The lyrics, a first-person narrative, appear to relate the story of a man pleading with a woman to let him in her house; the speaker calls himself "Papa McTell" in the first stanza ("Have you got the nerve to drive Papa McTell from your door?"). Throughout the song, the woman, addressed as "mama," is alternately pleaded with (to go with the speaker "up the country") and threatened ("When I leave this time, pretty mama, I'm going away to stay"). Throughout the non-linear narrative, the "Statesboro blues" are invoked—an unexplained condition from which the speaker and his entire family seem to be suffering ("I woke up this morning / Had them Statesboro blues / I looked over in the corner: grandma and grandpa had 'em too"). Later versions, such as the one played by The Allman Brothers Band, have shorter, simplified lyrics.
As with many blues lyrics, it can be difficult to establish rules for the narrative order of the stanzas. In the case of "Statesboro Blues," Richard Blaustein attempted a structural analysis of McTell's song in an approach influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss; it is unclear whether his results are applicable to other blues songs also.
Because of the song, rumor had it that McTell was born in Statesboro; he was, in fact, born in Thomson, Georgia, though in an interview he called Statesboro "my real home." McTell made the first recording of the song on Victor, on October 17, 1928 (Victor #38001). The eight sides he recorded for Victor, including "Statesboro Blues," were described as "superb examples of storytelling in music, coupled with dazzling guitar work."
An original recording Statesboro Blues, is available from The Archive.
Taj Mahal made a "wonderful modernized version" on his eponymous, 1968 debut album. The song (and Taj Mahal himself, who had yet to acquire fame) reached a wide audience through being featured on the best-selling Columbia/CBS sampler album The Rock Machine Turns You On. His arrangement is credited with inspiring The Allman Brothers Band.Mahal had recorded "Stateboro Blues" prior to the aforementioned rendition, in 1965 or 1966, as a member of the group Rising Sons; this recording was not released until 1992.
The most familiar version of the song is by The Allman Brothers Band, as recorded at the Fillmore East in March 1971 and first released on the 1971 album At Fillmore East. This version is famous also for Duane Allman's slide guitar playing, which, as Rolling Stone would write years later, featured "the moaning and squealing opening licks [that] have given fans chills at live shows."
Allman's slide riffs on "Statesboro Blues" have been analyzed and transcribed in guitar magazines many times over and the tones of Allman and Dickey Betts's guitars on the song were hailed by Guitar Player as some of the "50 Greatest Tones of All Time."Allman's version comes from when his brother Gregg gave him a record by Taj Mahal (containing his version of "Statesboro Blues") and a bottle of Coricidin pills, both for his birthday and as Duane had a cold that day; A short while later, Duane, who had never played slide guitar before, washed the label from the Coricidin bottle after emptying out the pills and learned how to play the song, even exhibiting it to Gregg. After Allman's death in a motorcycleaccident later that year, the performance was included on the 1972 album Duane Allman: An Anthology. In 2008, Rolling Stone magazine ranked The Allman Brothers Band's version of "Statesboro Blues" as #9 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.