For a short time, Tommy McClennan had the world of blues in the palm of his hand. Tracked down in rural Mississippi by Bluebird Records, the most prestigious blues label of the day, signed to a recording contract, and brought to Chicago, McClennan escaped the grueling existence of a black farm hand almost effortlessly. In Chicago, he met all the leading blues musicians of the time, including the Chicago blues “Godfathers,” Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red. In just over two years with Bluebird, he recorded 40 songs. Then abruptly McClennan’s alcoholism gained the upper hand. After February of 1942, he never recorded again. Over the next ten years he performed sporadically in clubs and on the streets. Eventually he vanished so completely into Chicago’s poor, black underclass that his death has never been confirmed. The 40 songs he left behind, however, reveal the unique talent of a powerful blues singer.
Little is known about Tommy McClennan’s early life. He was born sometime in April 1908 in Yazoo County, Mississippi, probably on the J.F. Sligh farm, where he was raised. It is assumed that he started playing guitar as a teenager. He performed on the streets of Yazoo City, nine miles from the Sligh farm, in the 1920s. After working the farm all week, he spent weekends in the city, playing pool and suckling the alcoholism that would later ruin his musical career. Before long he was playing with other local musicians. Booker Miller remembered traveling with McClennan in the late 1920s. Mississippi singerguitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards played with McClennan around the town of Greenwood, Mississippi. “He was playing house parties like I was,” Edwards told researcher Pete Welding in an interview quoted in the liner notes of Tommy McClennan: The Bluebird Recordings, “so I was learning under Tommy.” McClennan also played house parties regularly enough in Itta Bena, Mississippi, with Robert Petway that Edwards would later say the two men had the same style.
Sometime in the late 1930s, Big Bill Broonzy, a Mississippi bluesman then based in Chicago, told Lester Melrose about McClennan. Melrose was a white music store owner and music publisher who ran the Chicago offices of RCA Victor’s Bluebird label. Melrose became so enthusiastic about recording McClennan that he made up his mind to drive down to Yazoo City and bring him back to Chicago to record. Before he left, Melrose was warned by Broonzy not to go to the Sligh farm himself looking for the singer. He should stay in Yazoo City and send a local black to the farm to prevent the white owners from thinking that Melrose was trying to make off with one of their farm hands. Once in Mississippi, however, Melrose ignored Broonzy’s advice. When he arrived and asked for McClennan, the riled white owners chased him away in such short order, that he had to flee without his car.
Somehow Melrose managed to get McClennan up to Chicago. The new Bluebird artist was a small man with a compact frame. The one surviving photo of him shows a man dressed in a stylish suit with wide lapels, a striped silk tie, a Panama hat tilted at a jaunty angle, who peers off camera without a trace of emotion. McClennan’s first Bluebird session was held on November 2, 1939. It was just Tommy and his guitar. The session produced stark discordant music that was very much out of character for the label that had produced smooth, accomplished, almost popperformances by musicians like Jr. Gillum, Fats Waller, and Tampa Red.
Later writers seem to have a hard time finding good things to say about Tommy McClennan’s musicianship. In his ground breaking book The Country Blues, Samuel Charters characterized McClennan as “a limited guitar player and his voice was flat and harsh.” Tony Russell, in The Blues—From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, described McClennan’s records as “raucous juke-joint music without much technical subtlety.” But a lack of subtlety has never been a stranger to the blues. In many ways, McClennan’s sloppy, moving music foreshadows the exciting early days of postwar Chicago electric blues, whose guitars are frequently mistuned and whose drummers often cannot hold the beat, but which have an undeniable excitement. McClennan’s primitive instrumental
Born April 8, 1904, near Yazoo City, MS; raised on J.F. Sligh farm; probably died in late 1950s or early 1960s in Chicago.
Began playing guitar as teenager in Mississippi; performed in streets and at house parties in Mississippi in late 1920s and 1930s; brought to Chicago by Lester Melrose to record for Bluebird Records early 1939; had five sessions at Bluebird, on November 22, 1939, May 10, 1940, December 12, 1940, September 15, 1941, and February 20, 1942; performed only sporadically in clubs and on the streets of Chicago afterwards.
technique heightens his primitive energy, his jangly, misshapen guitar amplifies the force of his rich, raw voice.
McClennan cut some of his most popular numbers at that first session, including “Whiskey Head Woman” and “New Shake ‘Em On Down,” closely modeled on Bukka White’s hit, “Shake ‘Em On Down.” Another tune he cut at the first session was the controversial “Bottle Up And Go.” One verse, about a card game between a black and a white, twice uses the word “nigger,” an epithet that was common among Southern blacks but deeply resented by blacks in the North. Bill Broonzy warned McClennan that the song would get him into trouble. According to Broonzy, quoted in the Bluebird Recordings liner notes, McClennan replied “hell no, I’ll never change my song.” That evening Broonzy took Tommy to a party and eventually the guests wanted to hear Bluebird’s newest artist sing something. Broonzy had warned him not to sing the controversial song, but McClennan did anyway. When he finished the third verse, the offensive one, the other guests were so riled Big Bill had to push McClennan out a window to escape their wrath. Five blocks later, fortifying them selves in a bar, McClennan said he had to go back for his guitar. Broonzy told him not to bother as he still had part of it hanging around his neck.
Over the next two years, McClennan performed four more sessions for Bluebird, in May and December 1940, and September 1941. At the latter, he recorded “Cross Cut Saw Blues,” later covered by numerous artists. His final session at Bluebird took place on February 20, 1942 in Chicago. He cut eight tracks—the number he always cut—with the same forceful singing and rough n’ ready guitar he had displayed on other outings. When his session was over, Tommy joined his old friend Robert Petway who was recording in the same studio just afterwards. He took the vocal on Petway’s “Boogie Woogie Woman.” It was destined to be his last appearance on record. Bluebird dropped him from their roster of artists not much later. His drinking had made him too unreliable.
Cut loose by his record company, McClennan declined deeper into alcoholism over the next decade. He performed less and less. After a while he simply disappeared into the black slums of Chicago. According to blues researcher Gayle Wardlow, McClennan died destitute in the early 1960s. It is impossible to say for sure as no death record exists. As Samuel Charter wrote that “Tommy McClennan seems to have died when he stopped singing.”
Tommy McClennan represented the end of a line—the rough and tumble country blues musician accompanied by his own acoustic guitar. By the end of the 1940s, that sound, the sound of Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, was overtaken by a new sound. It was just as raw but played on electric guitars. McClennan’s legacy was his influence on later artists like Muddy Waters and the songs he left behind.
Tommy McClennan: The Bluebird Recordings 1939-1942, RCA, 1997
Barlow, William, Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1989.
Charters, Samuel, The Country Blue, Da Capo, New York, 1975.
Davis, Francis, The History of the Blues, New York, 1995.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who. Arlington House: New Rochelle, NY, 1979.
Additional information obtained from the liner notes from Tommy McClellean: The Bluebird Recordings 1939-1942 written by Mary Katherin Aldin.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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