The many versions of ‘How Long, How Long Blues’: Leroy Carr’s lyrics together for the first time online

Leroy Carr’s ‘How Long, How Long Blues’ is one of the most famous and most covered blues songs of all time. First released in 1928, the song was so popular that Carr recorded five further versions of it between 1928 and 1932. This post presents and discusses the lyrics to Carr’s biggest hit.

Singer and pianist Leroy Carr (1905-1930) was one of the most popular African American blues entertainers of the 1920s and 30s. In contrast with some of the more famous blues from this period, Carr’s performances held none of the raw, rural feeling of some of his contemporaries, such as Sleepy John Estes or Charlie Patton. Carr, and his longtime musical partner Scrapper Blackwell (guitar), were masters of the urbane and sophisticated ‘race records’ market; their records sold well throughout African American communities across the United States.

how long how long

[An advert for Carr’s first ‘How Long, How Long Blues’, Chicago Defender, 8th September 1928]

Despite Carr’s relatively short career, his records have had a massive impact on blues history. Many of his songs have become standard repertoire for blues bands, such as ‘Blues Before Sunrise’, ‘Midnight Hour Blues’, and of course ‘How Long How Long Blues’ – which Muddy Waters said was the first blues song he ever learnt. Perhaps most famously, Carr’s classic ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ became the model for Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain Blues’.

I could say much more about the importance of Leroy Carr’s style, but Elijah Wald has already done a great job of this on his website, and in his book Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. What I want to address in this blog is the lyrics to Carr’s ‘How Long How Long Blues’. With each successive recording, Carr substantially reworked the song’s lyrics, even while keeping the melody and the instrumental accompaniment almost exactly the same. Yet, despite the fact that ‘How Long How Long Blues’ remains a staple of blues recordings, gigs and jam sessions the world over, it’s remarkably difficult to find the lyrics to the song online; a quick google search – even including the name ‘Leroy Carr’ – mainly throws up links to Eric Clapton’s cover from his 1994 album From the Cradle. Moreover, it’s especially difficult to find the lyrics to any of Carr’s five other versions of the song!

So, for the first time online (I think!), here are the lyrics to all of Leroy Carr’s ‘How Long, How Long Blues’. As well as a brief discussion of what I find interesting about each version, I’ve also included information as to the matrix number, recording date, and the original Vocalion 78rpm issue, and if you click on the title of each version it will take you to a recording of that particular version.

[Note: as with any transcription from an old 78, it can be very difficult to hear the words Carr is singing. Similarly, there are often words at the beginning of each line that are intentionally mumbled, such as ‘Well’, ‘But’, ‘For’, ‘And’, or ‘Baby’. So please leave a comment below if you hear the lyrics differently!]

How Long, How Long Blues (IND-623-A)
Rec. June 19 1928. (Vocalion 1191)

How Long, Baby How Long
Has that evening train been gone?
How Long, How how Long, Baby How Long

Well, I asked her at the station:
Why’s my baby leavin’ town
You were disgusted, nowhere could peace be found
For how long etc

I can hear the whistle blowin,
But I cannot see no train
And it’s deep down in my heart baby, there lies an aching pain.
For how long etc

Sometimes I feel so disgustin’ and I feel so blue
That I hardly know what in this world baby just to do
For how long etc

And if I could holler, like I was a mountain train
I’d go up on the mountain and I’d call my baby back
For how long etc

And someday you gonna be sorry that you done me wrong
But it will be too late, I will be gone
For so long, so long, baby so long.

My mind gets a ramblin’, I feel so bad
Thinkin’ about the bad luck that I have had
For how long etc

This is Carr’s first recording of ‘How Long’. Note how he squeezes in a slight change to the refrain ‘how long’ in chorus six, where he sings ‘so long’ instead.


How Long How Long Blues – Part 2 (C-2688-A)
Rec. December 19, 1928 (Vocalion 1241)

How long, baby how long?
Must I keep my watch in pawn?
How long, how long, baby how long.

I going to the pawn shop
Put my watch in pawn
I don’t want it to tell me
That you have been gone
But so long, so long, baby so long.

I’ve had some trouble up lately
I got locked up in jail
I sat and called you, baby
To come and go my bail
For how long, etc

I’m going down to Georgia
And up to Tennessee
Don’t look me over baby
That’s the last you’ll see of me
But so long, so long, baby so long

The last time I tried to love you
You were so very cold
I thought that I was standing
Holding the North Pole
For how long, etc

I can look and see the green grass
Growing on the hill
But I ain’t see the greenback
On a dollar bill
For so long etc

I haven’t any money
For a ticket on the train
But I would ride the rods baby
To be with you again
For how long etc

In this version, Carr incorporates the ‘so long’ refrain into the rest of the song, alternating it with the regular ‘how long’ version. Interestingly, too the lines about ‘the green grass’ and the ‘greenback’, which are common in modern versions of ‘How Long’, seem to stem from this version of the song. I also like how this version incorporates a number of comedy lines, such as ‘holding the North Pole’, that don’t fit modern performances of this song. Although we now hear ‘How Long Blues’ as heartfelt and quite mournful, it is clear that Carr also intended the song to be heard as jokey and satirical.


How Long How Long Blues – Part 3 (C-2689-A)
Rec. December 19, 1928 (Vocalion 1279)

How long, babe how long
Must I sing my lonesome song
How long, how long, baby how long?

I have been waiting
But the mail man leaves no mail
I’m just drifting
Like a ship without a sail
For how long etc

Sometimes I think you love me
And I feel so glad
But you stay away baby
And then I feel so bad
For how long etc

I guess some day you’ll find me baby
Six feet under the ground
And you’ll always be cross you’ve quit me
For I’ll have my face turned down
For how long etc

You went and left me baby
And I do the best I can
But if you had to quit me
Why steal some other woman’s man?
For how long etc

Last night I heard a hound dog babe
And I felt so blue
Cause I dreamt he was in the graveyard
Looking down at you
For how long etc

Sometimes I get to dreaming
That you’re coming back
And I go down to the station
Stand gazin’ up the track
For how long etc

[Final chorus is a piano and guitar instrumental]

In this version, Carr appears to continue to inject some satire into the proceedings, by referring to the popularity of his own record at the start: ‘how long…must I sing my lonesome song?’ Also interesting in this version is that there are far more explicit references to death. In the first version, Carr sings about his love coming back ‘too late’, by which time he ‘will be gone’; this might not necessarily imply death, just that Carr has moved on (to a new place or a new lover). In this version, however, Carr sings specifically about being ‘six feet under ground’, but about his lover being dead and buried, too. I find the final sung chorus very evocative, too, as Carr’s description of going ‘down to the station [to] stand gazin’ up the track’ is far more weighty than simply saying that he ‘couldn’t see no train’, which are the lyrics we’re more used to hearing. Finally, this version is also notable because it is the first to incorporate an instrumental chorus.


The New How Long How Long Blues (C-4031-A)
Rec. August 12, 1929 (Vocalion 1435)

How long, baby how long
Do you think I’ll let you do me wrong?
How long etc

If you don’t want me baby
Why don’t you tell me so
I know you love someone else baby
And you can go
For so long etc

And I will tell you
Tell you to your face
That when you’re gone baby
Someone else will take your place
For so long etc

No I ain’t going to cry
Ain’t going to waste no tears
For if you go away baby
I hope you stay a thousand years
For that long, yes that long, baby that long

You are a dirty mistreater
And you ain’t no good
And I wouldn’t [drive?] you back again [inaudible]
Even if it was good
For how long etc

Don’t start that jive baby
Just you leave me alone
Or you’ll be [setting?] up daisies [inaudible]
Round some cold headstone
For so long etc

So go on baby
And just let me be
If I never see you anymore
That’ll be too soon for me
For so long etc

I struggled with hearing several words in this version, so please do let me know if you hear something that I haven’t. In Carr’s ‘New How Long Blues’, he alters the melody of the final phrase – perhaps this is what makes it ‘new’! The refrain alternates a lot more here, from ‘how long’ to ‘so long’ (as we’ve seen earlier), but also to ‘that long’ in chorus four, which is another example of Carr’s use of humour. Like the previous version there is a reference to death in chorus six, only now it might be read as more threatening. Is Carr saying that he will kill his lover for messing him around, or is this another reference to dying from a broken heart? (That is, Carr’s lover will have to arrange the flowers around his grave after he has died.)


New How Long How Long Blues – Part 2 (C-7221-A)
Rec. January 16, 1931 (Vocalion 1585)

I think I’ll drop
My baby a line
And let her know
About these hard luck times
For how long etc

I wonder how long
Will these hard times stay
I’ll be so glad
When they go away
For how long etc

And it’s tight up the country
It’s tight in town
I can hardly make it
No matter where I am
For how long etc

Women walk the streets
Wear no boot and shoe
And if a woman can’t make it
What can a poor man do?
For how long etc.

I used to get a dollar
Before I could catch my breath
Now I can’t get a dime
I talked myself to death
For how long etc

Now all of my things
Are all locked up in pawn
How long will these hard luck times hang on?
Well how long etc

I used to have money
Everyday that passed
Now these hard luck times
Got me on my “yes yes yes…”
For how long etc

In this version, Carr does not start with the usual refrain of ‘how long’; instead he deliberates over contacting his absent lover – the only time he does so in any of the ‘How Long Blues’. There’s also a sense in this version that a significant amount of time has passed since the first ‘How Long Blues’: not only does Carr specifically discuss the passing of time in several choruses, but also his choruses are more reflective and observant of the world around him. As with earlier versions, too, there’s an element of humour when Carr censors himself in the final verse!!


How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone (11494-a)
Rec. March 15, 1932 (Vocalion 1716)

Mr. Engineer-Man
Turn your train around
My baby’s on there
And she’s southern-bound
For how long, has that evening train been gone?

She left me standing
Throwing up my hands
Said she was moving
Back to [an?]other man
How long, has that evening train been gone?

[Chorus of guitar and piano]

Now here I stand
All blue and sad
Thinking how much I loved her
Ain’t that too bad?
How long, has that evening train been gone?

If I had known
She was gonna leave me that way
My poor broken heart
Would have to pay
How long, has that evening train been gone?

[Chorus of guitar and piano]

Well she’s gone
There’s nothing for me to say
But maybe she will come
Back to me someday
Well how long, has that evening train been gone?

This final version of ‘How Long Blues’ is very interesting, not only because Carr introduces the song without the normal ‘how long’ refrain, but also because he dispenses with it entirely at the end of each chorus – preferring instead ‘how long has that evening train been gone?’ Guitarist Scrapper Blackwell takes a slightly more prominent role here too, in the two instrumental choruses. What is more perplexing, though, is that Carr seems to talk about his lover as though she is actually on the train, having recently departed, even though it is clear in other versions of the song that he has been alone for some time. Does this mean that she has recently come back, only to leave again? I’m also interested in the fact that Carr says his baby is ‘southbound’, as this has significant implications for where he (and in turn his audience) are positioned both literally and metaphorically. While narratives of the blues’s development often highlight the movement northwards by African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, here it is clear that Carr and his soon-to-be ex lover are somewhere northern already, and that she is going ‘back down south’. This is a further reminder that, as Guthrie Ramsey has argued, the act of travelling south was just as culturally important in midcentury black America as travelling north was; indeed, large numbers of the population did so frequently. Muddy Waters, who settled in Chicago in 1943, had already made several temporary visits to the city before moving permanently, each time returning to Memphis or the Mississippi Delta.

So there you have it – all the lyrics to all of Leroy Carr’s ‘How Long Blues’. There are many layers to these lyrics, and I think that spending some time thinking about what they might mean, and what the successive versions of the song might mean when compared to one another, is very important. We’re very used to this idea that the blues – particularly the ‘country blues’ – is made up of ‘stock phrases’, drawn on by early performers in the spur of the moment. Yet it is clear from Carr’s recordings that he wanted to develop certain themes in particular, and I think that audiences would have listened to later versions of ‘How Long Blues’ with the earlier versions in mind. That Carr had this sort of interaction between himself and his audiences in mind is, I argue, what distinguishes him as such a professional – and is perhaps part of the reason for his success and influence.

One final thing bugs me, however. It is clear that none of Carr’s original recordings match the lyrics most of us now know for ‘How Long Blues’. Sure, many of the same phrases and choruses are there, but the transcriptions above show that the version of ‘How Long Blues’ performed today is in fact a ‘collage’ made up of Carr’s multiple versions. So who recorded the first ‘modern’ version of ‘How Long Blues’; that is, the particular selection of these choruses in that order? By the 1950s, performances by Big Joe Turner (1956) and Lonnie Donegan (1956) follow the ‘modern’ order we know well, yet earlier versions such as Jimmy Rushing’s (1939), or Jimmy and Mama Yancey’s (1943) are very different.

Further Reading

Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hiphop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Elijah Wald, ‘Leroy Carr: The Bluesman Who Behaved Too Well’

Elijah Wald, Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Amistad, 2004).

Stefan Wirz, ‘Illustrated Leroy Carr Discography’

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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