Tommy McClennan The Complete Recordings Vol. 1 (1939-1940)
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Tommy McClennan – The Complete Recordings Vol. 1 (1939-1940)
Tommy McLennan, vocal, guitar.
Genres; “Country” Blues, Mississippi Blues.
Informative booklet notes by Keith Briggs.
Tommy McClennan would work in the cotton fields by day and in the evenings he would play on the streets of Greenwood, MS. Later he worked in juke joints and for dance parties, playing both the guitar and the piano. McClennan was a small man, standing just 4 feet 10, but this in no way negated the powerful voice that he possessed. His guitar playing is typical of the Mississippi style; simple, dominant, solid rhythms from the bass end with dashes of spikey treble riffs interjected between the vocal choruses. His voice was rough, hoarse and loud. Loud enough to be heard over the hubbub in a Mississippi juke joint on a Saturday night. Honey Boy Edwards tells of Tommy’s habit of standing in front of a mirror talking to himself. It was a trick he carried forward into his act; as he sang a number he would supply a second voice to offer himself advice, admonitions and praise, sometimes laughing as if he recognised the absurdity of what he was doing. He sounded ferocious, unstable, big and mean. However throughout his life McClennan was an ill man, suffering from tuberculosis, and an addiction to alcohol.
Tommy McClennan cut the first of his five sessions for Bluebird in Chicago in the November of 1939. The first three of these sessions are featured on this Document Records CD. Just how his recording debut came about is not really clear. Big Bill Broonzy, whose memories are sometimes sufficiently exact as to become suspect, claims that Lester Melrose, the liaison-man between Bluebird/ Victor and Black Chicago, located Tommy during a disastrous talent searching trip down South that satisfied Melrose, a Yankee, that he didn’t need to do it again and resulted in the more discreet Big Bill taking over that particular chore. Whether Melrose went looking specifically for McClennan, directed by Big Bill as some maintain, or came across him by accident, the case preferred by David Edwards, we don’t know.
At this session Tommy cut eight tracks which proved successful enough to earn him a return date the following March. He included what were to be some of his best known numbers, Bottle Up And Go, a New Shake ‘Em On Down that was probably a response to Bukka White’s recording of two years earlier, and Whiskey Head Woman, the last making a big enough impression for Bluebird to request a follow-up.
The story of Tommy, despite advice from Big Bill, refusing to excise the word ‘nigger’ from a rendition of ‘Bottle Up And Go’ given at a Chicago party, and ending up making his exit through a window with the remains of his guitar still around his neck, may be apocryphal but demands to be retold. It certainly fits in with the behaviour expected of the Banty-like character described by Honeyboy Edwards.