Posts Tagged ‘John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson’

‘I Am A Schoolboy, Too . . .’

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

It’s the day after Labor Day, and here in St. Cloud, as in most of Minnesota – and most of the U.S., I imagine – the school buses roll. Teachers plan lessons and welcome new students. Students scan schedules and consider – sometimes covertly and sometimes not – who’s changed the most over what now seems to have been a brief summer.

And a new nine-month school year starts.

I could go several ways here. I thought about digging into the memory banks for a first-day-of-school story, but I’m not sure there are any left untold. So I went looking for a record about the first day of school. I didn’t find one that specific, but as I scanned the list of records the RealPlayer provided about “school,” I realized that I’ve never written about one of the great songs in the blues catalog.

It first showed up as “Good Morning School Girl” by John Lee Williamson, the first Sonny Boy. He wrote and recorded the song for the Bluebird label in Aurora, Illinois, on May 5, 1937.

From there, the song moved on (with varying punctuation, the addition of the word “little” and mixed use of “schoolgirl” or “school girl”). The first cover version noted at Second Hand Songs – a site that’s not always complete but comes pretty close – is by Leroy Dallas & His Guitar in 1948, followed by Smokey Hogg in 1949 and L.C. Green in 1952. I should perhaps know those names, but I don’t. The version I found by Hogg at YouTube this morning is pretty good.

When we get to 1958, we see some familiar names beginning to pop up: Big Joe Williams, Lightning Hopkins, Rod Stewart, Junior Wells, the Grateful Dead, Jim Kweskin, Taj Mahal, Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, James Cotton and Geoff Muldaur recorded the song through the 1970s.

In 1964, we also find the Yardbirds, but their record is not the same song. Wikipedia explains: “In 1961, Don Level and Bob Love, as the R&B duo ‘Don and Bob,’ recorded a different version of ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ for Argo Records, a Chess subsidiary. Although it uses the phrase ‘good morning little schoolgirl’, the song has different chord changes and lyrics, including references to popular dance styles of the time. The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton later covered this version of ‘Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl’ for their second UK single in 1964.”

My friend Larry, who hangs his hat at the great blog 16 Funky Corners, disputes this in a note below, saying that both the Yardbirds and Don & Bob singles are the Williamson song. It’s close, and I’ll acknowledge inspiration,  but I agree with Wikipedia. They are different songs. The clincher to me is the lack of the “I am a schoolboy, too.”

Muddy Waters recorded the song for his 1964 album Folk Singer, and his version of “Good Morning Little School Girl” is striking for its acoustic approach, rather than Waters’ usual electric arrangement. (That holds true for the entire album, of course, an early version of the “unplugged” phenomenon.)

A few years later, Mississippi Fred McDowell included “Good Morning Little School Girl” on one of my favorite blues albums, his 1969 effort I Do Not Play No Rock ’n’ Roll.

A few covers are listed in the 1980s, and in 1993, another great version of the tune came, unsurprisingly, from Van Morrison, who tackled “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” on his album Too Long In Exile.

(I haven’t decided: Is it creepy or just an adjustment when Waters and Morrison – and likely others who’ve recorded the song – sing “I once was a schoolboy, too,” and make the song’s narrator older than the schoolgirl to whom he’s singing?)

We skip a few more years and a few more covers and move on to 2011, when Rory Block gender-flipped the song’s lyrics for her 2011 album, Shake ’Em on Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell. I love Block’s work, and I think her version is my favorite, challenged by only Morrison’s and McDowell’s itself (acknowledging that there are many, many versions of the song I have not yet heard).