Saturday, October 05, 2013

Country Club 19: the blue side of Western Swing ("Milk Cow Blues")

Western Swing, from its beginning, has had a special affinity for the blues. Milk Cow Blues has become the quintessential Western Swing blues. Surprisingly, it was  written and recorded in the 1930s by African-American bluesman Kokomo Arnold  in several different versions, Sleepy John Estes, Big Bill Broonzy,  Josh White, and adapted by Robert Johnson ("Milkcow Calf's Blues").

As Charles Townsend writes in his classic book on Bob Wills  San Antonio Rose   "Without exception, every former member of Wills's band interviewed for this study concluded, as Wills himself did, that what they were playing was always closer in music, lyrics, and style to jazz and swing that any other genre." (p. 63)  This was true of other Western Swing bands, as well. Apparently, Milk Cow Blues was in the repertoire of most Western Swing bands.  The first WS recording of Milk Cow Blues was by Cliff Bruner in 1937.  Four years later, Bob Wills brother Johnny Lee Wills recorded the tune, followed by Billie Jack Wills.


Several of the now standard elements apparently first appeared on the "Bob Wills Special, which reportedly borrowed a riff from Benny Goodman. Since the Wills band covered Goodman tunes like "Seven Come Eleven" and "A Smooth One" and competed for the same dancers in California that sounds plausible.

Within a few years the tune was covered by national starts like  Maddox Brothers and Rose and regional artists like Billy Hughes.

Merle Haggard performed the closely related "Brain Cloudy Blues" on his tribute to Bob Wills.

Here's George Strait's version


The contemporary Mexican American Western Swing artist Bobby Flores performs MCB very much in the Bob Wills tradition.

Neo-Country artist Wayne Hancock preformed MCB live in a radio station with instruments, players, and arrangement closely related the the classic Wills bothers version.


There's another chapter or two in the saga of "Milk Cow Blues."  It was one of the songs that Elvis Presley recorded at Sun Records.  Most likely, Elvis learned the tune from a Bob Wills transcription that played on a radio station.  Many British invasion and roots rock bans have included it on their play lists.  And, more recent, Milk Cow Blues has become a Blue Grass standard.

PS. Just before posting this I came across an excellent academic study "The Many Faces of 'Milk Cow Blues': A Case Study" Jean A. Boyd and Patrick Kelly.  If you have an interest in blues and/or western swing, it is well-worth reading.

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