Skip to main content

You'll probably want to practice what bluesman Rev. E.W. Clayborn preaches

Seems The Rev. E.W. Clayborn, aka the Guitar Evangelist, sang the blues from experience with ‘Your Enemies Can Not Harm You (But Watch Your Close Friend).’

By Mike Greenblatt

The Rev. E.W. Clayborn knew the key to instilling his words of wisdom to his flock. With “Your Enemies Can Not Hurt You (But Watch Your Close Friend),” the man known as “The Guitar Evangelist” laces stinging-hot rhythmic guitar throughout his musical homily, which picks up in intensity as it moves and grooves on. It’s so catchy, one can almost imagine an artist like Taj Mahal or Keb’ Mo’ covering this sprightly sermon today.

“People I want to tell you just how your friend will do/
They will wait to get your secrets, then dig a pit for you/
When you tell them your secrets, they will laugh like they are glad/
But they will never say anything about it, until you make them mad/
Your enemy knows nothing about you, and not know where to get in/
But the way your heart is made to bleed is by your bosom friend”

The lowdown, dirty blues and the word of the Lord seem diametrically opposed. Not so, says John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records.

“A lot of legendary bluesmen recorded gospel songs — dark, foreboding gospel songs,” he explains. “The line between blues and gospel was oftentimes blurred. For instance, Charley Patton [1891-1934] did “Jesus Is A Dying Bed Maker” and Skip James [1902-1969] did “Be Ready When He Comes.” Almost all those top-notch blues guys did at least one great gospel song.

The righteous reverend recorded “Your Enemies Cannot Harm You” b/w “The Gospel Train Is Coming” (Vocalion 1082) the very first time he ever stepped foot into a studio. It was his first biggest-selling record.

The Rev. E.W. Clayborn

Clayborn cut 39 more sides, but he never again lived up to the majestic synthesis of musicianship, composition and personality present on “Enemies.” If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was slide-master Duane Allman [1946-1971] behind the blistering guitar sound. That’s how cool it sounds. Alas, Clayborn and his guitar faded into obscurity, and little else is known about him.

Those who own a copy of the CD that accompanies Tefteller’s 2014 Blues Images Calendar will get a little bonus with Clayborn’s track: a faint echo effect that feeds the sound back in a rather preternatural way.

“I had heard that song for years on a super-clean copy and never heard the echo,” Tefteller says. “When we did this one [for the CD], it wasn’t the world’s cleanest copy. For some reason, it was clean enough, but all of a sudden when Richard Nevins was remastering it, he heard it.”

Nevins was trying to get the most pristine sound imaginable for ears in 2014 when he picked up a ghostly echo in the recording. Annoyed, he quizzed a surprised Tefteller about the flaw.

Upon receiving a quick dub so he could hear what Nevins — usually the most punctilious of sound engineers — was talking about, Tefteller realized what was going on.

Now whether that singular audible flaw is feedback or a ghostly presence is up for debate. The record was advertised as being electrically recorded, which was a fairly big deal back in that era of studio recording, and it’s fair to assume a glitch could’ve occurred. Most record labels were still using the acoustic method of recording, where musicians performed into a big, oval-shaped cone instead of an “electrical” microphone.

“I’ve grown to like it,” Tefteller admits of the echo. “It’s almost like it fits with the production of the record.”

We like to think it may be the spirit of the Clayborn or some other since-forgotten musician, who left behind something of himself so long ago and far away. GM