Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February 1: Elmore James, "Dust My Broom"

Artist: Elmore James
Song: "Dust My Broom"
Album: Dust My Broom (single)
Year: 1951

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Though the idea of stating who the best guitar players of all time is certainly a subjective discussion, there are a handful of performers that simply cannot be left off of such a list.  Due to their exceptional level of talent, the time in which they played, or some factor so rare they it cannot be topped, it is these few guitarists that have truly shaped the world of popular music over the past century.  Among these great names, few were as important as the great Elmore James, and even almost five decades after his passing, there remain no other guitarists that have unseated him as the King of slide guitar.  In both his approach and his tone, James was truly a revolutionary player, and across the musical landscape, from blues to rock to punk, one can hear clear echoes of his style.  Yet within his own music, one can also easily hear his own influences, most significantly, the one and only Robert Johnson.  As a clear disciple of Johnson's style, it was very much James that provided the "proper" transition of Johnson's playing into the more modern world, largely being responsible for "electrifying" the blues.  Over his short recording career, James played a truly staggering amount of music, and this makes it virtually impossible to single out any one song as his finest.  Furthermore, with James largely pre-dating the LP era, his recordings are scattered across countless sessions on a number of labels.  However, taking this all into account, there may be no other song more important to the development of music across the decades than one finds in Elmore James' classic 1951 recording, "Dust My Broom."

There is no secret that this song is, in both musical and lyrics, almost entirely lifted from the Johnson recording, "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," and over the decades, there have been a myriad of other adaptations of the song.  In fact, one can easily argue that aside from perhaps Bo Diddley's opening progression on "I'm A Man," there is no more famous a progression that the one fond here.  However, James' take on the song is absolutely mind-blowing, as the gritty, dirty guitar sound, and the aggressive mood is far ahead of its time.  Even more "in your face" than a majority of the rock music of that entire decade, there is a tone on "Dust My Broom" that would have been mesmerizing in the late 1960's, let alone twenty years earlier.  The way in which James seems to fly across the fret-board gives it a uniquely dangerous feel, and it is largely this recording that would be the main source of fuel for the development of the early rock and roll sound.  As James rolls across the track in brilliant fashion, with Frock O'Dell on drums and the now-legendary grooving bassline from Leonard Ware, the song takes on a personality far greater than the sum of its parts, and there is simply no resisting the allure of "Dust My Broom."  The sound of the harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson III provides an amazing compliment to James' sound, and the full, almost overly-loud sound of the combined group is the reason the song stands as such a pivotal moment in music history.

Yet as fantastic as the overall sound on "Dust My Broom" may be, there is not a moment anywhere on the song where the focus is taken from Elmore James and his phenomenal display of talent.  After hearing his work here, it is understandable why he remains the unchallenged champion of slide guitar, and this honor alone vaults him high atop the list of greatest guitarists of any style.  While to the more modern ear, his performance may not seem that out of the ordinary, there is simply no getting around the fact that the fast, almost distorted style with which he plays was years ahead of its time, and one can trace the origins of rock and roll back to this recording.  James gives "Dust My Broom" a unique swing, and it is this slight shift away from the "classic" blues sound that can be seen as a vital piece of the formation of the "boogie woogie" sound.  However, even though it has its own unique personality, there is no question as to the songs' roots, as the musical progression almost completely matches that of the original composition which has become attributed to Robert Johnson.  Furthermore, the lyrics, both in structure and content have a similar source, as James took the Johnson words, yet used the slightly modified additions from the version of the song recorded by Arthur Crudup a few years prior.  Regardless of these material sources, Elmore James' take on the song stands far above the others, and the sound and sting of his guitar here remains one of the most important moments in all of recorded music.

While many still do not quite see how the blues transitioned into the sound now known as rock and roll, one can easily see the connection within Elmore James' take on the classic arrangement, "Dust My Broom."  In terms of tone, speed, and talent, there was simply no other similar song before his, and one can point to this moment as the "beginning" of rock music in its more modern sense.  Furthermore, it is on this track that James is perhaps at his best, and after hearing his performance, one cannot deny his rightful place among the most elite guitarists in all of music history.  Truth be told, every slide guitar player that followed him owes a great deal of their sound to James, and even later blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf cited James as a massive influence on their playing style.  On "Dust My Broom," James not only gives a legendary performance on guitar, but his singing also serves as a bridge between the traditional blues sound and the more modern approach to the style.  Mirroring his guitar work, there is a grit within his voice and helps to further express the deep emotions that he pulls from the song.  It is this combination that sets James apart from his peers, as few others were able to perform as brilliantly in both singing and guitar playing simultaneously.  This is yet another reason why he stands as such a massive icon in the overall history of music, and there are simply not enough words to do justice to the sound and impact that one can find within Elmore James' monumental 1951 recording, "Dust My Broom."

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