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Timeline of a timeless song from Alfred Reed to John Pearson

Updated: May 7, 2020

Neil Morton

Regular listeners to Paul Jones's Radio 2 show will be familiar with the work of the British bluesman John Pearson. His 2012 CD, Coal in the Soul, performed with sidekicks The Wicked Messengers, is probably his finest and features an old gem of a song which is given a fresh lustre.

How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live? has stood the test of time and is proof of the enduring power of music. Pearson’s reworking of the Blind Alfred Reed song, recorded in New York City in 1929 during the Great Depression, is made even more relevant in our own austere era with Pearson's addition of a verse about those damned bankers. But the opening is immediately pertinent...

There was once a time when everything was cheap But now prices almost put a man to sleep When we pay our grocery bill We just feel like making our will Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live? Reed (his name misspelt in the old photograph below) accompanied himself on violin on this atmospheric recording, one of the earliest examples of a protest song. The YouTube video shows the front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle whose banner headline reads: ‘Wall St in panic as stocks crash’. We’ve endured similar headlines nearly a century later, and Pearson empathises with Reed’s sense of anguish… Those fat cats in the city they don’t go broke There’re making millions, get a bonus, what a joke Then they leave us high and dry Enjoying the good times until they die Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?

Pearson’s singing and six- and 12-string guitar playing are memorable, Jem Turpin's harmonica exquisite, the rhythm engine-room terrific and then there's the pièce de resistance, the horn section, a new direction for Pearson, arranged by trombonist David Holt. The brass is sprinkled throughout the album, produced by Harvey Summers, but works particularly poignantly on How Can A Poor Man, a song I first heard in the early 70s by the American roots master Ry Cooder on his eponymously titled album.

The Liverpool-born guitarist and songwriter describes the creative process as ‘like making a patchwork quilt’. He says in the sleevenotes: ‘Fragments of melody, snatches of lyrics and often a long forgotten song come back to tap you on the shoulder.'

My shoulder is continually being tapped. I played with John in acoustic blues-folk bands in Liverpool in the 70s and 80s (you may just remember Breakdown and About Time which featured the accomplished harmonica player Raphael Callaghan, who has backed Bonnie Raitt, Alexis Korner and Jessie Mae Hemphill among others, and John's bass-playing brother George). But while I concentrated on journalism, my band-mates went on to take their music to a new dimension of excellence. We had opened a folk and blues club, called the Garrett, at the Mitre pub near the old Mersey tunnel entrance. Saturdays were open-mic nights before that term had been coined; when we were oversubscribed singers might be restricted to one song only, though we had to admire the daring of one student who launched into an extended version of Bob Dylan's already substantial Desolation Row.

We were joint residents before the band was formed and I'll always remember John introducing How Can A Poor Man there during the horrors of the three-day week. We all knew people who had lost their jobs or those who were struggling to make ends meet. As he says now, at least acoustic music could come into its own during those regular power cuts, those shadowy nights of candles and choruses. I was as inspired by John's playing and sense of social justice as I was with Cooder's mesmerising music. The ripple effect of that song is still felt now. Cooder is the embodiment of the oft-derided term Americana. Eric Clapton is said to have described his own guitar hero JJ Cale as ‘all the roots put together’. The same could be said of Cooder. Listen to the 1929 original of How Can A Poor Man, then absorb the faithful Cooder version with that trademark finger-picking electric guitar with slide on the side, followed by Bruce Springsteen’s politically charged New Orleans take with his own added verses in 2006 – and on to Pearson's own horn-enhanced jewel. The beautiful closing brass sequence has echoes of the Brighouse and Rastrick Band arrangement on the Unthanks’ evocative King Of Rome about a racing pigeon.

Coal In The Soul lifts the spirits by turning old songs into new ones, although there are two originals from Pearson, including the impressive opening track, Late Last Night, about life among the subsistence farmers in the hills of Monchique in southern Portugal. There are inspired renditions of numbers by Blind Willie McTell, Willie Baker and Tampa Red (the uplifting Love Her With A Feeling), Thelonius Monk's Straight No Chaser, Bob Dylan's Down In The Flood, and the traditional Pretty Polly where Summers' fine production values really come to the fore.

But I keep returning to How Can A Poor Man, a song for the recession born out of the Depression, a song for hard times down the ages. The magical cycle of music...

Update, March 2018: John Pearson has released a new CD, Guitar Rag, which was recorded live without overdubs in just one remarkable sitting. This bold move pays off handsomely and makes the delicacy and intricacy of his guitar work even more laudable. Of the 17 tracks, there are four self-penned songs including the delicious Guitar Rag itself and the lovely Paradise, but the majority reflect influences dating back to the late Fifties from folk, blues and jazz pioneers such as Doc Watson, Robert Johnson and Duke Ellington. My favourite reworkings are Bob Dylan's I Am A Lonesome Hobo and Robert Johnson's Come On In My Kitchen, the finest version I've heard since Steve Miller's impassioned 12-string live performance from his Joker album in 1973. You'll find more details about the CD here. You've got to love that cover photo. Highly recommended.

Blind Alfred Reed

Ry Cooder's version...

Bruce Springsteen's version...

David Lindley & Hani Naser's version...

New Lost City Ramblers' version...

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