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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Saturday, September 12, 2009


Well, he would be if he were still alive. When I wrote the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia I believed he'd been born in 1883, but Eric LeBlanc, a scrupulous authority on births and deaths dates of blues (and other) musicians, now says that it was 1884. Cannon didn't get his own entry in my book, but he certainly featured in the entry blues, inequality of reward in:

Then there are the salutary cases of the innovative Noah Lewis and of Gus Cannon, another towering Memphis figure. When Bob Dylan chose to open his performance at the 1996 Aarhus Festival, Denmark, with an approximation of the GRATEFUL DEAD’s ‘New New Minglewood Blues’, he’s likely to have chosen it not because it’s a Dead song but because it isn’t: because, rather, it’s based on ‘New Minglewood Blues’ by Noah Lewis’s Jug Band from 1930, itself a re-modelling of ‘Minglewood Blues’ by Cannon’s Jug Stompers (comprising, in this instance, Gus Cannon, Ashley Thompson and Noah Lewis) from 1928. The Dead’s recording may well have reminded Dylan of the song, but there’s no reason to suppose that he hadn’t been familiar with the original Noah Lewis’s Jug Band recording, since this had been vinyl-reissued in the early 1960s.

The key figure here, then, is the pioneering and splendid harmonica-player Noah Lewis, whose work set new expressive standards in the pre-war period (and who is credited as the composer of ‘Minglewood Blues’ as well as of ‘New Minglewood Blues’: the two may share a tune but are otherwise dissimilar songs - different in lyrics, pace and mood). Lewis was long thought to have been murdered in 1937, but Swedish researcher Bent Olsson discovered that in fact he had retired to Ripley, Tennessee in the ’30s, where in his old age he got frostbite, had both legs amputated and in the process got blood-poisoning, from which he died in the winter of early 1961.

Cannon was by far the better-known figure by the time Bob Dylan reached Greenwich Village. He was one of the featured artists on both HARRY SMITH’s 1952 anthology
American Folk Music and on the next crucial release of the period, SAM CHARTERS’ 1959 compilation Country Blues. Cannon’s track on the former, indeed, was ‘Minglewood Blues’ while on the latter was his 1929 cut ‘Walk Right In’, which was taken up by the Rooftop Singers, who topped the US charts with a single of the song, complete with beefy 12-string guitar sound, in 1963.

Cannon’s own career was first ‘revived’ in 1956 when he was recorded, for the first time since 1930, by Folkways. They let him cut two tracks. Then in 1963, in the wake of the Rooftop Singers’ success, Cannon cut an album issued by Stax (!) which featured ‘Walk Right In’ plus standards like ‘Salty Dog’, ‘Boll-Weevil’ and ‘Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor’. He also made appearances at the Newport Folk Festival. He survived to the age of 96, living long enough to still be around in Memphis at the time of Elvis Presley’s funeral there in 1977.

Despite his eminence and his ‘rediscovery’, Gus Cannon too suffered neglect, poverty and lack of respect. His situation is described eloquently by Jim Dickinson, the Memphis session-player who features on Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind album twenty years after Cannon’s death:
‘In the summer of 1960, a friend and I followed the trail that Charters left to Gus Cannon… He was the yardman for an anthropology professor. Gus had told this family that he used to make records and he had been on RCA and they’d say, “Yeah Gus, sure: cut the grass.” … He lived on the property, back over a garage, and he took us up into his room, and on the wall he had a certificate for sales from ‘Walk Right In’, for which of course he didn’t get any money. And he had a copy of the record that Charters had made for Folkways, but he had no record-player. That was a real good introduction to the blues.’

One of Jim Dickinson's famously great wealth of stories. (There's a posting about Dickinson's death a few entries below this.)


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