Monday, March 21, 2011

Trouble: Trouble in Mind

Big Bill Broonzy: Trouble in Mind


Jimmy Witherspoon: Trouble in Mind


James Blood Ulmer: Trouble in Mind


Trouble in Mind is a primal blues song. I don’t know if anyone knows how old it is. From the lyrics, it could be as old as the railroads, but the versions heard here each present a slightly different set of lyrics. So maybe the railroad reference is a late addition and maybe the song is even older. This is the kind of song that invites such wild speculation, because it speaks of an emotion that goes back forever. Trouble in Mind is the perfect expression of despair. Even the lyric that says, “the sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day,” sounds more like a desperate wish than a statement of faith. Big Bill Bronzy, Jimmy Witherspoon, and James Blood Ulmer are three artists who get that. They understand that Trouble in Mind should be sung and played as a cry from the bottom of a man’s spirit. And yet, these three performances are completely different. Big Bill Broonzy sobs his way through the song. His guitar playing appears and disappears, like a stuttering cry, but he never loses the beat or the shape of the song. Jimmy Witherspoon works within the tight structure of a jazz ballad, but his emotional expression is just as powerful. Gerry Mulligan’s sax part seems to be trying to comfort him and offer support, but Witherspoon is unable to accept this, his narrator is beyond help. Ulmer’s version seems to say that this despair is so deep that it comes from another world. I’ve never heard blues sitar before, but, in Ulmer’s arrangement, it makes perfect sense. His vocal is strangely calm, as if he is all cried out but really no happier.

Trouble In Mind is a blues classic which has also crossed over, not only into jazz, but also into country and western swing. There are many ways to make the song work, and there are also some versions that don’t work. But the ones I have chosen are, I think, a fair sampling.

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