Quintet for Blues Guitar and String Quartet
In one movement
Scored for blues guitar, two violins, viola, and cello
Based on “Children of Zion,” a song by Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972), and grooves by:
Mississippi Fred McDowell (1904-1972)
Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966)
Robert Belfour  (1940-2015)

Composer’s Statement

I love the blues. Early acoustic blues, in particular. It has haunted and thrilled my imagination since I was introduced to it as a boy around 1975. Most of the blues gods that I now revere were gone by then. It was impossible for a 13-year-old kid who studied violin to absorb authentic blues guitar music without a teacher, and there were no real blues mentors to be found where I was forced to live. Recordings by the masters were my only source and guide. By the age of 15, I began playing simple versions of “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters and other tunes on acoustic and electric guitars. It has taken me decades to fully understand the authentic techniques, musical structures, and different styles that the great early blues musicians created. 

The song I chose to source, “Children of Zion,” is a tune by Reverend Gary Davis, the great blues, ragtime, gospel guitarist and singer. Although Davis was a master of many styles, his Piedmont blues technique is legendary. Piedmont blues is a fingerpicking guitar style that demands a regular, alternating thumb bass string rhythmic pattern played under a syncopated melody on top using the treble strings generally picked with the fore-finger. The resulting sound is comparable to ragtime or stride piano music.

Video rendered in Sibelius notation software

“Mercy’s Door” – the Construction

When faced with creating a blues piece for guitar and string quartet, I wanted to find a way to have bowed instruments create the hypnotic repetitive grooves found in North Mississippi hill country blues. All without forcing string players to use extended or alternate techniques not found in the standard classical repertoire. The solution was to provide the musicians with groove lines by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Belfour, and a bit of my own. Each line can accompany the main tune and structure of “Children of Zion,” but they can also accompany each other, enhancing the syncopation.

When the independent syncopated lines played by each musician are set against each other,

an almost involuntary or unconscious percussive effect results. Just past the halfway mark of the score, the string quartet plays without the guitar laying one groove on top of the other, which becomes a rhythmic, syncopated multi-stringed dance. 

Mercy’s Structure

The cello and guitar enter together, with the cello playing the 1st groove and the guitar playing the Zion theme. After the guitar states the theme, the viola clarifies it, with the cello continuing its incessant groove #1 until the guitar takes over and again makes its thematic statement. Underneath, the viola decides to take over the cello’s part, and the cello introduces the 2nd groove called, “Write Me A Few of Your Lines.”

When the guitar drops out, the cello takes over the theme, the viola plays groove #1, and the second violin enters with groove #2. 

Violins one and two play the Zion theme an octave apart, the viola groove #2, and the cello groove #1.

Groove #3, “Pushing My Luck,” is stated by the cello, with the guitar handling the theme until it is time to solo. The guitar trades solos, with the cello getting support here and there from the violins. Then the guitar trades solos with the first violin. Theme and grooves are heard. More solos.

A re-harmonized string quartet section begins stepping just outside the pure blues realm for 31 bars and then one ¾ bar of silence.

The cello skips out of the brief silence with groove #3 for eight bars, and then the viola joins in with groove #2 for 8 more bars – they switch grooves –  violin two takes groove #2, the cello responds with groove #1, and the viola sticks with groove #3.

Violin one plays groove #1 with the viola and cello, and violin two plays groove #3.

And then, for the first time, we hear groove #4, “Got the Blues,” played by the cello and violin one, supported by groove #1, played by the viola and second violin.

The hypnotic tension gets resolved when the guitar enters with the cello, just as they did at the beginning. A bit more soloing leads to the conclusion.

About the Theme and Grooves


“Children of Zion“ appears to be a centuries-old tune. Davis described its origins in an introduction once “This here number was sung way back yonder. My grandmother sung it, my grandmother’s mother sung it, my mother’s grandmother’s mother’s mother’s grandmother sung it. Way back yonder, 500 years old.”

I named the quintet “Mercy’s Door” after the line in “Children of Zion”:
“I rapped and rapped on mercy’s door ‘til my head got wet with the midnight dew.”


All grooves derived from:
“Write Me a Few of Your Lines” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (1904-1972)
“Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied” by Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966)
“Pushing My Luck”  by Robert Belfour  (1940-2015)