Friday, October 12, 2007

Dust My Broom - The Story Behind the Song

Trying to recall where you first heard the quintessential electric blues riff that opens ‘Dust My Broom’ is difficult. It may have been the early 50’s version by Elmore James or Fleetwood Mac’s late sixties offering. Some may recall an unknown blues band at a club they visited in their youth, a few know that it’s true origins are in the 1930’s with Robert Johnson, or is it?

In early December 1933 Roosevelt Sykes accompanied Carl Rafferty, a man about who we know absolutely nothing, on Mr Carl’s Blues. What we do know is this session was significant in the history of the Blues. Mr Carl’s Blues contains the immortal lines, I do believe, I do believe I’ll dust my broom. And after I dust my broom, anyone may have my room. Many years later, as historian’s dissected Robert Johnson’s songs to understand his influences, it was generally assumed that he based I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom on Kokomo Arnold’s Sagefield Woman Blues. Although the latter has words similar to Mr. Carl’s Blues but was recorded some ten months after Rafferty’s effort. In truth we may never know who ‘did it first’, but recorded evidence points to Mr Carl Rafferty accompanied by Mr. Roosevelt Sykes. Back then performers swapped songs, heard others perform and lifted what ranged from bits of a song to the complete thing. The blues being an oral tradition meant that this happened as a natural process.

Recordings of blues songs are our historical markers that signify when something was done first, but it doesn’t mean the performer who recorded it was the originator of a song, all it proves was that they got into the studio first – as often as not that was a matter of luck as record companies went to towns across the southern States looking for performers to record.

Several schools of thought exist as to the meaning of Dust My Broom. It could concern cleaning a rented room before you leave, shades of the itinerant musician or it is simply a sexual reference. Son Thomas the singer said, “ It was an old field holler to tell everyone, except the people the hollerer didn't want to tell, that he was running away.”

In 1951 Elmore James recorded what for many is the definitive version of the song. Lillian McMurry, an independent record producer, heard Elmore and wanted to record him, but Elmore was very shy of the studio. They convinced him that he was rehearsing and did not tell him that they were recording ‘Dust My Broom’. It was released on a Trumpet 146 with Elmore, billed as Elmo James, on one side and Bo Bo Thomas singing Catfish Blues on the other. The record made No.9 in the R&B charts in April 1952. In 1955 James re-recorded ‘Dust My Broom’ as ‘Dust My Blues’ with minor lyrics changes and a re-arrangement of the verses. Credited to Johnson, arranged Elmore James & Bihari (Bihari is one of the two brothers that owned the Modern label. James recorded for Modern’s subsidiaries, Flair and Meteor).

In 1968 the original Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green recorded their version for their album ‘Mr. Wonderful’. It contains further lyric variations. Like many of the later versions that were both recorded and sung live they often mixed up Dust My Broom with Dust My Blues.


r morris said...

Very interesting post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

It is very interesting for me to read this article. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more on that blog soon.

Anonymous said...

Don't stop posting such stories. I love to read blogs like that. BTW add some pics :)

Reuben said...

Thank you for the interesting post. I was just listening to an absolutely great video on YouTube of Howling Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, et al, performing "Dust My Broom" in what looks like a tiny studio, a little room in a radio station, or some similar locale. The musicians are absolutely rocking and a few non-musician attendees at the session can not keep themselves from smiling and dancing. It truly is a great video and I watched it half a dozen times.

Thanks again for the post.



Alex said...

May be the word "dust" means use, love or get down to?? Would make sense...

Dr. Reality said...

I like the Son Thomas explanation of the phrase being a slave field holler, which could have evolved to a broader meaning of leaving a woman behind. Certainly the phrase "dust my broom" suggests a finality -- once you dust your broom, you're definitely done cleaning or whatever it is you want to be done with.

funkydoowopper said...

Hmmm. A literal meaning, e.g. I'm cleaning my room for the next guy just seems unlikely. A sexual reference, ditto. The simple interpretation, seems to me, is I'm moving on. Deeper meaning might be 'and I'm leaving all traces of me behind". Like Dr Reality says, it suggest a finality. Either way it's a great blues song.

Ms. Azizi Powell said...

Thanks for posting information about this classic Blues song. And thanks also to those who added comments about the meaning of the phrase "dust my broom".

I added a link to your post in this post that I published about this song on my cultural blog:

That post features sound files or videos of Robert Johnson and six other Blues artists.

Thanks again!