Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Ninety-Nine Year Blues" - Julius Daniels

Set Three: Songs; Disc Two; Track Four: "Ninety-Nine Year Blues" performed by Julius Daniels. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Atlanta on February 19, 1927. Original issue Victor 20658B.

Little is known about Julius Daniels. He was born on November 20, 1901 in Denmark, South Carolina. Nothing is known of his early life or how he got involved in music. He is considered one of the pioneers of what later became known as the "Piedmont blues," a style of blues playing indigenous to the Southern states on the East Coast (ranging from Richmond, Virginia to Atlanta Georgia). It gets its name from the Piedmont Plateau, a geographical region that covers the Appalachian Mountains between New Jersey and Alabama. The Piedmont blues is characterized by a unique style of fingerpicking. As described on Wikipedia:

[T]he Piedmont characterized by a fingerpicking approach in which a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern supports a syncopated melody using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger, occasionally others. The result is comparable in sound to piano ragtime or later stride.

The term "Piedmont blues" was coined by folklorist and record producers Peter B. Lowry and Bruce Bastin. Other notable Piedmont blues artists include Blind Willie McTell, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Pink Anderson (after whom the band Pink Floyd was named), Blind Blake, Scrapper Blackwell, Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, Bo Weevil Jackson, and Josh White, among others.

Julius Daniels recorded only a few sides during his short musical career. In 1930, he relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina where he spent the rest of his life. Among the jobs he worked in his later years, Daniels was a firefighter. He died on October 8, 1947 of unknown causes.

"Ninety-Nine Year Blues" tells the story of an unfortunate young man's experiences within the United States judicial system.

Ah, bring me my pistol, three rounds of ball.
Gonna kill everybody whipped the po' boy 'long.
Po' boy 'long, po' boy 'long, po' boy 'long.

On a Monday I was arrested, on a Tuesday I was tried.
Judge found me guilty and I hung my head and cried.
Lord and cried, Lord and cried, Lord and cried, Lord and cried.

"Judge, what'll be my fine?"
Says, "A pick and a shovel way down Joe Brown's coal mine."
Coal mine, coal mine, coal mine, coal mine, coal mine.

"Be light on me, judge, I ain't been here before."
"Give you ninety-nine years, don't come back here no more."
No more, no more, no more, no more, my Lord.

"Be light on me, judge, ain't been here before."
"Give you ninety-nine years, don't come back here no more."
No more, no more, my Lord.

A beautifully performed blues song, "Ninety-Nine Year Blues" is the third song in a row to deal with the theme of the prison. Of the three, it is the first to make crime and punishment the whole story of the song. It is a simple story: The speaker begins the song by describing a vengeance-fueled killing spree. Brought before the judge, the speaker is sentenced to ninety-nine years of hard labor in a coal mine. What makes this recording remarkable is not the story itself, but how the story is told: The beautifully complex fingerpicking (reminiscent of Mississippi John Hurt's version of "Frankie") and the gentle, almost conversational, manner in which Daniels sings the song.

In his notes, Smith points out several other song that deal "with the same images" as "Ninety-Nine Year Blues." Among them are Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" and Booker White's "Parchman Farm Blues," both of which appear on the "lost" fourth volume of the Anthology.

Smith also points out that Gus Cannon's song "Viola Lee Blues" (later covered by the Grateful Dead) has "some lines in common" with "Ninety-Nine Year Blues." Today, "Ninety-Nine Year Blues" is viewed as a possible source for "Viola Lee Blues."

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Here's a version of "Ninety-Nine Year Blues" performed by a group calling themselves Vegetablemen.

Download and listen to Julius Daniels - "Ninety-Nine Year Blues"

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