Covered by many, yet understood by few, “Midnight Special” was traditionally a folk song which originated among prisoners. The country-blues version, sung by Bill Cox, hums along like a freight train, encouraging the light of the powerful locomotive to inspire those out of their destitution.
Several decades before Bob Dylan recorded his breakthrough “Highway 61 Revisited” album, the folk-blues song “Highway No. 61” was interpreted by numerous blues singers including Charlie Pickett, Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy, The Sparks Brothers and others. Jack Kelly & His South Memphis Jug Band recorded this classic version with fiddler Will Batts on vocal duties. According to Dylan, when he told his record label the title of his new album in 1965, they didn’t understand it, and only agreed to let him call the record what he wanted after to he went all the way “up the fucking ladder” to insist on it. The rest is history.
The Mississippi Sheiks from Bolton, Mississippi were a popular band in their time, and their recorded songs have been covered by an impressive list of artists that includes Howlin’ Wolf, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan. Three of the Sheiks were brothers Lonnie, Sam, and Armenter Chatmon, the latter of whom is famously known as Bo Carter, who enjoyed a successful solo career while he managed and was a part time member of the band. This recording of “Please Baby” captures their distinct blend of country, folk, and blues.
“Avalon Blues” was the last song recorded by Mississippi John Hurt in the 1920’s. Named for Hurt’s hometown of Avalon, Mississippi, this song provided clues that folk musicologist Tom Hoskins used to locate the legendary bluesman in the early 1960’s. That meeting led to Hurt’s appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, which re-launched his career and gained him international recognition. After that, Mississippi John Hurt performed extensively, even recording three new albums and appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, before his death in 1966. Hurt’s home in Avalon is now open to the public as The Mississippi John Hurt Museum.
Williams’ unique 9-string steel guitar rhythm, alongside a haunting fiddle lead, provides the perfect accompaniment to his searing vocal. Joe Williams continued to tour and perform for decades after recording this and numerous other sides for various early record labels. This song is as relevant today as it has ever been.