“Blue Wing” and the Legend of Little Willie John

"Blue Wing," original art by Tom Russell (used by permission)

“Blue Wing,” original art by Tom Russell (used by permission)


On the road for work a few months ago, I was driving between Cheyenne and Denver. I had a chance to meet up with an old friend for coffee on the way. Early in our conversation, I noticed she had some new ink on her left forearm, a cluster of small tattoos. I asked her to tell me about them, and she explained the various elements. The theme of the ensemble was luck—to remind her how lucky she is and to be grateful for it.

One of the tattoos depicts an herb that her father uses as a complementary therapy to manage his advanced colon cancer and the chemotherapy he now lives with to treat it. My friend and her father can consider themselves lucky for many reasons. Cancer is not among them. Anybody who has dealt with cancer in themselves or in their families is aware that it’s a rotten deal. It has no real up-side, and it doesn’t happen to help you or other people put things in perspective.

No Regrets, Memphis, TN

No Regrets, Memphis, TN

I have no tattoos. I’ve always doubted that I would want something that permanent, although I know they are less irrevocable than they used to be. I also have an irrational resistance to acknowledging my mortality, and a tattoo threatens that somehow. I still cling to the notion that life’s options need to stay open. That’s unrealistic, I know, but I still link the idea of getting a tattoo with conceding something to my finitude. My friend’s tattoo makes sense to me, though; a lovely symbol with its own kind of hope, connecting body and soul in the face of some tough and decidedly unlucky circumstances.

This conversation compelled me to write about today’s song.

Hope in a tattoo

Tom Russell‘s “Blue Wing” also finds hope in a tattoo. It is a convict ballad rather than a murder ballad. Perhaps it’s also a “conversation with death.” At least two elements pull it into our orbit. The first is the interplay of freedom and finitude embodied in a tattoo, which emerges as a theme in the song. The second is the presence of a real-life inmate, a singer convicted of manslaughter, in this otherwise fictional song. You don’t need to know about him for the song to work, but knowing opens new dimensions and possibilities.

Here is “Blue Wing,” performed by Russell:

Blue Wing from Tom Russell on Myspace. (Yes, Myspace). YouTube has multiple recent Russell performances of the song, many with Thad Beckman. You can view one of them here. A number of sites provide close approximations of the official lyrics; here, for example.

A year or two after I learned to play “Blue Wing,” I was browsing the shelves at my local used bookstore, and I skimmed across a book with “Little Willie John” in the title. What? Here was a real face to the name in the song. I thought Russell had invented him. I’ve since learned I wasn’t alone in thinking that. Other people familiar with the song have said the same to me. Russell still makes up a thing or two. Stay tuned for more about that.

Russell explains the origin of “Blue Wing” in his 2012 songbook, 120 Songs:

 “The great songwriter Otis Blackwell visited my bunker, when I lived in Brooklyn, and told me how he wrote ‘Fever’ with Little Willie John. Otis mentioned that Willie died in prison. Somehow, in my mind, Little Willie meets a Native American salmon fisherman and they concoct a dream song.”

That salmon fisherman takes on the name Blue Wing in the song. Russell composed “Blue Wing” at Ian Tyson’s writing cabin in the Canadian Rockies. He released it on his 1990 album Poor Man’s Dream, and it has since become a fan favorite.

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“Blue Wing” and the Legend of Little Willie John — 1 Comment

  1. Nice piece. Russell is brilliant. Especially love his ode to Dave Van Ronk on the Hotwalker record. Blood & Candle Smoke is my favourite, but I was late to his work. Heard the name over the years, but finally connected with him when he played the Johnstown (PA) Folk Fest in 2008.

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