“Sweet Home Chicago” is one of the best known blues songs ever written. But historians seem to agree that when Robert Johnson recorded the song in 1936, he borrowed heavily to make his masterpiece.
“Kokomo Blues” is clearly one of the building blocks of that better known blues song. Scrapper Blackwell came out with it in 1928.
In 1934, James Arnold would have more success with it, calling it “Old Original Kokomo Blues.” It was so popular it became his signature tune, and he was known then as Kokomo Arnold.
There has been much writing and disagreement about the line “eleven light city.” It has been interpreted as “level light city,” “lemon light city,” “little nice city” and so on. It seems that Kokomo, Indiana in the 1920’s was famous for having 11 stoplights, but some say it refers to the 11 speakeasies you could find there.
Mississippi Fred McDowell was actually from the same generation as Scrapper Blackwell and Kokomo Arnold, but spent much of his life as a farmer and didn’t make any recordings until around 1960, when his records were acclaimed by groups like the Rolling Stones. They covered McDowell’s “You Gotta Move.” His recording of “Kokomo Blues” is from 1964.
Here’s a live recording (no video) of Fred McDowell. He’s not performing “Kokomo Blues,” but in the first 2 minutes he talks about where he came from and how he plays the guitar, really essential blues nuts and bolts:
Fred McDowell was a huge influence on a young Bonnie Raitt’s music and slide guitar playing, and she recorded several of his songs, including “Kokomo Blues” in 1973. Here’s Bonnie Raitt performing “Kokomo Blues” in live performance, in a medley with “Write Me a Few of Your Lines:”
In 2004, a young bluesman named David Jacobs Strain, also a follower of Fred McDowell, came out with a very original take on the song. He maintains the acoustic vibe, while adding a driving and insistent rhythm track. Here he performs the tune live from a solo concert:
Here are the full versions of “Kokomo Blues” tracked through time:
“The Blues Time Machine” is a weekly feature tracking one great blues song through time. The series is hosted by John Kessler, from KPLU’s “All Blues,” and is published here every Friday and airs on KPLU 88.5.