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!