Luther Dickinson's Life in Five Riffs

June 6, 2017

Luther Dickinson’s latest solo record, Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook), Vol. I & II, is a celebration of the heroes of Mississippi hill-country blues. Much like early bluesmen weaved folk heroes Stagger Lee, Casey Jones, and John Henry into the American songbook, Dickinson aimed to canonize the characters that inspired him with original songs. Those legends—including R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Junior Kimbrough—continue to inspire artists like Dickinson, Jack White, and the Black Keys. “Moonshine,” for example, recalls late nights jamming at Kimbrough’s juke joint.

“If you could’ve seen Junior Kimbrough—he was a folk hero, man,” said Dickinson. “He had this crazy, wild juke joint out in rural Mississippi, but he had such a peaceful vibe, and it was a fun scene. And fife player Otha Turner would have people of all ages from all over the world to these crazy picnics out in the middle of the dark Mississippi night, playing this wild music and dancing. Those were amazing times.”

Here, Dickinson reveals the five riffs that changed his life.

THE BO DIDDLEY BEAT

“My dad and all his friends were musicians,” says Dickinson, “and I always knew that I wanted to be a guitar player, so I would ask for guitars when I was a kid. I finally got one, the Christmas right before I turned five or six—a little baby Strat. My mom, bless her heart, said, ‘Tune it to open.’ So they tuned it to open E or open D, and dad showed me that Bo Diddley beat. I think that’s the perfect way for a beginner, because it sounds good, you don’t have to struggle with making chords, it’s harmonious, and you get your rhythm stroke together.”

“CASEY JONES BLUES,” FURRY LEWIS

“My dad and his friends were so lucky to know Furry Lewis. One of his great songs was ‘Casey Jones Blues’ in open-G tuning. When my brother Cody and I were young kids, he picked it up way faster than I did. He was playing ‘Casey Jones’ by the time he was five. But I kept practicing.”

“CANDYMAN,” MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT

“Being a self-taught kid, I had developed a ramshackle style of fingerpicking where my thumb was just hitting the downbeats. But once I started studying Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt, I realized I couldn’t get all the information out. ‘Candyman’ broke the code for me, and opened up my hand.”

“61 HIGHWAY,” MISSISSIPPI FRED MCDOWELL

“There were a lot of great guitar players in north Mississippi when I was growing up in the mid ’90s, but the king was Fred McDowell. He was an open-tuning slide master. Hill-country blues is all about rhythm and melody. My friend, Otha Turner, played fife and drum music with a marching bass drum and two marching snare drums, and he would sing and play a bamboo-cane fife. So, literally, it was only rhythm and melody. I think the hill-country guitar style is based on that fife and drum concept.”

“SEE WHAT MY LORD HAS DONE,” MISSISSIPPI FRED MCDOWELL

“I remember, at one point I was studying Fred playing slide guitar on his ‘Jesus on the Mainline,’ and he had this note that was so in-between the two and minor third. He had his own microtonal note that he hit in the melody every time. That’s one of the beauties of slide guitar.”

Bonus! Watch Luther Dickinson discuss and play these riffs on location in New Orleans:

 
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