Song Lyric Sunday — Cream — Rollin and Tumblin

While most weeks Song Lyric Sunday prompts are multiple words connected to a theme, this week our host, Jim Adams, has chosen one word: Harmonica. Well, my friends, you would not believe how many songs feature a harmonica. I decided that I didn’t want to focus on blues, a genre in which harmonicas are ubiquitous.

The blues spawned many other musical genres, including rock ‘n’ roll. My introduction to blues in the late 1960s was through two blues-rock bands, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Both bands featured their leaders’ harmonicas. Butterfield’s frenetic Chicago-blues style was well-suited to the fusion of blues and electric-guitar-based rock. Mayall’s style, equally energetic, was more a fusion of blues and jazz. I was researching both bands, listening to some great music, when, as usual, I took a detour down a somewhat surprising path.

Did you know that U.K. rock supergroup Cream recorded a couple of blues songs featuring harmonica? Yes, indeedy. Turns out bassist and singer Jack Bruce plays a mean blues harp, which he demonstrated on “Rollin and Tumblin” from their 1966-67 (U.K.-U.S.) debut album, “Fresh Cream.” Although some sources give Bruce writing credit for Cream’s version, most sources cite either Hambone Willie Newbern or Muddy Waters, or both. Cream credits Newbern, who recorded “Roll and Tumble Blues” in 1929. (edited to add: The true origin of “Rollin and Tumblin” may be unknown. Newbern? Waters? Robert Johnson? Noah Lewis? traditional? See comments section for my discussion with John Holton.)

Cream’s version is the only one featuring harmonica. Otherwise, the music is the same as on recordings by Newbern or Waters but with slightly differing tempos and interpretations. While all lyrics are based on Newbern’s, both Bruce and Waters each made additions and/or changes to their respective versions. In my opinion, that means Bruce and Waters could share credit with Newbern on their recordings. You can find both Newbern’s original lyrics as well as Waters’ additional lyrics here, and Bruce’s here.  Listen to (and/or watch) all three below. Newbern’s and Waters’ are the original recordings; Cream’s is video from their 2005 gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall. You know I love live recordings. Enjoy!



6 thoughts on “Song Lyric Sunday — Cream — Rollin and Tumblin

  1. I have to laugh: you mention in the first paragraph that you didn’t want to foicus on blues, and yet you pick a classic blues tune (written by Robert Johnson, who inspired many of the original Chicago bluesmen).


    Most of the original British Invasion bands cut their teeth on Chicago-style blues. The Rolling Stones and the original Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green on guitar) went so far as to record at the studios of Chess Records, the label on which most of the blues players recorded. Cream didn’t record in Chicago, but they’re heavily rooted in blues and Eric Clapton is considered one of the best artists in the genre. Jack Bruce was an outstanding musician who was a tremendous bass player and, as you say here, played a mean harmonica. You made an excellent choice!

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  2. Although I knew Cream was, as you say, “heavily rooted in blues,” I had thought it was only because of Clapton’s influence. Didn’t realize that Bruce and Baker had been original members of another blues-based U.K. group, The Graham Bond Organization, or that Bruce and Clapton had overlapped as members of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. As for Robert Johnson, in all my research, he was mentioned as being one of many, many artists who recorded either “Rollin and Tumblin” or a song based on it. Johnson’s was “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” in 1936. (Clapton also cites him as a strong influence.)

    P.s.: In recreating all my research to respond to you, I ended up digging deeper. Apparently, before Newbern recorded “Rollin and Tumblin,” “Minglewood Blues” was recorded (1928) by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, and that melody was the basis for Newbern’s song. Noah Lewis is usually credited as Minglewood’s writer. To further complicate matters, research on both songs indicates that they are traditional songs, songwriter unknown. Regardless, “Rollin and Tumblin” in all its iterations is certainly more well-known and influential.


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