Old John” seem to focus more on a slave who outsmarts his master, while “Lost John” finds John a victim of the prison system, which he escapes from. The instrumental version, mainly performed on harmonica, became quite popular during the minstrelsy era. Lauded 20th century song collectors Alan and John Lomax recorded “Long John” at Darrington State Prison Farm in Texas in 1934 for the Library of Congress. In this example, a group of black prisoners, led a man identified as “Lightning” chant the song as they engage in collective labor – a moving, visceral renditon. From the 19th century to beyond Tom Waits, “Long John” continues to inspire performance and transformation of the story of John and his desire for freedom.
Also on Folkadelphia Radio, we will premiere a session from Portland, Maine & Philadelphia, Pennsylvania based Tumbling Bones. Without a doubt, this is one of the most energetic and downright virtuosic performances we’ve witnessed in the studio. We caught the band as they just released their latest LP Loving A Fool and right before they headed off overseas as part of the prestigious American Musicians Abroad program. The band is back from across the pond and in town this Friday, returning to the Tin Angel to do it all again. Don’t miss them!