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Charlie patton recorded the song in october 1929 at Grafton, Winsconsin, for the Paramount label.
The first verse of the song is "I went/wade down Green River, rollin' like a log (x3)". According to our usual logic, the sentence seems making no sense; back in the 60s, this was a characteristic of the blues :)) One should first of all notice the use of a analogy, which is a frequent procedure in all kinds of oral traditions. In a psychological point of view, the comparison with the logs rolling down the river may suggest a inertial state the poet might have felt. It is about feeling powerless, with any will anihilated by a trauma. One could be tempted to believe that such a state of mind was induced by the behaviors associated with the seggregation laws, but let us not overinterpretate; he feeling might equally have been induced by the end of an affair; or, more probably, by a recurrent poetic formula. Ina Positivistic account, the rolling log comparision might recall a manner of transportation, beautifully described by mark Twain. But don't forget that the verse is about a log, which would probably roll loose, maybe after a flood; the poet is thus rolling in derive, after a trouble in mind.
The second verse provoked manny discussions in the blues researchers' millieux: "I think I heard the Marion whistle blow (x2), And it blew jist like my baby gettin' on board". The issue debated here was the referrence of the "Marion whistle". eventually, everybody seemed to agree it referred to a steamboat named after a town. The bluesmen's relation to steamboats is very complex; it's primarly a metaphor for the freedom of moving here and there, and bluesmen lways talk about their compulsive desire of hitting the road. Bukka White for instance stated that everytime he heard a train whistle blow he felt like going and he immediatly took the roadof the train station. There is another memorable description by Mark Twain of this "moving fever". Blues historians explain this "keep on moving" desire in two different way: either as an expression of the feeling of being without roots that the slave narratives always stress, or as an symbolical expression of the freedom, since the former slaves weren't forced any more to stick with a particular plantation. As for the Patton song's verese, i believe it isn't quite this old. I think it was "written" during the first migration wave, the one towards the Southern cities, when Black women began getting jobs as maids, perhaps around 1915-1920.
"I'm going where the Southern cross the dog" is obviously the most discussed verse in the song and maybe in the blues' history. WC Handy talls the following story: by one night, back in 1903, while waiting for a train in an old dirty station, he fell asleep; then he was woke up by a troubling sound, a knife sliding on the strings and a voice singing the verse. After that night, Handy never get the sound out of his mind. This is the first mention of the blues; and it is almost contemporary with another mention, by Ma Rainey, who heard a girl singing a deep rural song whitch inspired her in finding her path in music and life. The verse is dated post 1894, when the two railroads had their first crossing point (there are actually 3 points where the Southern and the Yellow Dog crossed). I really like to thing that the verse reffers to Yazoo, Mississippi, but this is only I intend moving there.
The fourth verse, "Some people say the Green River blues ain't bad (x2), Then it must not have been them Green River blues I had", is a very fluid toposin the Delta; Son House loved this formula and didn't hesitate to use it in several songs (I'd mension only the incredible version of the "Walking Blues" recorded by John Lomax in 1947; it is available on the Last Fm Station). If have no clueabout the formula's origin; if you had any and wished to share it, I'd sincerily appreciate it.
"It was late last night, everything was still (x2)/ I could see my baby up on a lonesme hill". Now,what was his baby doing up there? Was she alone? And why on the same ole hill, so recurrent in blues? "Lonesome" is a frequently used epithete, and it can apply to any sort of places. A bedroom deserted by a woman is always lonesome; by night, any dirty road gets lonesome. And the bluesman's soul is often sad and lonesome.
"How long, evening train been gone (x2)/ Yes, I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long". This is another frequent formula, which left Delta and went up to Chicago. The formula is composed by two topoi ("evening train" and "I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long". I think that the third identifiable topos of the verse, "how long", became a topos only after the release of the famous "How Long Blues". The verse is quite puzzling, because this time the singer's baby seems having left him by train. But maybe the inconsistency of this verse with the second one didn't trouble Charlie as much as his baby's departure did. So, briefly, he was left by his baby - who went looking for a job - and he's worried, but he hopes he won't be no more. Why that? Well, because he has some suspicions about her being unfaithful to him: late at night, the poet cannot sleep, imaginig his baby up on a lonesome hill and not being alone. He won't be worried long because he hopes he'll forget her. Why do I think so? Because of the last verse:
"I'm going away, i know it may get lonesome here". Everything there reminds him of his lost love. And when you're born with the blues and your baby done left you (because she was looking for a job in Memphis), it seems to you it is unbeareble. You just hafta go.
In conclusion, I could'n say the "Green River Blues" is the oldest blues out there, but it surely is particularly informative in a sociological point of view, offering an insight in the consequences of the first work migration in the first decades of the 20th century. The song prpbably dates, as said before, around 1915-1920.
If you want to hear this blues, you can download it on Wikimedia; it is labeled "public domain".
Patton's style :)
I keep on rollin', I keep on rollin', I roll jist like a slave
I keep on rollin, I roll jist like a slave,
Well, I s'pose I hafta roll till I'm six feet in my grave.
I werk fo' da man, I rool till da sun go down,
Roll fo da man, I werk till da sun go down,
En when I come back home at nite ma woman's drunk en clown.
She says "please, papa, wud you please jist roll fo me
Please papa, I want you to please jist roll a lil bit fo' me"
Well, i got a no good woman, she's jist as drunk as she can be.
That's why I say dis
It ain't no use in rollin', no use in buyin' her no di'mon' rin'
No, it ain't no use in rollin', no use in buyin' her no di'mon' rin'
Cause any woman you can git she won't give you back no doggone thin'.