Video Lesson: Learn Jontavious Willis’ Take on “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home”

From the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Jontavious Willis

Whenever I learn a piece, I usually go back to an original or early version. So I based my arrangement of the traditional song “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” on a recording that banjoist and jug-band pioneer Gus Cannon (1883–1979) recorded in 1927, rather than on later versions by Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Howlin’ Wolf, or any number of other blues guitarists. 

The interesting thing about Cannon’s arrangement is that he played it on slide banjo, during the blues craze of the early 20th century. It was right around that time that guitars became more affordable, replacing banjos in blues, jazz, and other styles, so I think of this recording as kind of a bridge between early banjo and open-tuned guitar approaches. Cannon’s recording sounds in the key of Gb major, and his approach translates well to guitar in open G (D G D G B D). If you’re unfamiliar with this tuning, to get into it from standard, simply lower strings 1 and 6 down a whole step, from E to D, and string 5 down a step as well, from A to G. 

The Form

“Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home,” aka “Poor Boy Blues,” is based on a 16-bar form, rather than the 12-bar blues which is more common. Other well-known examples of 16-bar blues songs include “See See Rider” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” In “Poor Boy,” the chord progression of bars 5–8 (IV–I or C7–G7) is played twice to create the 16-bar form. I play through the form six times in my version, with guitar only on the first, fourth, and sixth times, and adding vocals on the other repeats. 

As the song is played in an open tuning, you can form the I chord on the open strings or by placing the slide across the 12th fret, the IV chord at the fifth fret, and the V chord at the seventh. Basically, I pick a bunch of different improvised variations around these positions and add a bass line with my thumb, played mostly in quarter notes throughout. 

The Techniques

I’d recommend playing “Poor Boy” with the slide on whatever finger works best for you—I prefer wearing it on my fourth finger. In this arrangement, the most important thing is not going for perfect technique but thinking of the slide as a continuation of the voice. That’s why I sometimes leave out words when I’m singing the verses—the slide picks up where the lyrics drop out. Just remember to think like a singer when you’re playing the guitar parts. 

Many slide guitarists place their available fretting fingers behind the slide to mute any unwanted notes or overtones. Sometimes I mute—especially if I really want to emphasize a single note—but most of the time I prefer not to, because a lot of the older guys didn’t mute, and I like the sound that those overtones add. That said, you might try palm-muting the bass notes (placing your picking-hand palm lightly against the strings as you pick the notes, for a slightly muffled effect). This technique will provide a nice separation between the bass line and the vocal-like slide melodies. 

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Another thing to note is that in certain measures (7, 11, and 15), I’m not using the slide at all. I never cared for straight slide—that’s what lap slide is for. Think of these spots as kind of instrumental breaks between vocal phrases. Without removing the slide, just use any free fretting fingers to play the fretted notes, and be sure not to lose the groove when you move between the slide and standard-fretted passages. 

Make It Your Own

The notation here shows only what I play the first time through the 16-bar form of “Poor Boy.” I rarely do things exactly the same way—check out the video to get a sense of the different variations I play on repeats. After you’ve learned the notation as written here—again, playing the slide lines like a singer, anchored by the steady bass notes—you’ll be ready to take things to the next level and make your own arrangement of this blues classic.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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