Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ry Cooder - Jesus On The Mainline

This week’s Spiritual Sunday selection is a song that I have performed since the 1970s and I first heard Ry Cooder do it on his “Paradise and Lunch” LP from 1974. It is credited on his album as being a traditional tune; however, the lyrics indicate that it probably was written in the 1920s or 1930s.

Other songs with similar themes that incorporated the technology of the day into a spiritual theme were from that era and it would not be unreasonable to believe that this song from the blues tradition was also composed at the same time. If my timeline of its writing is correct, it would have only been in the public domain had its copyright not been renewed 28 years after its initial publication - which may be a reasonable theory on this tune.

The earliest known recording of “Jesus on the Mainline” was Alan Lomax’s recording of Mississippi Fred McDowell in the early 1950s. Since that time, numerous artists have interpreted this song with it crossing over into the country genre with Wynona Judd and Randy Travis both recording it. I would venture to say that most of recent versions probably could be traced back to Cooder’s 1974 version – which is a direct descendant of Fred McDowell’s recording.

Ry is joined on this 1987 video by The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces. The interesting instrument he is playing is a Vox Mando-guitar that has a similar range to a mandolin, but is really a small 12-string guitar tuned an octave above a normal guitar. Some prefer to tune it one step down from an octave (DGCFGAD) to release the tension on the guitar.

Vox Mando-Guitar

Unlike a typical 12-string guitar, there are usually no octave strings utilized and all are in unison like a mandolin. George Harrison used on the Beatles version of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love”; however, it appears that George added octave strings to get the unique 12-string sound. By the way, Ringo is playing a packing case on this song that appeared on the LPs “Beatles for Sale” and “Beatles VI” (in the US, Canada, and Japan).

Beatles – Words of Love – Remastered

Demo of the Vox Mando-guitar

Many folk may be unaware of the name Ry (short for Ryland) Cooder, but they have heard his music over the years. He first became well known with his session work with the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s playing on the “Let it Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers” albums as well as the “Jamming with Edward” album that featured Cooder along with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, who was also a Stones’ sideman.

He is probably best known for his work on film soundtracks – the first being “Performance,” starring Mick Jagger. His music is throughout the classic story about James –Younger gang, “The Long Riders,” and he provided all of the slide guitar parts for the movie “Crossroads.” These are just a few examples of the multitudinous film projects for which Ry has been associated.

Rolling Stone has named him as number 8 on the top guitarists of all time. The first seven include in ascending order is Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He is followed by Jimmy Page at 9 and Keith Richards at 10 – so I would say that Ry is in pretty good company. He also was awarded four Grammy Awards for his work on various compilation projects. In 2000, Queens University in Kingston, Ontario awarded Cooder with an honorary doctorate.

Solo Performance from 1973 – Jesus on the Mainline


  1. very informative - thank you

  2. Terrific Gospel song beautifully played by Cooder! My band performs it with live.