Music as a concept has always constituted a major component of my being; I subscribe to a non-earth- shattering philosophy that it is the de facto universal language, allowing humans across whatever political, religious, or ethno-national backgrounds to eliminate boundaries and come to some understanding. It could be as simplistic a reckoning as being moved by a rhythm, or as complex as sharing mutual knowledge of the theories used to compose it. Perhaps, it is the middle ground of the stories that music tells, relatable or vicarious in nature. It really does not concern me which of the camps we come from in such regard, so long as the recognition of message, and a process of learning comes from the musical experience.
In the spirit of storytelling, grooving, and learning, I want to begin sharing with everyone a snapshot of what I have recently listened to, in the hopes that it establishes new awareness, cultural revelations, or even just an excellent ear-worm to request at your next dance event. The format for these playlists will follow thusly: I will describe a theme or genre with some foundational information, for neophytes. I will then give a list of tracks and be as specific as possible in terms of identifying details (artists and song titles are a given, but albums, years, and even duration as applicable) as it relates to the theme. After those have been provided, I will give a little breakdown on thoughts developed on each track – it could be context provided to the song, stylistic notes on rhythm, how I came to discover it, or even memories associated with it. Where needed, citations will be used to substantiate. Let us face it: there are many ways to interact with the music, so I will not limit the means in which I can attempt to bridge musical chasms to find camaraderie with you all. The one caveat with all of this is that I provide these little liner notes as a guide. Please draw your own conclusions and feelings where you can!
Our theme this week: Blues.
Folks, for a musical form that can oft be decried by some as simple or repetitive, there are few things as immensely creative, expressive, and downright varied as the blues. Jazz is widely considered the defining contribution by the United States to the tapestry of music; however, I hold blues – in my own personal opinion – to be as fundamentally important. To name the genesis of the genre is to engage in some educated guesswork: there are various opinions that seek as far back as West African musical roots 1, while some might pinpoint it more among the spirituals and “work songs” of African slaves. 2 Chronicling where it is at now, however, requires looking at how broadly it has evolved since. What I find to be consistent is the remarkable stories told, vignettes captured relating to calamity, wanderlust, sexual prowess, violence, verbal bawdiness, and a stark awareness of daunting times that surrounded the communities where the blues was sung and played. There is no ignoring the context and specific cultural experiences these songs arose from, from the fertile grounds of the Mississippi Delta, migrating northwards as far as urban jungles of Detroit – and the influence they had across the ocean in such varied countries as the United Kingdom and even Portugal. Though I may never lay claim to the life of a bluesman (or woman!), the appreciation for the form is not lost on me. With that, time to listen and explore:
Fourteen songs, covering the gamut of old chestnuts, young upstarts, and a seemingly-strange entry or two. Business time, though, so let’s do it.
Hooker’s the big dog of Detroit blues, which is extremely similar in sound to Chicago blues. Honestly, I cannot really discern the difference yet. A powerful bass line underwrites the tune, with sparse guitar licks highlighting the end of each lyric. The song itself is as quintessentially blues as you can find, however. It’s a musical retelling of the infamous Detroit Riot of 1967, among the deadliest riots in American history emanating from a predominantly black neighborhood. Hooker laments not knowing what caused the outbreak to happen, noting his helplessness as firefighters are fired upon by snipers, and as soldiers swarmed the streets to restore order – the drums certainly evoke a determined march. Nothing to do but leave, he ultimately decides. The human condition can get bleak in the blues, but they are important lessons, as we will see in some later songs. For more Detroit blues, check the following link – there are some good nuggets that get overshadowed by Hooker: http://projectrevolver.org/lists/detroit-blues- playlist-motor- city/.
I received the entire record as a birthday gift from a friend, and I cheesed so hard when the title track came rolling off that vinyl. Playing for Stax Records, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there would be just a little of that famous soul sound to Albert King’s accompanying musicians. This was altogether different, though: right out the gate, the unmistakable backing of the powerful Memphis Horn section prepares you for a true fusion of southern soul and blues. Add in King’s husky voice, promising the end of a young girl’s loneliness, the trademark sound from his Flying V, floating above the gentle rumble of an organ, and the product is a veritable odyssey of a song. The blues never sounded so funky, so absolutely grooving. This is the guaranteed ear-worm of the playlist.
Down to the Delta, the de facto homeland of the blues. Percussive strumming on an unaccompanied acoustic guitar at times gives the image of a train churning along a track. Son House, a former railroad employee, wrote this song as a tribute to the real Empire State Express, a train line with a renowned view running from New York into the Midwest. Tracking generally to an AAB stanza format, the song also hits upon traditional themes of traveling and being left behind by a woman. These more acoustic numbers don’t seem to hit off well with the dancing crowd of Kansas City at events, but they’re an important part of the journey, especially once migrants to Chicago, heavily influenced by the Delta sound, plugged their guitars into amps and electrified it.
I paired this song specifically with the preceding one for a reason. You’re probably thinking, “oh no, another dull acoustic one.” Au contraire, friends. This is Piedmont blues! Consider this the Appalachian cousin of the Delta. The picking style is different, and it’s a lot more syncopated. Check out how easy it rolls around the 3:07 mark. I would also argue that there is more of a kinship to some type of white folk music played in the hills contemporaneously to the style. Fun fact: Pink Floyd derives one half of its name from Pink Anderson. Syd Barrett, one of the band founders, had his records, as well as Floyd Council’s, in his private collection. Just goes to show that Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf weren’t having all the fun in influencing a generation of hungry British youth.
Kansas City has had a nice blues tradition of its own, and I’m making my fullest effort to become acquainted with current local talents. I heard these guys on Lindsey Shannon’s Sunday Blues Show on 101.1 The Fox (aside: it is such a blessing to have a good music program available on a Sunday night that isn’t a weird experimental punk music like my old rock stations back home would play at the same time). This comes from a performance at Knuckleheads, our beloved rockabilly bar in the more industrialized sector of the city limits. I like what the song offers: gritty female blues vocals with a twinge of country to it, certainly abetted by double-talk lyrics about her “tailgate”, and a stomp-down rhythm. I can see the roustabout bikers at Knuckleheads pounding Stags and then kicking each other’s asses in the parking lot as this plays on the main stage.
Blues is not always singing about the attention someone’s rear gets from admirers. We go back now to the idea that the genre is a bulwark against the symbols and forces of oppression of the black community, trailing back to slavery and into the time of Jim Crow. An acoustic blues ballad with none of the swagger of “The Motor City is Burning”, it solemnly decries the assassination attempt of James Meredith during the Civil Rights Era, “shot down like a dog”. Meredith catalyzed the desegregation of The University of Mississippi and the shooting shocked the African-American community, already roiled with frustration by the growing Vietnam War, economic inequality, and mounting violence from southern bigots. Ironically, Meredith outlived J.B. Lenoir, a sure loss for the Chicago blues community. His output is definitely minimal, but there’s no mistaking the sincere outrage when he declares that President Johnson plans to do nothing of consequence to help his people. Most of his body of work pertains to the injustice of the time.
Bernard Allison is the scion of Motown Record’s only blues artist, Luther Allison, who at one time played with the legendary Howlin’ Wolf (told you guys Detroit blues is overlooked). I saw him at a small blues festival in Gladstone where he was headlining, where he single-handedly saved it from being a snooze-fest. The organ is prominent here, and it is reminiscent of the earlier Albert King album, sans the horn section. A perfectly adequate marriage of modern blues and soul/funk.
Once you get past the blistering solo introduction, we fall into familiar territory. “The Humbler” excels in virtuosic guitar work, and to boot, sets himself apart from other six-string warriors like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joe Bonamassa by flavoring his music with jazz and country elements. There is no mistaking where the focus needs to be, as the bass lays down a simple bedrock for the solos to continue exploding out from, badass blues bombs being lobbed by Satan himself. And then it briefly ripples into rockabilly! A good guitarist/lutenist friends shared Gatton with me years ago, and I have not looked back since. Check out some of his videos and see some of the insane nonsense he does when playing: he uses a whole beer bottle for slide guitar. Maybe it is too much spectacle and technical for some (“Notcho blues”, anyone?), but I think some of the crazy old blues masters of the early 20th century would approve of his panache.
We have not had a lot of blues piano yet, and the Devil’s son-in-law provides. A true stomp, this is all about the prototypical “bluesman” and his exploits: a man arrives in town, captivates all the women, married and single; he has time to get around to every little lady, who spreads the legend of his wicked streak and prowess across the land. It’s brash, confident, and bigger-than-life, charged by a care-free, rollicking barrelhouse melody. My research tells me he was a big player in St. Louis during the Great Depression.
Portugal sounds like an odd place for the blues to take root, but believe it or not, it is actually pretty popular there. Rui Veloso is their Muddy Waters equivalent. I am not even going to try and pretend I understand Portuguese. The lesson here, friends, is that we should always keep an open mind to seeing where the rabbit hole can lead. We get locked so frequently into thinking only the Americans and British can land a good musical punch, and it can be rewarding to learn that we might be a little wrong here and there.
If you have not been down to the Phoenix, you are a knucklehead and need to remedy that immediately. In addition to being the oldest remaining jazz club in the city, they host a slew of amazing bands, including the occasional performance by these local blues/rockabilly enthusiasts. In fact, they were my first band that I saw at the aforementioned venue, and the guitarist blew my mind. He has a pretty sweet guitar face. Anyway, this song pays all the lip-service to both Kansas City, as the narrator crows about his honey’s on both side of State Line Road – the harmonica adds a fun aspect to the song by acting as the musical demarcation between the sweet Missouri girl, and the wealthy Mission Hills woman on the Kansas side. I forgot to mention this for the earlier entry with the Nick Schnebelen Band, but I definitely encourage some purchases of albums from your local artists where you can afford! I believe this cut is from Levee Town’s most recent one.
Neil Young can use the blues to protest too, it seems, and provide the symbolism to make the message somewhat compelling. As an avid environmentalist, this is another entry in his fight against the profiteers and indifferent corporate bodies that he believes recklessly are wrecking the planet. Despite coming from one of my all-time favorite albums, On the Beach, I was tempted to replace this with something else. It stayed around, though, because I think it offers a glimpse into how the cultural distance between the approach taken by African-American musicians with the utilization of the blues and their white counterparts. This is not a knock on ol’ Neil (Lynyrd Skynyrd beat me to that one already), but although it broaches a pretty real issue for the decade it was written in addition to the present, check out how impersonal and broad it aims compared to J.B. Lenoir and “Shot On James Meredith”. The metaphor of Big Oil as a vampire bleeding the earth dry with oil derricks is substantial but distant. We and Neil are generally safely removed from the immediate harm by time and space. The black community, in many of their blues songs, is presenting something inescapable, tangible, harrowing. There is real loss and pain. It is personal. Another way to conceptualize it is through perceiving shareholders versus stakeholders. The former is a group of people who generally, through work accomplished successfully by others, reap benefits. I think I need to also briefly qualify that statement by saying that in the realm of music, I feel there is nothing implicitly wrong with people benefiting from the creation of any type of music. Pages ago, I stated that I think it’s our one universal language, and we can grow and progress a lot together by sharing in the created traditions. That being said, there can be ignorance in the profit gained. The other group I think is rather self-evident: they are the impacted group, the ones who actually stand to gain or lose from the work being acted upon, be it by themselves or another party. There is a lot of dialogue revolving around this dynamic, and I will reserve other thoughts on it for a potential later blog post. But the parallel was apparent here, and I believe it merited an acknowledgment. A person can still enjoy the song but cast a critical glance at how it relates to its world.
Sorry for that screed, folks. We’re almost done. Tampa Red is a Chicago blues guitarist, who is the immediate precursor to the electric Chicago style that is known as the hallmark of blues. The music here is pretty mature, sounding full and contained. His guitar is sonorous compared to other acoustic players of the time, and at one point competes with the piano, playing simultaneous runs before Red teases some kazoo action (keep the kazoo in mind for the last song). Lyrically, he upbraids his naysayers who told him the girl he was running around with was too loose and hard to handle – “so far, so good”, he shrugs.
This is it. You’ve made it all the way. I saved one of the best for last, the immortal Howlin’ Wolf. A pure mountain of a man whose voice resembled chewed gravel, there is nothing he could not touch and turn into blues gold. Here, he is singing a song also famously covered by Tampa Red, albeit with additional lyrics added in from other notable performers. This is pure Chicago electric, through and through. The amp is likely cranked, the kazoo is replaced with a searing harmonica bit that calls to mind train horns in the famous Chicago railyards, and we even catch sight of early electric bass. Wolf keeps the lyric blues tradition strong as well with AAB format and suggestive phrasing. This is an absolute favorite of mine to play on a blues night, particularly for that harmonica.
I hope there were some quality choices discovered here, or even just a reinforcement of your own enjoyment of the genre. See you all around next time.
Paul Oliver, The Story of The Blues (1969; repr., Boston Northeastern University Press, 1998), p18 - 19. Jeff Todd Titon, Early Downhome Blue: A Musical and Cultural Analysis 2nd. Edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p22.