The evolution of a song-
A good song can withstand the test of time. When I think of timeless music the first artists that come to mind are the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and composers like Bach and Beethoven. This music is accessible across generations and sometimes sounds as modern as a current release. American songbook standards are another great example of timeless music. These pop songs of their time are reimagined repeatedly and turned into new musical creations constantly.
While recently digging into some blues music I came across a song that has withstood the test of time through seemingly derivative approaches. I first heard this song while listening to Blake Mills’ album Heigh Ho. If you are unfamiliar with Blake Mills: open a new tab immediately and listen to his album. Incredible stuff. I learned his song “If I’m Unworthy” in all of its drop C# tuning goodness one afternoon a few months ago. I assumed it was a cool song, learned some nice drop tuning and finger style lines, and moved on. A couple months later I was recommended the Derek Truck’s album Out of the Madness by a fellow guitarist (another great album, give it a listen). As soon as “Forty Four” came on my ears perked up. I knew this song. This was “If I’m Unworthy” but with different words. At first I thought that Blake Mills might have “stolen” this guitar line but with some slight research realized that Mills is a huge Derek Trucks fan and was paying homage to one of his heroes with this song. Further research showed that Derek trucks song was really an old Howlin’ Wolf song which was really and old Roosevelt Sykes boogie-woogie/honkeytonk piano song. This is a blues standard and has more history than these four recordings but these four certainly stick out. Hearing the evolution of this song only makes me appreciate the Blake Mills version more. Now lets look at each version a bit.
Roosevelt Sykes- 44 Blues (1929)
The original version of this song starts with a riffy rubato piano and vocal line that doesn’t resemble “If I’m Unworthy” in the slightest. At 1:22 a familiar bass line enters. This bass line is essentially an interlude between verses in Sykes’ recording but will become the main theme of the later versions.
Howlin’ Wolf- Forty Four (1954)
In this version we jump straight into the bass line that acted as an interlude in the previous version. Complete with new lyrics and a distinct Chicago blues sound this version is quite different than the original. Another notable aspect of this recording is the shuffle feel in the drums compared to the straight feel in the original.
Derek Trucks Band- Forty Four (1998)
I hear this recording as a slightly modernized cover of the Howlin Wolf version. Truck’s crunchy slide guitar tone (are those gold foils?) is obviously a huge influence on “If I’m Unworthy.” This is a great recording and the whole album is a must listen.
Blake Mills- If I’m Unworthy (2014)
The first thing that strikes me when hearing “If I’m Unworthy” is combining the drum groove, bass line, and harmony into one guitar. This refinement and Mills’ expressive playing is more than moving to listen to. There is a brand new melody and lyrical content though the feel of the song remains. There are quite a few great live recordings of this song online but I chose this video so you could hear the studio version first.
A good song is a good song is a good song is a good song. All four versions are worth repeated listens and each speaks to the next and back to the prior.