Whenever you hear an artist covering a blues standard, you can guess that the song’s origin might be murky. Such is the case with “Crawling Kingsnake” (sometimes stylized as “Crawlin’ King Snake”). While the metaphor is fairly obvious, the track’s history is not.
The Black Keys released a new version of “Crawling Kingsnake” as a single in advance of their upcoming blues-themed covers album Delta Kream. In numerous articles about the cover, the track is credited to the great bluesman John Lee Hooker. But, according to Gérard Herzhaft in the Encyclopedia of the Blues, the song “is very likely an old Delta blues [song] from the twenties. Recorded for the first time by Big Joe Williams on 27 March 1941, it is the obscure Tony Hollins who obtained some success out of it in Chicago. John Lee Hooker made it one of his favorite titles, and there are many covers.”
Indeed, it has been covered by countless blues and rock artists alike over the years, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Buddy Guy, George Thorogood and the Destroyers and, of course, The Doors. How could Jim Morrison, a man who nicknamed himself “Mr. Mojo Risin” resist a chance to sing about his favorite body part?
The Black Keys play the song as a piece of low-fi ‘60s psychedelic blues rock. Clocking in at more than six minutes, it’s more of an open-ended jam than a straight up cover song. Frontman Dan Auerbach sings in a monotone voice. He barely places any emphasis on the song’s lyrics, and at times you can hardly make out what he’s singing. It’s almost as if the words are an afterthought. Perhaps he figured we all know what it’s about anyway.
Click here to listen to more covers by the Black Keys.