The late Hayes McMullan’s name, previously known only among family, friends, and those who heard his song “Look-A Here Woman Blues” on the bonus CD housed with Gayle Dean Wardlow’s book Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues, is poised to be much more widely known thanks to the release of Everyday Seem Like Murder Here. This is a collection of songs recorded for Wardlow in the late 1960s after McMullan answered the young record collector’s question of whether he had any old Charlie Patton records with the answer that he used to play with Patton.
It turns out that longtime sharecropper McMullan had played fairly extensively with both Patton and Willie Brown, and that he’d had an offer, himself, to record for one of the travelling record men, but his distrust of their motives — he told Wardlow, “They only offered me $5 a song, and you know they could make thousands off just one song” — along with the recent fatal poisoning of his brother, himself a musician of local distinction, turned McMullan away from the devil’s music and towards the church. He laid down his guitar and did not pick it up again until his chance encounter with Wardlow 30 years later. Even then, it took some coaxing and, according to Wardlow, some whiskey.
In all, Wardlow arranged three recording sessions for McMullan: the first in his home in 1967 and, in 1968, two visits to a recording studio in Jackson, Mississippi, only one of which generated useful recordings due to the studio owner’s use of recycled tape. All that was useable is presented here in a collection of 31 tracks including snippets of conversation, some false starts, and, most importantly, a collection of delta blues songs recreated in a way that harkens back to the pre-recording era.
Though recorded in the late 1960s, McMullan’s playing evokes the early 1930s in the directness of the performances. McMullan is such an agile and dexterous player, one wonders if this church deacon wasn’t fibbing about not having played during the previous decades to protect himself from church scolds. He did require some help with remembering lyrics, and Wardlow typed out versions for him to sing, but that exquisite guitar playing could only be the result of deep muscle memory. Listeners will return to the versions of “Look-A Here Woman Blues”, “Goin’ Away Mama Blues”, “Goin’ Where the Chilly Winds Don’t Blow”, and “Kansas City Blues” collected here time and again for their unique artistry.
Musicologist John M. Miller’s liner notes are especially enlightening. He identifies the tuning and chord for each track while providing insightful commentary on how McMullan’s singing and playing fit into the broader recorded tradition. For instance, he notes McMullan’s unusual expressiveness and use of dynamics (playing loud or soft for emphasis). McMullan’s idiosyncrasies often point to his exclusive experience as a live performer, offering potential insight into how others among his contemporaries may have sounded when playing on the street or at house parties throughout the delta region before the formalities of recording locked in the style.
Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues is a special record. It is not perfect, nor is it meant to be. The compilers smartly include the flaws in their recording experience, making McMullan more real. They are not trying to create a new legend here; rather, they are sharing with us an important connection to an often idealized past. The imperfections, here, tell stories no less powerful than do the amazing pieces coaxed out of the quiet, devout man who, once upon a time, turned his back on the opportunity to join the early recording stars of the Delta blues in the studio for a quieter life.
With this collection, Hayes McMullan is about to make some noise in the world.