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Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home by Gus Cannon

The story W. C. Handy told was that he first heard the blues late one night, probably in 1903, after his band had performed and was waiting at the Tutwiler depot for a train back to Clarksdale. The train was late and everyone was asleep.  Handy was awakened by “...the weirdest music I had ever heard.”  A little ragged man was sliding the back of a pocket knife along the strings of his guitar and singing “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”  He repeated the line over three times.

Gus Cannon grew up in Coahoma County in and around Clarksdale at that time.  He said one of the only people doing anything like the blues then was a man named Alex Lee.  The two tunes he recalled Lee playing were John Henry and Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home.  In 1927, Gus recorded his version of Poor Boy.  He played it on a slide banjo, accompanied by Blind Blake on the guitar.  Poor Boy has a lyric format similar to what Mr. Handy recalled hearing in Tutwiler.  Could the little ragged man have been Ol’ Alex Lee playing a version of Poor Boy with new words?

A windy fall morning in Tutwiler, on the remaining foundation of the old depot, we erect our portable studio and record this old blues classic.  Eddie performs it on his slide guitar tuned to open G, just the way Gus recalled it.  Sparrows chirp in and out of downtown's abandoned second floor, a crop duster flies overhead, and the sheriff stops by for a listen.  He especially likes the verse that says, "I got arrested, no money to buy my fine."