Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, “Mean Old World”

The blazing harmonica work of Chicago blues legend Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs influenced a generation of harp players, from Mick Jagger to Magic Dick. Little Walter also sang, wrote and played guitar, working as a sideman while scoring hit records in the 1950s. One of those hits that was credited to him as the writer is “Mean Old World,” which was covered by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman during the Derek and the Dominos sessions for the album Layla and Assorted Love Songs.

Even though “Mean Old World” was recorded during the Layla sessions, the song stayed in the can until the release of the compilation album Duane Allman: An Anthology in 1972, about a year after Allman died in a motorcycle accident. Clapton and Allman both played acoustic slide in open G tuning on the song, with Clapton singing. Lyrically, Clapton stayed true to Little Walter’s words, singing the song practically verbatim, at least until he got to the last line. Where Clapton sang:

Sometime I wonder why can your love be so cold
Sometime I wonder why can your love be so cold

Guess you don’t want me, have to pack my things and go

Little Walter sang:

Sometime I wonder why can your love be so cold
Sometime I wonder why can your love be so cold
Seem like to me you don’t want me I’m just an unlucky so-and-so

This is one more example of how blues lyrics change over time, modified from version to version by what a singer remembers or thinks he heard in his youth. Clapton and Allman also must have been familiar with the first “Mean Old World” by Texas bluesman Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker. Recorded in 1942, Walker’s “Mean Old World” was a 78 rpm record considered to be one of the most important early electric blues guitar recordings. When Little Walter recorded a song with the same title, and pretty much the same first verse, in 1952, it was obvious that he had liberally borrowed from Walker’s song. Any similarity ends after that first verse, though, as Little Walter’s (and Clapton’s) second and third verses are very different from Walker’s. Little Walter’s second verse, for instance, is simple, almost standard, blues whining:

I’ve got the blues, gonna pack my things and go
I’ve got the blues, gonna pack my things and go
Guess you don’t love me, loving mister so-and-so.

T-Bone Walker’s second verse shows an odd concern about people’s opinions of him, something not typical of blues artists:

Well, I drink to keep from worrying and I smile to keep from crying
I drink to keep from worrying, I smile to keep from crying
That’s to keep the public from knowing just what I have on my mind.

Clapton and Allman went with the Little Walter lyrics, and it’s a great track by two future legends who helped introduce the blues to Vietnam-era America. Comparing all three tracks is a great lesson in blues history and evolution. In addition to being part of the Duane Allman: An Anthology set, the song can also be found on the Clapton Crossroads box set from 1988, and the 1990 three-disc box set The Layla Sessions, which also features two full-band Dominos outtakes of “Mean Old World.”