|"Shake 'Em on Down"|
|Single by Bukka White|
|Format||10-inch 78 rpm record|
|Recorded||Chicago, September 2, 1937|
|Label||Vocalion (no. 3711)|
|Booker T. Washington White a.k.a. Bukka White|
"Shake 'Em On Down" is a Delta blues song by American musician Bukka White. He recorded it in Chicago in 1937 around the beginning of his incarceration at the infamous Parchman Prison Farm in Mississippi.
It was his first recording for producer Lester Melrose and remains his best-known song. Several blues and other artists have adapted the song, often with variations on the lyrics and music.
After several attempts at recording for Victor Records and Okeh Records in the early 1930s, Bukka White came to the attention of Vocalion Records' producer Lester Melrose. Melrose arranged for White to record a single in Chicago in 1937, but White was arrested and convicted for a shooting incident and received a two-year sentence at Parchman Farm. However, White did manage to record two songs--"Shake 'Em On Down" and "Pinebluff, Arkansas"--before serving his time, either by jumping bail or through an arrangement by Melrose.
"Shake 'Em On Down" was recorded September 2, 1937, by White on vocal and guitar with an unidentified second guitarist. The song is a moderate-tempo twelve-bar blues notated in 4/4 time in the key of E. Music writer Mark Humphrey has described the rhythm as "shuffling" and its lyrics as "risqué":
Get your nightcap mama, and your gown
Baby 'fore day we gonna shake 'em on down
Hey done stopped hollerin', oh, must I shake 'em on down
I done stopped hollerin' now, must I shake 'em on down
The song became a best seller and blues historian Ted Gioia notes that his single "earned White the status of a celebrity within Parchman". Prior to his arrival at the Farm, the inmates and even guards contributed to the purchase of a guitar. White was largely exempt from the hardest work details and, in the evenings, spent a lot of time practicing. He often performed, sometimes with a small combo, including for the governor - "When White performed for the governor of Mississippi, on the latter's visit to Parchman, he was surprised that the politician already knew about him", according to Gioia. White recalled the governor asking him:
"Are you Booker T. Washington White? You don't know how many people down here trying to get you turned loose. But your sergeant and captain say [sic], 'Don't turn him loose, he do [sic] too much good here.'" So I got to keep it up for two years.
Largely on the strength of "Shake 'Em On Down", when White was released from prison, he was able to resume his recording career with Melrose and Vocalion, despite the shift in public taste that had taken place in the previous two and a half years.
Following Bukka White's success, "Shake 'Em On Down" was recorded by several bluesmen. Some used White's title or a variation, such as "Ride 'Em On Down", "Break 'Em On Down", or "Truck 'Em On Down".Big Bill Broonzy recorded a similar version in 1938, whose popularity surpassed the original. Other versions followed by Tommy McClennan,Big Joe Williams, and Robert Petway. Ernest "Buddy" Lewis was one of the few people--without obvious ties to a Mississippi background--to record the tune, which he did in either 1949 or 1950.Doctor Ross also recorded it, for Sam Phillips in 1952, but it was not released until many years later.Eddie Taylor recorded a version as "Ride 'Em On Down" in 1955.Mississippi Fred McDowell recorded several renditions, using both acoustic and electric slide guitar, including one for the 1972 album Live in New York.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, rock artists have adapted the song. British rock band Savoy Brown recorded the song for their 1967 debut album Shake Down. Led Zeppelin's "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper" (1970) uses some similar lyrics:
Listen mama, Put on your mornin' gown'
Put in your nightshirt Mama we gonna shake 'em down yeah, yeah?
Must I holler
Must I, must I, must I shake 'em on down?
Well I've been mistreated babe
I believe I'll shake 'em on down
Put on your night shirt and your morning gown
You know by night I'm gonna shake 'em down
Put on your night shirt mama, and your morning gown
Well, you know by night I'm gonna shake 'em down
Reference to "Help Me" by Sonny Boy Williamson suggests the request for a nightshirt is from someone who knows they might die, in this case from the risk of "shakin' em on down" i.e. extortion. The nightshirt is to lay out the dead body; and the singer asks the listener to be prepared with their 'mourning gown'.
The Black Crowes recorded a live version, which was included on the Japanese release of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992). Recoil reworked a recording of Bukka White performing "Shake 'Em On Down" into "Electro Blues for Bukka White" on Bloodline (1992), and again into "Electro Blues for Bukka White (2000 Version)" on the "Jezebel" single (2000). R.L. Burnside recorded several versions, including one with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996). The song was recorded by the North Mississippi Allstars for the Grammy-winning album Shake Hands with Shorty (2000). Their version was featured in the 2003 film Holes. HowellDevine adapted it for their third album, Modern Sounds of Ancient Juju (Arhoolie, 2014). The Rolling Stones included it, using the title "Ride 'Em on Down", on their blues covers album, Blue & Lonesome (2016).