Hate to See You Go
A thread on the forums asked for five blues songs, and I made a quick list of songs that had all in their various ways once changed my entire perspective about music, and one of them was Little Walter's "Hate to See You Go." What this song means to me is a long story full of old ghosts, and it has to do with the side of my stepfather that was warm and passionate and giving and beautiful, and I'll tell it some other time. The shorter story I have to tell right now is about small hard choices.
Upon typing "Hate to See You Go" into my list I immediately wondered why I no longer owned a copy of it. The LP from which I learned the song had belonged to my stepfather; it was a gorgeous slap of Chess wax in a glossy sleeve, possibly an import copy from when blues records were a hot property overseas. That LP is somewhere in Caliofrnia, lost to time. iTunes, though, who I swear does not pay me to mention how often I avail myself of their services, is available via the dock at the bottom of my screen, and within a few seconds I found that I could buy the song and hear it for the first time in many years. Which is exactly what I did.
It sounded better, clearer than it had through the extremely cheap stereo we had in our living room when I was a child. (It seems that the bigger version of this story wants to bleed through to the surface here, but I am here serving notice that I see what it's up to and I am holding down the fort.) Some distortion that I'd thought part of the product turned out to be absent from the song. But the performance was the same one, no question about it, and the song's structure was very atypical blues: varying verse lengths that ended with variably repeating lines (here five repeats, here three), no real chorus, a rather quicker walk through the progression than you'd get from Jimmy Reed or John Lee Hooker. Super-distorted harp a la the great Howlin' Wolf sides. I loved it as much tonight as I did when the blues ripped the sky clean open for me back in junior high, sitting in my room listening to an old blues LP my stepfather'd probably bought in Chicago in 1968. And then I noticed something about the lyric: I have no idea what Little Walter is saying at the end of the first verse.
I had never known. It may be that distortion originating from our living room stereo is to blame, having affected the way I heard it back so as to frame Little Walter's delivery in such a way that my ear is now incapable of correctly processing it. It may be that the phrase itself is quite unusual, or it may be that Little Walter's pronunciation is unfamiliar. I don't know. I ran a Google search, and results came up, and I was about to click on one of them, but then a funny thing happened inside me. I discovered that I didn't want to know what the lyric was at the end of the first verse.
He says what he says five times, and it sounds like he's following an internal formal rule, though as far as I can tell he actually isn't. It comes on the heels of "Gone and left me/left me here to cry/know I love her," and then...well, it sounds like "know she mine as I," or "know she's maunizigh," or "no sheep martyr's eye." As I say, it's possible - probable, even - that I'm just lisetning wrong. For a second here, tonight, I thought maybe it was "know she moan and sigh," but no such luck. Certainly Little Walter's diction isn't otherwise unclear; no other lines in the song, nor elsewhere in his catalog that I know of, would give a transcriber any trouble. But this one line had originally arrived in my brain as a cipher, one to which I lacked the key, and the song then took power from this one moment of received obscurity: this one moment which, and this is the kicker for me, repeats itself some five times before vanishing into the distance. Part of the mystery of the song's feel for me would die if I learned what Little Walter was saying.
I suppose if I wrote certain kinds of think-pieces, I'd spell out some kind of moral here, or arrive at my point, and I won't deny that both the origins of this sort of thinking (Catholicism) and its immediate potential applications (record collecting) are clear to me. But it also feels as though there's something at play that's less transparent, less obvious than all that. It's not just "mystery is good"; it's not just "preserve your memories"; it's something about how refusing to understand something may carry its own sort of understanding, though I hope it runs a little deeper than that, too. But I don't know. I just came here to drink tea, listen to a song, and go to bed, and I am all out of tea. Good night.
TrackBack URL for this entry: