Friday Night with Guitar George: RL Burnside Edition

I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord.
–R.L. Burnside

This week Guitar George returns to the ongoing series that honors the influence of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen. We first checked in with R.L. Burnside in the Jan 9 2015 edition of FNWGG, in which he was teaching Dave Stewart of Eurythmics how to play “Long Hair Doney.” In that video, as well as tonight’s video, R.L. seems to be a likeable enough fellow, so the above quote attributed to him seems incongruous. In spite of his friendly demeanor, however, Burnside has a rather checkered past. When he wasn’t in trouble with women or the law, he worked most of his life as a farmer and rarely performed for pay until he was “rediscovered” late in his life.

There are many good videos of Burnside on YouTube, filmed in a variety of settings over a span of years, and I had difficulty choosing which one I would post tonight. For several days the leading candidate was “Poor Black Mattie”, partly because of its rhythmic drive, but mostly because of its lyrics:

Poor Black Mattie ain’t got a change in clothes
Girl got drunk, close that door
Poor Black Mattie ain’t got change o’ clothes
Girl got drunk, throwed her clothes outdoors

I ended up selecting this 1978 Alan Lomax recording of Burnside at home on his farm, performing “See My Jumper Hanging on the Line” for several reasons: the impromptu noodling for the first twenty seconds, the sound of children in the background adding to the rural ambience, the close-up shot of his shoes, and the broad range of Burnside’s facial expressions. At times he breaks out in a conspiratorial toothy grin, as if he knows that you know what he knows *wink wink*. At other times he gazes outward with a vacant and distant stare, as if remembering one of the aforementioned brushes with the law or trouble with the ladies. Such is the profound irony of the Delta Blues: pleasure and pain get all mixed up together inside a person’s soul, and when that blended mess seeps out, it lands on the frets of a guitar and in the throat of a singer.

Maybe the vacant stare has something to do with the unfortunate event referenced in the quote at the top of this post. I will neither vilify nor exonerate R.L. Burnside for what happened. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the details of the event or the back story leading up to it. Or, to put it in an even larger context: you and I will never, ever know what it was like to be black. In the 1930’s. In the backwoods of the Mississippi Delta, where girls get drunk and lose their clothes and men get drunk and lose their minds.

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  1. […] Sorry folks, I had a minor setback this week that prevented me from finishing the piece I had planned for tonight’s episode of Guitar George.  However, as Foghorn Leghorn used to say “I always keep my feathers numbered, for just such an emergency.” Or, to put it in baseball parlance, as BGS writers are wont to do: I have gone to the bench for a last minute pinch hitter.  Tonight’s pinch hit/numbered feather is R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Black Mattie”, referenced in this March 6 episode. […]

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