The Piedmont Blues of “Crow Jane”

It’s hard to trace the exact source of “Crow Jane”, but it’s a song that has outlasted many others from the early days of the blues. Its roots lay in the Piedmont region of Virginia and North and South Carolina. Rev. Gary Davis was known to perform it during the 1920’s, and the first recording was made in 1927 by guitarist Julius Daniels. Daniels is important partly because he was one of the first Black guitarists to record in the Southeast, inspiring others to follow.

Piedmont blues guitar has a distinct sound that’s very different from Delta blues, which emphasized single note melodies, often played on slide-guitar. Piedmont guitar is based on a fingerpicking style, with the thumb playing rhythm and the fingers playing melody notes. It is also different from Delta blues in that the rhythms are related to ragtime.

Skip James developed his unique fingerpicking guitar style while living in Mississippi in the 1920’s, and was one of the first bluesmen to record, with a session in 1931. His songs have influenced everyone from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton. Because of the onset of the Great Depression, James had no luck selling records and left the blues world, eventually becoming an ordained minister. Some 30 years later, in the early 1960’s, Skip James was re-discovered by enthusiasts John Fahey, Bill Barth and Henry Vestine (later of Canned Heat), who helped him re-establish his career. He recorded “Crow Jane” in 1964. This is a wonderful live clip of Skip James performing “Crow Jane” in 1967:

Derek Trucks was a child prodigy guitarist, and now at age 33, is considered one of the world’s most expressive players. As the nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, he had an early exposure to the world of touring, and had formed his own band and released an album when he was 18. His slide guitar style is sometimes reminiscent of Duane Allman, but his playing also incorporates world–music and jazz styles. Trucks always includes well-chosen blues material in his sets, and “Crow Jane” appears on his 2006 release Songlines, with Mike Mattison on vocals. This is an astounding live performance of the song from the same year:

Here are the complete versions of “Crow Jane” tracked through time:

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4 thoughts on “The Piedmont Blues of “Crow Jane”

  1. great song – it’s also been covered by Laurie & John Stirratt (Blue Mountain, Wilco, et al.) on Camp Black Dog: Rock’n’Roll Summer Camp (1998); and by Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs (2007). Crazy Horse’s ‘Crow Jane Lady’ seems to be loosely based on the tune.

  2. One other version that comes to mind is the lovely one by Etta Baker on ‘One Dime Blues’ as well as a couple of other albums by her. She truly is a treasure of the Piedmont blues style.

  3. There is also a great version of Crow Jane by Eric Von Schmidt on his record, folk blues of Eric Von Schmidt.
    Different interpretation being that he is a white blues picker during the folk revival of the early 60’s.

  4. I have listened to the complete Skip James version of Crow Jane over a hundred times and though I treasure the music of many other blues artists I have decided that it
    Is THE definitive blues song. Minimalist artistry unsurpassed.

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