We concluded part one with the recording of "Bottle It Up And Go", one of McClennan's most enduring numbers. McClennan's first session was probably his strongest and as Neil Slaven notes "there's a subtle diminution of commitment as the five sessions progress, as though alcohol had begun to erode his skills." His first session is littered with references to Mississippi and Chicago and he's clearly aware of the importance of recording in Chicago as the spoken aside in his first number, "You Can Mistreat Me Here", attest: "Take your time and play it right, f' you're in Chicago." His most evocative number in this regard is "Cotton Patch Blues" as he sings about the woman he left behind in Mississippi:
I left my baby in Mississippi, pickin' cotton down on her knees (2x)
She says, If you get to Chicago all right, please right me a letter if you please
I said "baby, that's all right, baby that's all right for you (2x)
You'll just keep pickin' cotton right there, oh babe, until I get through
Baby, when I get to Chicago, I do swear I'm sure gonna take a change (2x)
If I don't never get back to Mississippi, I'm sure gonna change your name
"Brown Skin Girl" is another number filled with striking imagery delivered with plenty of conviction:
Now I got a brownskin girl, with her front tooth crowned with gold (2x)
Spoken: take your and make this one right because it's the best one you got
She got a lien on my body and a mortgage on my soul
Now friend don't ever let your good girl fix you like this woman got me (2x)
Spoken: how she got you then?
Got me stone crazy about her, as a doggone fool can be
Now I ain't going to tell nobody, baby about the way you do (2x)
Say you always keep some fat mouth following you
McClennan also turns in several songs associated with other singers including his take on "Sweet Home Chicago", titled "Baby, Don't You Want to Go", an updated version of Bukka White's 1937 hit titled "New Shake 'em on Down" and rips through a ferocious reading of of Sonny Boy I's "Whiskey Headed Blues" titled "Whiskey Headed Woman." Given the erratic nature of McCLennan's style the session may well have been a difficult one as perhaps the spoken introduction to the session's final song, "Baby, Please Don't Tell On Me", indicates: "Now get out this here. This is the last one you got now. When you play these blues, you ain't got to play no more. Let's get on like you like it. These your own blues you makin' now. Y'know this is what your wife likes, yeah …You don't need to hurry now, just take your time and play it right cos you ain't got to play 'nother'n after this."
The following year McCLennan was brought back for two session, one on May 10, 1940 and the following on December 12th. The earlier session features a bassist, probably Ransom Knowling or Alfred Elkins, who seems to have flummoxed McClennan as he exhorts him twice on "My Baby's Gone" to "take your time and play it right man." The ideas seem less fresh on these sessions, particularly the second, with a series of remakes such as Curtis Jones' "New Highway No. 51", "Whiskey Headed Man", Sonny Boy I's "New Sugar Mama"and Sleepy John Estes' "Drop Down Mama." To be fair McClennan's "New Highway No. 51" is a nice reworking, featuring the evocative line: "Now yon come that Greyhound, with it's tongue sticking out on the side." One of the better songs from these sessions is the humorous "She's Just Good Huggin' Size":
Lord, I try to give that little woman, everything that she tells me she need (2x)
But she would hold her a conversation with every lowdown dirty man she meet
That little woman she won't wash now now she won't even iron my clothes (2x)
Spoken: Lord have mercy now!
She won't do nothing I tell her but keep them big feets in the road
McCLennan was brought back for two more eight-song sessions; one on September 15, 1940 and his last on February 20, 1942. The 1941 session produced one of McCLennan's most enduring recordings, "Cross Cut Saw Blues", although according to Honeyboy Edwards he got the song from Hacksaw Harney. "Deep Blue Sea Blues" was a version of his buddy Robert Petway's "Catfish Blues" which he had cut just a few months prior while "Travelin' Highway Man" is a thinly veiled reworking of his earlier "New Highway No. 51." On his final session he shares studio time with Petway who recorded immediately after McClennan. The two can be heard together on the rousing juke joint blues of "Boogie Woogie Woman" with Alfred Elkins plunking away on bass for an exhilarating performance. For McCLennan's final session he found some more melodic material such as "Roll Me, Baby" and the catchy "I Love My Baby." "Shake It Up and Go" harks back to "Bottle It Up And Go" but with less fire while "Bluebird Blues" is a nice reading of Sonny Boy I's famous number.
|L to R: Elmore James, Sonny Boy, Tommy McClennan, Little Walter|
McClennan remained in Chicago and seemed to follow the path of Tommy Johnson, a slave to alcohol who lived long after he recorded but never stepped into a studio again. Honeyboy remembers seeing McClennan singing at Turner's on 40th and Indiana during the late 40's: "He played a little bit and he sang, but he didn't play too long 'fore he just …Tommy just dranked so much he just, he couldn't…" Honeyboy encountered his old friend one more time: "One day in 1962 I was down around Twenty-Second street and Clark at a big junkyard. …I went with some boys to sell some scrap iron and who do I see there but Tommy McClennan! Tommy was living out there in a truck trailer made into kind of a house. " Honeyboy tried to look after him but "he studied drinking all the time. …He asked me to take him back to that [hobo] Jungle. I carried him back down there. …Later on I heard he had taken sick, that he was in the hospital. …Tommy died in that hospital in 1962. …That alcohol was what Tommy was living for, but it ate him plumb up." Big Joe Williams took Mike Bloomfield to see McClennan and he recalled "he was just like a skeleton but his eyes were like hot coals burning at you. And his music was like that, too – it had a savage, searing sound. He was a fierce man."
McClennan has been well served on record with all his recordings appearing on RCA's excellent 2-CD set Bluebird Recordings 1939-1942, which may be out of print, and also available on two individual Document CD's, Tommy McClennan, Vol. 1: Whiskey Head Woman and Tommy McClennan, Vol. 2: Cross Cut Saw. Single disc collections appear on EPM and Acrobat.
Cotton Patch Blues (MP3)
Whiskey Head Woman (MP3)
Cross Cut Saw Blues (MP3)
I Love My Baby (MP3)
Boogie Woogie Woman (MP3)