This is the latest installment in our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author and rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase from a blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu, includes a foreword by Dr. John and is blurbed by Bonnie Raitt and Joe Bonamassa. Get your signed copy at Bluescentric.com!
Tuning the guitar to an open minor chord is called cross note, or Bentonia, tuning. Cross-note tunings lend themselves to slide playing because they make it easy to produce haunting minor chords simply by fretting straight across the neck with the slide.
A guitar tuned to E minor (E B E G B E) for example, will produce the E-minor chord when strummed without fretting any notes. This is cross note in E minor. Some guitarists also play cross note in D minor by tuning the guitar to D A D F A D. Tunings like this that enable a guitarist to play a chord without fretting any notes are called “open” tunings.
The great country-blues guitarist “Skip” (Nehemiah Curtis) James is credited with having dubbed this particular open tuning “cross note.” He used the eerie-sounding tuning to great effect in such spooky recordings as “Devil Got my Woman” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.” Although James used cross-note in E minor for most of his songs, he also played cross-note in D minor, and “Spanish” tuning (D G D G B D).
James learned cross-note from his mentor, Henry Stuckey of Bentonia, Mississippi. Stuckey had picked it up from black soldiers, most likely from the Bahamas or Jamaica, whom he had met while stationed in France during World War II.
Bentonia lies outside the Mississippi Delta region and has developed its own unique style of country blues. Blues musicologist Gayle Dean Wardlow tracked Henry Stuckey down in 1965. Stuckey, Wardlow reported, was living in a little shack just outside of Bentonia with no screens on the windows or door.
According to Wardlow, Stuckey, then in his sixties, said he’d learned the open-minor-chord tuning “from some black soldiers in France. He said it came from somewhere down in the Caribbean. That’s all he knew. When he came back he made some songs in this tuning but never recorded. He showed them to [Skip] James. They played together a lot during the twenties. Johnny Temple said he was really a fine guitarist, people didn’t realize, almost as good as Skippy.”
These quotes are from Gayle Dean Wardlow: The Blues World Interview by Joel Slotnikoff, which is well worth a read!
“Devil Got My Woman”- Skip James (Nehemiah Curtis James)
“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” – Skip James
Skip James – “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”