A number of things I really like here. First of all, the entire concert (staged in 2004 at St Luke’s, London) is excellent, setting and performance and audio/video recording. Second, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are near the top of my list of favorite performers. Third, this song is one of their best.
But I wanted to point out a couple of things that aren’t often remarked on. One is that these two have not only done yeoman’s work to preserve and promote the music of old weird America, they are among the few who have managed to add to it. This song is Mississipi John Hurt’s Spike Driver Blues … but it’s not, it’s their own fully transformed work … but they’re not shy about acknowledging the source, bringing in lines about John Henry.
The other is that Welch and Rawlings maintain a healthy sense of humor about their work, in ways that are there on the surface but can also go right over your head if YOU take them too seriously. This video contains a line (bolded below) that didn’t appear in the studio version:
He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby, well bless my soul, bless my soul
He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby, well, bless my soul, what’s wrong with me
I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree, on a fuzzy tree, on a fuzzy tree
What the heck is that about the man on the fuzzy tree? Well, here are the first lines of Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up”:
Well, bless my soul, what’s wrong with me?
I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree
My friends say I’m acting wild as a bug
I’m in love, I’m all shook up
Maybe it was a failure of nerve that led them to leave the line off the album, or maybe they decided it would be too confusing to listeners. But I’m glad they kept it in the live performance. It always wakes me up.