21. A Song about the Blues
‘Black Eyed Dog’ – Nick Drake
I’ve often been struck by how infrequently Nick Drake’s songs draw on the blues. Or to put it another way, the extent to which he manages, as a guitarist, to forge an idiom which doesn’t have blues at its base. It’s much more prominent in, say, Bert Jansch – if not in the song structures then in the chord phrasing – or in Davy Graham, who is upfront about its influence in the album title Folk, Blues and Beyond. But, although it’s kept in check, the influence is there in Drake too, and it’s at its most prominent, and most effective, in the late, stark Black Eyed Dog.
The vocal line, for example, comes out of the blues scale, delivered in a high-register head voice that seems to be a take on Robert Johnson, rather than Drake’s signature, almost-spoken mid-range. The title image is probably from Johnson too – a version of his Hellhound on my Trail, recast as the embodiment of Drake’s depression. Even that refrain – “I’m growing old” – is likely a lift from an earlier blues song, probably Furry Lewis’s Farewell, I’m Growing Old. (It’s also a line in Bessie Smith’s wonderful Reckless Blues, though not such a likely point of reference as Lewis.)
Running counter to this, however, the guitar stays in the major scale almost throughout. The second, answering line – the simplicity with which it resolves via the leading-note – belongs to a branch of 70s English pastoral folk which makes it not a million miles from the Bagpuss theme. But the playing is fidgety, the dead-string beats close in round the theme – the sound of stress, of compulsive tapping turned into a rhythm track. There’s a clang halfway through where a mis-fretted note results in the low open G ringing out by mistake. I like this. It seems Drake did too – an alternative take, without the slip, is floating round the internet, but the take which he chose to add vocals to is the imperfect one. This is a bleak, authentic blues; somehow the tidiness and precision of Drake’s earlier work is less appropriate here.
Jas Olbrecht has a story about Robert Johnson, about once when he was playing in St Louis in the 30s, as remembered by a guitarist who had joined him for the performance:
He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realised they were crying — both women and men.
Of all Nick Drake’s recordings, the blues of Black Eyed Dog is the one most fit to bear Johnson’s legacy.
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