Dying Crapshooters Blues: Blind Willie McTell revisited

by Tony Attwood

Back in 2020 Jochen provided an article “Let’s Go Get Stoned” – part three of his series on “Tombstone Blues” in which he mentioned “Crapshooter Blues”.   I didn’t want to interfere with Jochen’s copy by adding a recording of Crapshooter Blues – Jochen chooses the music he wants to illustrate his commentaries – and so thought I might come back to the song later – and then, as is the way of the world, I forgot!  But I’ve been reminded of that previous thought, so here we are again, and the song can have an article of its own.  It is a song Dylan will certainly know – as Jochen pointed out…

“Blues, country, R&B, folk… the tombstone is a popular piece of scenery in every genre and in every period. In 1965, the young Dylan undoubtedly can sing along with Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”, Merle Haggard’s “Nine Pound Hammer”, Johnny Cash’s “The Ballad Of Boot Hill” and the Kingston Trio’s “Jug Of Punch” (“Tura lura lu, tura lura lu”). And with a hundred other songs, presumably. But closest under his skin is Blind Willie McTell’s “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”. Dylan’s later masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell” not only sings this blues hero, but also uses the same template as McTell’s “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”: the evergreen “St. James’ Infirmary”.”

And it is that point, I would like to explore, because although it is completely right to say that Crapshooter is based on St James, that is really only true for the start of the song.

St James Infirmary Blues is a standard strophic song: verse, verse, verse etc etc, using the chord sequence

  • I, IV, I
  • I, IV, V
  • I, IV, I
  • IV, V, I

The chord sequence in Crapshooter is I, V, I over and over until it totally unexpectedly changes for the middle 8 which contains a completely different sequence – you can follow the change at

He had a gang of crapshooters and gamblers at his bedside
Here are the words he had to say:
"Guess I ought to know
Exactly how I wants to go"
(How you wanna go, Jesse?)

(Lyrics as transcribed by genius.com)

From that point on the verse that we hear in the opening verses alternates with the “middle 8” – which is the format of pop music from the 1950s – not the blues.  He really was ahead of his time!

According to the Early Blues website, the first recording of Crapshooter was made in 1940 in Atlanta. However he was not the first, for as the same site adds, the song was recorded by Martha Copeland earlier that year.

And yes, rather wonderfully we have that recording…

Blind Willie is also quoted as stating that he finished the song in 1932.

As for the recording you may well have noted the fact that it speeds up as it goes along – I’m not sure if this is deliberate on the part of the performer, or it just happens because he is enjoying himself.  And it is this, as well as the use of the ternary rather than strophic form that makes it all so entertaining.   (If you want to explore this last point and have a few moments to spare, play the opening of the song again, and then skip to the ending – the speed change is quite significant, but the change to the structure of the song as we go along makes it less obvious.

Above all what we have here is a traditional blues singer-songwriter, breaking away from the class 12 bar format, and breaking out of the “keep the speed the same” approach and doing something utterly different.

Of course Bob Dylan would know this song – but interestingly it is not a song that he has ever been tempted to perform himself, nor to copy in terms of its format.   It would have been interesting to hear the result, had he done so.

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