For those displaced (and that's all of us -- we are all out of the place we are meant to be), home is away, out of reach. For that reason, moving on is as inevitable as the arithmetic of footsteps: you know, "One and one is two." Just as inevitable is a sense of longing, the sense that loss can be restored, that it is possible to leave this mean old place and return to a better one, the place you come from.
Call it Eshu's paradox: He who stands at the crossroads urging you on, is the same who walks by you when you travel home to your final resting place. How is it that in the blues about being homesick, "Ever time de trains pass/I wants to go somewhere"? Langston goes on to capture the emotional paradox. "To keep from crying/I opens my mouth an' laughs." And there, with both ends of the equation in his hands, he's conjures Eshu.
It's a temptation to try to get more meaning out of a blues song than it offers. Brovah Elijah Wald is probably the best teacher on this subject. The song is nothing more or less than where it stands in a jukebox, a record company's ledger, and the variations from one version to the next.
Before it was a thesis/anthem that demanded a crackerrock antithesis/antianthem about, of all places, Alabama, "Sweet Home Chicago" was nothing more or less than a simple rambling song. It marks itself with cryptic references of places too distant to imagine (California, Des Moines Ioway, and Chicago). And it cries a lonesome wail inviting companionship on the ramble ("Baby, honey don't you want to go?" -- a question asked in a way that leads the listener to wonder whether Johnson is begging her because she's saying no). Going home? Rambling? Alone? Together? Eshu will tell us these cannot be separated, anymore than laughing and crying.
As we listened, we began hearing the variations more clearly. There's Kokomo and the original that comes 6 years later. There's "Sweet" by a bunch of other names, like "Don't You Want To?" You can go to Chicago or the country. You can go home or you can leave home forever. Eshu knows that when you are on your knees at the crossroads your are always coming and going. So we're reloading a clip of bullets for your own exercise in versionology:
- "Kokomo Blues," Scrapper Blackwell (1928).
- "Old Original Kokomo Blues," Kokomo Arnold (1934).
- "Mr. Freddie's Kokomo Blues," Freddie Spruell, accompanied by Carl Martin (1935).
* * * * *
- "Sweet Home Chicago," Robert Johnson (1936).
- "Don't You Want to Go," Walter Davis (1940-1946)
- "Baby, Don't You Want to Go," Tommy McClennan
- "Sweet Home Chicago," David "Honeyboy" Edwards
- "Sweet Home Chicago," Pyeng Threadgill (2003).
* * * * *
- "Going up the Country, Don't You Want to Go," The Lapsey Band (1954).
- "Going up to the Country" (Version 1), Jessie Clarence Gorman (1969).
- "Going up the Country/Paint My Mailbox Blue," Taj Mahal (1968).
* * * * *
We're uncertain about any direct line between any of these songs, 'cept perhaps the line drawn by Wald between Kokomo Arnold and Johnson's original retake. Pure sharkbiting. This is a roots maneuver and we've got nothing more to say about this kinda trickery but that you better think it's still going on all over the panhiphop tradition, and has been from ancient to future. In this way, we can take up all the retakes, from Johnson's own to Pyeng Threadgill's, and we can trace a line of longing, a longing to get back home to you name it: the people we want to be with; the people we lost; the slow groove of good loving that we been missing; you name it.
But there's more to the tradition that working the repeater pencil to draw a line between your audience and your pocketbook. There is something about coming and going that is more than just passing a coin from one hand to another.
There is the temptation to go back. When we we're studying up for this piece we read through the primitive liner notes of musicologist Frederic Ramsey, Jr., who anthropolgized the Lapsey Band's approach to Albert Ayler. He gave voice to this temptation. "As a tentative but not binding objective, we hoped to tap as many sources as possible that would lead us back to the music and the story of the period 1860 to 1900." But the Laspey's are pure ancient to future, music from the spaceways. We give Ramsey props for his diligence when we say he's got the direction wrong. Home is away, not back.
This is why we our soul stirs when we hear the line drawn between Johnson, who's pact w/ the devil is the stuff of movies by the Coen Bros, and Arizona Dranes, or even more, the I.C. Glee Quartet. That's the home: the place we can only wish for after we've lost it.
Eshu's a homesick loa, and he knows that is a joyful disease because it promises the slow groove of return.