August 25, 2009

Cocaine Blues: A Brief History

I'm currently reading journalist Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie biography, an unbelievably in-depth and historically detailed account of the songwriter's life. While taking a break from the book, I looked up a few of Woody's songs and found "Bad Lee Brown (Cocaine Blues)" which I immediately realized was also one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs—"Cocaine Blues"—famously performed live at Folsom Prison in 1968. The song's origins, however, date further back than Guthrie. It was originally written by T. J. "Red" Arnall around 1947 as a reworking of the traditional Western song "Little Sadie." I couldn't find Arnall's version, but Bob Dylan covered it in his 1970 album Self Portrait.

Bob Dylan - "Little Sadie" (from Self Portrait)
Woody Guthrie - "Bad Lee Brown (Cocaine Blues)" (from The Asch Recordings, Vol. 4)
Johnny Cash - "Cocaine Blues" (from At Folsom Prison)

There are several other popularized versions of "Cocaine Blues," including an eight-bar blues song attributed to Reverend Gary Davis. Both Keith Richards and Townes Van Zandt mention it as one of the first songs that they learned how to fingerpick.

Townes Van Zandt- "Cocaine Blues" (from Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas)
Keith Richards - "Cocaine Blues"
Bob Dylan - "Cocaine Blues (live 1997)" (from Tell Tale Signs)

Lastly, here is a version of "Tell It To Me," also sometimes referred to as "Cocaine Blues."

Old Crow Medicine Show - "Tell It To Me" (from O.C.M.S.)

Woody Guthrie


  1. there's a killer version of Soul Asylum doing Cocain Blues floating out there as well.

  2. on the 1960 Johnny Cash album called "Now, That Was a Song" there appears a tune called "Transfusion Blues." Exact melody/lyrics as "Cocain Blues" except that the word Cocain was replaced with "Transfusion."

    Must have been some kind of anti-drug thing. Interesting non the less.

    ram in FLA

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