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Canned Heat Blues

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Canned Heat Blues

Canned Heat: Slang term for Sterno, a commercial jellied alcohol used to heat food, typically placed beneath metal pans on a banquet or buffet line. "Canned Heat" referred to any one of a number of concoctions based on alcohol found in shoe polish, cooking fuel, etc. Early Mississippi Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson is said to have drank "canned heat," and wrote his song "Canned Heat Blues" about the nasty stuff.

Canned Heat Blues

Johnson wails his sorrow of alcohol addiction, taken to the extreme of drinking Sterno, strained through bread, in the mistaken belief that somehow made it safe to drink. Sadly, of course, he was wrong, and his later work rapidly deteriorated as his health predictably declined from his excesses.

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Tommy Johnson

 

Tommy Johnson was born in 1896 in Hinds County, MS, on the George Miller plantation. He learned to play the guitar and, by 1914, was supplementing his income by playing at local parties with his brothers Major and LeDell. In 1916 he married and moved to Webb Jennings' Plantation near Drew, close to famous Dockery Plantation. There he met other musicians including Charlie Patton and Willie Brown.

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Dockery Plantation

 

By 1920 he had become an alcoholic and itinerant musician traveling widely around the South, sometimes accompanied by Papa Charlie McCoy. In 1928 he made his first recordings with McCoy for Victor Records. "Canned Heat Blues" was recorded on August 31, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Sterno (Canned Heat)

 

Johnson's first releases hit the area hard, inspiring a raft of up-and-comers that reads like the proverbial who's who list. He cut one more stack of great records for the Paramount label in 1930, largely through the maneuvering of fellow drinking buddy Charley Patton.

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Tommy Johnson - Canned Heat Blues, singel

 

He did not record again, mistakenly believing that he had signed away his right to record. This resulted in a legal settlement with The Mississippi Sheiks who had used Johnson's "Big Road Blues" melody in their successful "Stop and Listen". Johnson was party to the copyright settlement, but was too drunk at the time to understand what he had signed to.

Johnson remained a popular performer in the Jackson area through the 1930s and 1940s. The one-too-many-nights of Sterno and shoe polish buzzes reducing his once prodigious talents to small, sporadic flickerings of former genius. He worked on a medicine show with Ishmon Bracey in the '30s, but mostly seemed to be a mainstay of the juke and small-party dance circuit for the rest of his days. He died of a heart attack after playing at a party in 1956.

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Ishmon Bracey

 

Johnson's music established him as the premier Delta blues vocalist of his day. He played an eerie and intriguing style of sound that ranged from a low growl to a distinct moaning. He was also an accomplished guitarist. No doubt, his legacy influenced scores of Blues musicians after him, and he was one of the greatest, most well-respected original Blues men ever.

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Tommy Johnson

 

Many people would describe "Canned Heat Blues" as Tommy Johnson's masterpiece, and for good reason. This song stands out as a superlative blues wail, full of dread at what he clearly knows he is doing to himself, yet unable to force himself to stop.

The song features the refrain "canned heat, mama, sure, Lord, killing me." The blues-rock group Canned Heat took their name from this song.

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Canned Heat

 

The "selling his soul to the devil" story originated, quite secretly at first, with Tommy before Robert Johnson (no relation) ever picked it up. The story was first told by Tommy's brother, LaDell Johnson, and reported by David Evans in his 1971 biography of Johnson.

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Sterno

 

Tommy Johnson - Canned Heat Blues Lyrics


Cryin', canned, canned heat, mama
Cryin', Dear Lord, killin' me
Cryin', canned heat, mama
Sho', Lord, killin' me
Take alcorub to
Take these canned heat blues

Cryin' mama, mama mama
Know canned heat killin' me
Cryin' mama, mama, mama
Cryin' canned heat is killin' me
Canned heat don't kill me
Cryin', babe I never would die

I woked up a-this mo'nin
With canned heat on my mind
Woke just this mo'nin'
Canned heat was on my mind
Woke up this mo'nin
With the canned heat, Lord
On my mind

Cried, Lord
Lord, I wonder
Canned heat, Lord, killing me
Think alcorub is
Tearing apart my soul
Because brown-skin woman
Don't do the easy roll

I woke up, a-this mo'nin'
Cryin', canned heat 'round my bed
Run in here, somebody
Take these canned heat blues
Run here, somebody
An take these canned heat blue-ooos.

Cryin', mama, mama, mama
Cryin', canned heat killin' me
Plead to my soul, Lord
They gon' kill me dead.

Last Updated (Sunday, 28 July 2013 22:02)

 

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