Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cool Drink of Water

SONG: Cool Drink of Water
BY: Tommy Johnson
PERFORMED BY: Tommy Johnson

APPEARS ON: Tommy Johnson: Complete Recorded Works 1928-1929 (Document); Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder)

If someone wanted to create a fictional blues legend, it would be hard to improve on the real life legend of Tommy Johnson—the “other” & lesser-known blues playing Johnson from the Delta region. In fact, Tommy Johnson shares much with Robert Johnson (the two were not related); in both cases, there’s was a story circulating that each had sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to master the blues—however, while we don’t know for sure whether Robert Johnson was behind this story about himself, we do know that Tommy Johnson played an active role in telling how he had come to mastery of the blues. Both were exceptional guitar players & singers—Tommy Johnson was known to play the guitar behind his back, behind his head, & toss the guitar in the air mid-song—all this happening roughly 40 years before the heyday of Jimi Hendrix; of course, Charlie Patton, who was Tommy Johnson’s contemporary, also engaged in this sort of showmanship. The most important thing is that—showmanship aside—Johnson could really play.

His voice was also remarkable. For my money, he had the most compelling falsetto in old-time blues—a sound that brings to mind the great “high lonesome” voices of Appalachian music, but in a much different setting. The effect is similar, however—that tingling sense of existential despair that rings true whether it’s sung by a white banjoist from the mountains—Roscoe Holcomb, for instance—or the African-American man from the Mississippi Delta.

Johnson’s lyrics are often quite interesting in themselves, even above his ability to put them across vocally, & you could make an argument for today’s song, “Cool Drink of Water” having perhaps his most compelling lyrics. A song of betrayal & displacement that leaves a lot of gaps for the imagination, it begins with the enigmatic & chilling statement “I asked for water, & she gave me gasoline.” The song goes on to describe how the singer is trying to get back home by “riding the blinds.” For those who don’t know, this meant catching a (free) ride on a train by riding on the front platform of a passenger car’s baggage car. The fact that baggage was piled up against the door meant that the seat was relatively secure, because the door wouldn’t be opened. Still, the rider was vulnerable to a shower of water or hot coals if the fireman decided to dislodge him—you can read about this & other ways to catch a train hobo-style here on the Hobohemia page. The fact is that while riding the blinds was safer than riding the top or riding the rods, there is no way to ride with much real safety on the outside of a fast-moving train!

Johnson only recorded 16 songs—a real shame, because he never recorded after 1929, tho he lived until 1956. Apparently, he believed (erroneously of course) that he had signed away his right to record. Sadly, he was also a severe alcoholic. He wrote the song “Canned Heat” about drinking Sterno, & there is every reason to believe this is autobiographical.

The sound quality on Johnson’s recordings isn’t what we might wish, but the power of his playing & singing does come thru. Oh yes, & that is mandolin you hear in the background, played by Charlie McCoy; the mandolin is a much under-rated blues instrument!

Rory Block also does a fine cover of this on her great Gone Woman Blues album; Block’s voice has a spectacular range & she’s really able to do justice to Johnson’s music. Of course her amazing guitar playing helps too! She does change the line “this train ain’t none of mine” to “this train don’t run no more”—unfortunately, an appropriate revision in the contemporary U.S.

Hope you enjoy the song.

Cool Drink of Water

I asked for water, and she gave me gasoline
I asked for water, she gave me gasoline
I asked for water and she gave me gasoline
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Lord, Lordy, Lord

I went to the depot, looked up on the board
I looked all over, "How long has this east bound train been gone?
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Lord, I asked the conductor, "Could I ride these blinds?"
(Want to know, can a broke man ride the blinds)
"Son, buy your ticket, buy your ticket, 'cause this train ain't none of mine"

"Son, buy your ticket, train ain't none of mine"
"Son, buy your ticket, 'cause this train ain't none of mine"
Lord, Lordy, Lord
"Train ain't none of mine"



  1. How about that mandolin backing him up? This one is terrific!

  2. Hi K: If you like blues mandolin, you have to check out this video!