Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Amadou & Mariam: Visionary Mali Music

From Ali Farka Touré to Tinariwen, the music of Mali is as diverse as that of the US. This summer, one of the country’s finest combos, the rock/electronic/blues duo Amadou & Mariam, return to the states for a series of shows. For this month’s column in Tourworthy, I capsulize their history and speak to some of their collaborations with alternative musicians around the world.  I also talk to noted disability scholar, Leroy Moore Jr. about the realities of musicians from Africa touring with disabilities (Amadou & Mariam are both legally blind).  Take a look and listen to the couple’s new single, “Bofou Safou,” and link to the full story here.

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, column, cross cultural musical experimentation, Mali, video, , ,

American Epic or American Tragedy? The Myth of Robert Johnson and the State of Mississippi Delta Blues

I wrote this piece  on the occasion of the Robert Johnson Centennial in May of 2011:  Reassessing the worn-out folk legend about his meeting the devil at midnight at the crossroads, it reports on the state of the 21st century blues from the perspective of a contemporary Mississippi blues player, Cedric Burnside. I hope you enjoy reading and as ever, let me know what you think.

“You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future,” Bob Dylan writes in his book Chronicles of Robert Johnson, the 20th Century blues giant whose work is still celebrated. Johnson’s 29 songs were prescient in the way they would shape folk, rock, blues, and soul—as was his groundbreaking style of playing and singing them. From old-time and ragtime, to uptown Chicago strut, Delta picking, and hill country stomp, the root of all blues can be found in the songs of Robert Johnson, serving all forms of folk, rock, and even soul-jazz. Johnson’s songs have survived homages by artists diverse as the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones, Gil Scott Heron, the White Stripes, Keb’ Mo’, and satirists like Tenacious D. Indeed there is something supernatural about the way Johnson’s music, as well as the Faustian myth surrounding him, has survived time and outstretched the work of musicians from here to Yazoo. But far more went into his achievements than a simple midnight pact made on the hallowed ground at the famous crossroads where Highways 61 and 49 now stand.

     “I have to say, I’m a big fan of Robert Johnson’s music, and always have been, but when it comes down to him selling his soul to the devil, I don’t believe in no type of stuff like that,” says musician Cedric Burnside. “I think he really buckled down and practiced a lot and came out blazing.” Burnside is right about Johnson’s devotion to his music rather than the devil according to the Johnson scholars who’ve studied his life and music for over 50 years now. But there is enough drama, dirt, and lowdown on Johnson to fuel a legend in his likeness and many more like it, drawing as it does from existing folk tales and details drawn from the hard scrabble lives of other blues players and the lives they led as black men in the Jim Crow South. As grandson of the late R.L. Burnside, the rural South is something that Cedric knows something about; he worked alongside his grandad who sharecropped for food and shelter until Cedric was nine or 10. As for what he knows about Johnson, he learned that from his grandfather, too. He says Johnson’s works ring true to his experience in the rural blues.

“Some people that ain’t used to the blues and don’t listen to it much, they might see a movie on television, and it might have blues songs in it and the scene might be sad or violent, and that’s what their interpretation of the blues is, but it’s really way different. It’s a deep music. It’s soulful. I think it’s good for you,” he says.

For Burnside, the blues isn’t about harsh reality, breaking up, or bad times; rather, he says, “It helps you appreciate where you come from. I feel good when I’m playing it. I think about having been there and done that, that I made it through it, and I feel good about that.”

Burnside (pictured right) sings and plays guitar with his own Cedric Burnside Project and drums with guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm on 100 Years of Robert Johnson by Big Head Blues Club featuring jam band Big Head Todd and the Monsters, alongside tracks recorded with actual bluesmen: Charlie Musselwhite, B.B. King, Honeyboy Edwards, and Hubert Sumlin. Burnside and Malcolm caught their signature hill country groove on Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”; they also cut a mean slide version of “Ramblin’ on My Mind.” “We play similar music to Robert Johnson,” Burnside explains. “That’s all I know.”

As a kid growing up, Burnside says the family didn’t have a radio. “My grandad used to have house parties. He’d invite all his friends over; they’d set up on the porch, set up a little raggedy drum set and a little piece of amp, and go to playing, and that was our music. He explained to us, some of it was Muddy Waters, some of it was Howlin’ Wolf, and some of it was Robert Johnson. That’s how I came to know some of the music, by my grandad playing some.” Burnside is a fan not only of the Johnson guitar style, notable for sounding as if more than one guitar is playing simultaneously, but for his lyrics. “Some of the songs he wrote you can relate to, like ‘Come on in My Kitchen’—I definitely related to that. And ‘When You Got a Good Friend.’ They hit you right where the heart’s at. Anybody that done heard Robert Johnson or hill country blues will love to come to a live show; if they’re hearing it for the first time, they’ll love it for the rest of their life,” he says.

Clearly Burnside is a blues advocate and doesn’t have to be persuaded to talk up his state’s most famous export. He touts the North Mississippi All-Stars as “great musicians” and when I ask for recommendations he tells me the sister/brothers act, Homemade Jamz Blues Band, from Tupelo, are “phenomenal” (I have to say I agree). But Burnside reserves his utmost respect for the living Mississippi bluesmen Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton who made their marks with the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands, as well as for Johnson’s contemporary Honeyboy Edwards, all of with whom he says it’s been his great honor and pleasure to play. The experience of sharing stages with these men places Burnside in a direct a line of Mississippi bluesman whose roots connect up directly with Johnson’s.

King of the Delta Blues

In a classic early book on the subject of the blues titled The Poetry of the Blues, by Samuel Charters, bluesman Henry Townsend explained the blues as a story in which the singer can take sympathy with another. J.D. Short seconded the emotion when he explained, “Sometimes the people that’s listening at you have actually been through some of the same things that I’ve been through, and automatically that takes effect on them and causes their attention to come.” The personal story of Robert Johnson has plenty of instability and strife for a perfect blues tale of woe, and yet through his songs run the threads of compassion Townsend describes. Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi most likely on May 8, 1911, young Robert was shuffled between his parents’ homes until he eventually settled with his mother and stepfather in the Tunica-Robinsonville region of Mississippi. Married at 17 to a young wife who died in childbirth, old and superstitious church types might’ve said that such a fate was his punishment for playing secular songs to earn his living. You could even say this is the beginning of the so-called devil myth, though the story of bluesman Tommy Johnson (no relation) who reportedly told folks that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent also figures in; admittedly, it’s an attention-grabber.

The Mississippi Delta region was rich with folktales and blues musicians in the early part of the 20th century, their traditions and sounds descended from slaves from West Africa. Dislocated from their homeland and mistreated to degrees that they don’t teach in school, these men, women, and children were often put to work picking cotton for landed gentry. Once slavery was abolished, those who did not escape or migrate north often found work as sharecroppers, tending farms for owners who paid them a grossly disproportionate piece of the pie. As time went by, conditions in the South didn’t necessarily improve for black men and their families who subsisted in a cycle of poverty. A man could be incarcerated simply for being on the street at night (the subject of Johnson’s song “Crossroads”), then sentenced to work in a labor camp or on a chain gang. This was the fate that Johnson intended to escape, and it motivated him to master music; it also kept him on the move throughout his short life.

In 1930, the blues singer Son House moved into the area where Johnson stayed, as did  Willie Brown (who Johnson shouts out to in “Crossroads”) and Johnson picked up what he could from the blues professionals. By now remarried and with a child, Johnson’s second wife fell ill, and the crisis sent Johnson leaving town again, this time to perform in towns around Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. He found a new mentor in Ike Zinnerman, said to have developed his power by playing in a graveyard—and there again, a supernatural connection. The details have been debated for years now, but historians generally agree it was a comfortable life Johnson created for himself, away from the hard labor that caused others to be too tired to enjoy much of anything, much less develop prodigious skills as a musician. But it was no easy ride: Not only did Johnson have a habit of loving up other men’s women, the menfolk were jealous of Johnson’s ability to get away with not working (therein the beginnings of another archetype that has persisted in and around rock ‘n’ roll for years—the layabout musician). When he eventually returned to Robinsonville,  blues elders like House and Brown were said to be surprised by Johnson’s new-found professionalism. He was ready to record.

The two sessions where Johnson laid down his 29 songs to tape were in 1936 and 1937: First stop was in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where the Brunswick label set up a studio. Johnson played facing the wall, a set-up that has occasionally led historians to conclude that he was shy; rather, it’s likely he was trying to create a good acoustic environment for his recordings of “Terraplane Blues,”“Cross Road Blues,”,and “Come on in My Kitchen,” among others. In 1937, Johnson traveled to Dallas where he recorded more sides for Brunswick, including his epic classics, “Hell Hound on My Trail,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,”, “Love in Vain,” and “Stones in My Passway.”

Now keeping company with Estella Coleman of Helena, Arkansas, a woman 10 years his senior and mother of Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnson took a shine to “Robert Junior,” just four years younger than him, and taught him everything he knew, deepening the family ties among bluesmen and between de facto stepfather and son. Johnson also fell in with an alliance of musicians including Honeyboy Edwards, Hound Dog Taylor, Robert Petway, and Tommy McClennan, all of whom were forging careers of their own. He traveled with Edwards and Johnny Shines performing all types of songs, including his own “Terraplane Blues.” Ladies loved this song concerning the flashing lights, oil checks, spark plugs, and starter on an automobile, although it wasn’t just the sensational metaphors that attracted listeners. Johnson had a smooth style, developed and honed it, and when he played, it was like listening to a one-man band. So extraordinary were his abilities that to this day there persists a misguided theory that his tapes were sped up to achieve the otherworldly effects.

In Chronicles, Bob Dylan writes about receiving a pre-release version of Johnson’s landmark album finally released in 1961 as King of the Delta Blues. Columbia Records executive John Hammond had acquired Johnson’s previously issued recordings and had newly signed Dylan who describes running to Terri and Dave Van Ronk’s house where they would listen to Johnson for the first time. “Johnson’s voice and guitar were ringing the room and I was mixed up in it. Didn’t see how anyone couldn’t be.” Van Ronk didn’t especially care for what he heard, though Dylan was immediately mesmerized, taking the record home with him and listening to it repeatedly for several weeks. “Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition.” He was particularly impressed with Johnson’s writing; the sophistication of the verses and economy of the lines, the way “every couplet intertwined with the next, but in no obvious way.” Dylan says he wrote down the lines so he could study their construction, “the patterns, the sparkling allegories, big ass truths wrapped in the hard-shell of nonsensical abstraction… They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture.”

Sixty years later, Cedric Burnside says Johnson’s stories pull him into the action too, which is how he came to record “When You Got a Good Friend” for the Johnson tribute project. “A lot of people want good friends and they want to keep good friends—somebody that can stay right by your side through thick and thin. You’ve got something good,” he says.  “A lot of people can relate to that. Some can’t.” Far from the image of a blues tough guy, Johnson advocates caring for friends, in this case a woman in question, though according to those who remember, Johnson was hardly the loyal and steadfast type. Surely Johnson was not the first or last musician motivated to hook up with the woman who would provide him with a warm bed for the night, but he was apparently notorious for catching hell from the men who normally occupied those beds.

Which leads us to the jealous husband who poisoned him—a story that is most likely true, according to Honeyboy Edwards, who was with Johnson on his final rounds. Although, the cause of death was more likely the pneumonia Johnson caught while he was laid up from the poisoning, had he heeded the advice of Sonny Boy Williamson to never drink from an open container, he may’ve avoided this fate. But then he would’ve missed all the women who reportedly sat vigil for him, attempting to nurse him back to health. And had he not fallen so ill, who knows if he would’ve felt the need for a last-ditch conversion on his deathbed, written in longhand and printed on his tombstone (one of three gravesites in the Greenwood/Hazelhurst area): “… I know that my redeemer liveth and that he will call me from the grave.” To this day, there remain three burial sites for Johnson: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Payne Chapel, and Little Zion Church.

The era immediately following Johnson’s death found his songs becoming embedded in the repertoire of his fellow Delta bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, to name but three whose blues helped shape rock ‘n’ roll. And yet it wasn’t until the release of King of the Delta Blues that the real obsession in the hearts and minds of musicians and fans began to swell. At the time that Dylan, followed by Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Eric Clapton, first heard Robert Johnson, there wasn’t even a photograph of him, just 29 songs and a myth a mile long. In 1973, the first photographs of Johnson were found, the familiar close-up with cigarette and long-shot with guitar. It was in these years that Johnson’s connection to rock ‘n’ roll was established that the crossroads bargain myth grew larger. Led Zeppelin, their “Traveling Riverside Blues” and obsession with all things blues and magical, certainly contributed to spreading the music’s mystique around rock ‘n’ roll, as did the high era of ’70s Rolling Stones and their back to country-blues period around Exile on Main Street. By the ’90s, when Columbia issued The Complete Recordings, a generation raised on the myth of Johnson and rock ‘n’ roll was ready to embrace him like never before.

Whether through the pursuit of blues purity by collectors or by Budweiser blues and festival enthusiasts, the blues enjoy greater popularity than ever, though it must be said, largely among white audiences, but that’s changing too: In recent years African Americans returning to the South seeking work and better lives away from urban centers are reclaiming the Southern heritage that is their birthright. Alvin Youngblood Hart (who has Mississippi roots), Corey Harris, and Ruthie Foster are among the contemporary African American artists who play the blues

In 2008, a third photo of Robert Johnson was published in Vanity Fair magazine. Moving footage surfaced but was quickly waved away by scholars; in particular it was nixed by Robert Lockwood Jr.who definitively stated the man in question was not Johnson. In lieu of that holy grail of all Johnson artifacts, the inevitable digitalization and commercialization continues: Columbia’s issued The Centennial Collection of The Complete Recordings as both two-disc and four-disc sets;  Dogfish Head brewery makes Hell Hound on My Ale, a Johnson-inspired craft beer. One suspects a Johnson hologram is on the horizon.

Johnson’s contemporary, Honeyboy Edwards (pictured left),  wrote about Johnson’s unique playing style in his own blues memoir, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing: “Robert came out with a classic blues style, with mostly a lot of minor chords. He had a lot of seventh chords in his blues and it sounded better than just playing straight. And that took with people, because he had a different sound.”

Edwards (who performed up until his death in 2011 at the age of 96) described his fellow bluesman as a nice person who admittedly loved his whiskey and women, but who was no hellraiser. “Robert’s more popular because he died, like everybody else who dies young. But he was a great musician. He innovated his own way of playing. Robert had his own style and he held with it till he died. He wasn’t out there long, but he changed everything.”

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, , , , ,

Women’s History: Memphis Minnie

Memphis-Minnie-book-1.jpgIn what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has, over time, been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy.

As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

A certain amount of projection, imagination, and accounting for what the Garons call “the listener’s own obsessions” aid in an understanding of Minnie’s blues, alternately concerned with cooking, hoodoo, love, sex, and the natural environment. A least that’s what I hear when she sings “I’m Gonna Bake My Biscuits,” “Black Cat Blues,” and “When the Levee Breaks.” When Minnie sings, most of her lines go at least two or three ways, which in itself is not the revolutionary part; that she was a woman, saying and doing the things that she was in her time, contributes to the possibility she was also the greatest songster of them all, and yet, she remains the proverbial secret hiding in plain sight. Broonzy said as much in his 1955 book, and since then, the songs have supported the fact she’s a giant—just ask the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Chuck Berry who used them as springboards for their own. Is it possible that Minnie was so good—the world’s deepest blues player, conjurer, show person and poet—her story is believable only if it’s portrayed as myth?

Minnie’s way with words is largely the focus of the Garons’ study, a combination of interpretation and inquiry into Minnie’s blues and the deep subconscious well from which she drew inspiration. Crafting lines with far more layers of meaning than the kind of poetry which generally receives laurels, the authors emphasize Minnie’s contributions to blues form have barely begun to be unpacked. The Garons’ surrealist portrait of Minnie is a unique work of scholarship and an essential text toward understanding not only Minnie’s world and work, but the blues itself. Quoting her lyrics and others in blues tradition, the authors consistently and convincingly deliver the idea that a blues narrative is often less critical to interpretation than its lines and metaphors. Pieces of the dream are absorbed in a flash, by design, assimilated “on the fly, while dancing and drinking. Thus, there may be an analogy of how we listen to the blues and how surrealist poets listen to the unconscious.”

A captivating performer—agile, fast, and showy—Minnie was not only an accomplished guitarist but a songwriting original with verses double and triple-loaded with richness. She covered it all, though an area that Minnie mined singularly and deeply was the kitchen: Like the bluesmen’s perpetual and enduring references to liquor as poison, potion and magic elixir, Minnie used food as a way to sing of longing, desire and consummation but also of autonomy, liberation and ultimately transformation. (In addition to her ability to wipe the floor with her guitar competitors, Minnie was also known for her home cooking, especially her biscuits).

Automobiles and trains, allusions to the great outdoors, and the open road also serve as symbols of freedom in her songs, an ideal that still largely lived in the abstract for a rural black woman—and most all women—of Minnie’s generation. And though she might have done sung on the drudgery of domestic work, more often she chose not to: All these sides of Minnie, and what may also be perceived as her contradictions are explored throughout Woman With Guitar.

And you can’t tell me nothing, baby, that I never seen (2x)

And if you don’t believe me, follow me back to New Orleans

Among the new discoveries in this fresh edition of Woman With Guitar: Minnie, born Lizzie Douglas, was not from Algiers, Louisiana as was previously believed; rather, she is a Mississippian, like so many other legends of the blues, likely born in Tunica County around 1897. The eldest of 13, Lizzie or “Kid” as she was known, began to play guitar and banjo from age 10 or 11. She ran away from home to begin her career as a teenage guitarist on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus for a few years. Returning to Beale Street, she fell in with friends in the Memphis Jug Band and was eventually discovered and signed to a Columbia recording contract in 1929. Her first sides, cut with “Kansas” Joe McCoy, were released that year and in 1930: Among the early songs, which remain her best-known were “Bumble Bee” and “When the Levee Breaks,” concerning the great Mississippi flood of 1927 (famously covered by Led Zeppelin).

Wild associations, side roads, and back doors are the Garons’ stock-in-trade, infusing their studies with an edge that the work by other scholars of classic American music forms often lacks; and yet, Woman With Guitar is no easy ride for casual readers who may need to delve deeper into America’s blues past to perceive the big picture.

When LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) described the makers of indigenous African American music as Blues People, he explored the idea that as musical innovators jazz and blues players could look misery in the face while never allowing despair or suffering the last word; music was their soul expression, a place where joy, pain, and liberation occupied the same truly free space, no matter one’s circumstances. Scholar Cornel West has furthered this idea in his ongoing dialogues suggesting, “These people are neither sentimental [nor] cynical; they’re blues people.” Blues people are willing to fight for what’s right and to be of service, “even when it did not look as if it would produce major consequences and effects.”

It’s unlikely Memphis Minnie was conscious of what she had to give or the ground she was breaking or taking—she was merely trying to survive America, the South, and escape her oppressors. Using her poetic and musical gifts, her expressions were samples of the life sustaining properties of song and the unconscious messages emitted when a poet puts pen to paper and gives voice to her soul. Given her circumstances, it’s miraculous that Minnie could read and write at all (any number of her contemporaries could not).

Paul Garon’s City Lights title, Blues and the Poetic Spirit, further defends the blues as a complex form, piled with as much meaning as so-called standard poetry has, if not more. Making the case that the blues is a “sustained poetic attack on the superstructure of an exploitative society,” he asserts the blues has made its own “psychopoetic” contribution to American music and social history. The same must be said for Minnie. Whether or not she is acknowledged by the masses, or the blueskeepers and tastemakers who reissue records is irrelevant.

“We have everything to gain if we interrogate our own level of consciousness about what we hear and how we hear it, in an effort to plumb the depths of responsibility toward the determination of the nature of the revolutionary poetic voice,” write the Garons. An offering to anyone interested in better understanding the blues and aiding in its survival, the Garons’ work has certainly made a difference in my own explorations, listenings and writings on blues. While there are no pat stories or explanations and few solutions to age old dilemmas on offer, Minnie’s story as a consummate artist against the odds will resonate with anyone who finds him or herself up against it in the here and now. Let Minnie’s life and work be a reminder that it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it that’s important.  May she continue to inspire and inform listeners for another 100 years or more.

Originally appeared in Blurt

Filed under: Blues, Books, Poetry, Women in Rock, ,

RIP: Mose Allison, 1927-2016

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Jazz-blues singer-songwriter and pianist Mose Allison is yet another extraordinary example of the ways in which the best (and by that I mean, the only good) American popular music made by white people borrows, steals, and is inspired by music that is tied to a root of African or African-American origin. American music is, as the narrative goes, where “the races meet;” the space where we walk right in, set right down and let it all hang out. While that is often the case, Black, Latino, other non-white, female, LGBTQ, and disabled musicians will tell you a different story; the contradictions are a part of the story too and must be aired out consistently to get the full picture. This is perhaps related or not to how Allison, a Mississippi-born white man came to sing cotton-picking songs on the piano and inspired a generation of rock musicians to look back and discover Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon. When Allison opened his mouth to accompany his piano songs in 1963, he reached The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, the Clash and the Pixies… and that’s only a fraction of the artists he touched.

 

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Blues, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, ,

Furry Lewis: Born to Blues

 

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and the unbelievable, actual surname of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the Depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him though Lewis was not a fan. No stranger to film and television, he appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88.

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. His “Judge Harsh” blues from Good Morning Judge, never fails to restore my cheer). People rely on the blues to chase away their own; when I play Furry Lewis, I don’t stay down too long. His delivery and his guitar style are unique (check the move he calls “spanking the baby,” or the he way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony).  His recorded output is generally optimistic, and bring a smile, though his lines and the rhymes will break your heart.

Tell me baby, what ever have I done?

Tell me baby, what ever have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

Covering in song the spectrum of life in all its colors—from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow—he’ll turn your face red and your money green. Of course he also had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee.“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said.  And for that, I am most grateful that he was born to sing and play the blues.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video,

Born to Rock: Lead Belly

leadbellyLead Belly was born around this day of January in 1888 or nine. This is a portion of his story, adapted from my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

“I’m obsessed with him. He’s my favorite performer,” said Kurt Cobain. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” claimed George Harrison, and the same may as well be said for Led Zeppelin, whose Jimmy Page was rocking “Cotton Fields” back in 1957. According to Van Morrison, “If it wasn’t for Lead Belly, I may never have been here.” And yet, Lead Belly—born Huddie Ledbetter near Mooringsport, Louisiana in 1888—is rarely the first traditional American musician historians credit with the creation of rock ‘n’ roll or the bands of the British Invasion. His contribution to rock is as fundamental and profound as those of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, so why is it we don’t hear that much anymore about his legend? Perhaps it can be blamed on the boll weevil he sung about—and it indeed may have something to do with cotton—though the diminishing of Lead Belly’s influence on rock is likely just another case of the forgotten origins of song.

The Louisianan’s sound first came to impact the young lads who would go on to form the classic rock bands of the ’60s via the British Isle’s mid-’50s skiffle craze. Rooted in the jug band style of the 1920s, skiffle’s homemade and improvised style relied on the wacky sounds of household items like washboard, comb, and homemade instruments—the stuff that makes for its irresistible, ecstatic sound. Glaswegian Lonnie Donegan’s frantic version of “Rock Island Line”, first popularized by Lead Belly, swept across the land like skiffle-mania, boosting guitar sales and launching a thousand bands, like young Jim Page’s combo as well as the Quarrymen (who we all know by now birthed the Beatles).

For Morrison—who’d already developed a taste for the blues voices of the American South—skiffle provided confirmation of the potential for what an Irishman could do with a Black American folk sound. The Lead Belly repertoire meeting English skiffle marked the beginning of his long association with rock ‘n’ roll; though stateside he was more of a singular phenomenon, as well as a folker.

Coming up through traditional, mythological American folkways, it is said that folklorist John Lomax discovered Lead Belly during the singer’s stay at Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary (it was his third incarceration). It was there that Lomax and his son Alan recorded songs by him for the Library of Congress, some of them passed on to Lead Belly through his association with Blind Lemon Jefferson; among them was the standard “Goodnight Irene”, which eventually became Lead Belly’s calling card.

As one version of the story goes, Lomax pressed a record of Lead Belly and presented it to the state’s governor, who was so taken with it that the prison doors unlocked for his release. So off went Lomax and Lead Belly, at this point close to 50 years old, to New York and toward a career in show business.

As a late-comer to the game, Lead Belly was not in on the earliest rush of race records in the 1920s and 1930s, and so it was his less-than-polished Lomax recordings that would come to define him; that may be one contributing factor toward explaining a present-day resistance to a full embrace of Lead Belly as pre-rock ‘n’ roller. Additionally, Lomax’s song-catcher practices are a source of controversy and a sore subject among blues researchers. Objections to the way Lead Belly was discovered, promoted, and recorded are cited; indeed, shortly after his initial agreement with him, it appears Lead Belly found the arrangement with Lomax unacceptable too. Though not long after severing ties with Lomax (he would eventually resume relations with the Lomax family) Lead Belly accepted a press opportunity to be photographed, costumed in black and white prisoner’s attire, performing his role of ex-convict made good. By the end of the ’30s, he’d gone on to find success writing topical songs (“The Bourgeois Blues”) and fell in with the left-leaning protest singing community—though he didn’t necessarily abide its progressive politics. His association with fellow travelers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, found the FBI hunting him as well. What Lead Belly, the folksinger, really desired was to launch a career in Hollywood, but that wasn’t meant to be.

None of these political or personal, salient or picayune points debated by historians or surveyed here concerned the queen of civil rights music, Odetta. She cut straight to the emotional delivery and content of Lead Belly’s songs and made his work her guidepost throughout her long career; she was the bridge to folk rock. “When I started in the years of folk music, it was a discovery,” she said to an audience at UCLA in 2008. As part of a self-directed exploration of her cultural heritage, she came upon the Lomax recordings in the 1950s and recognized in Lead Belly’s songs the sound of slavery, “my people,” she said. Her earliest recordings include Ledbetter arrangements of “Alabama Bound” and “Take This Hammer”, released in 1956 and 1957 respectively; she is famously credited for inspiring Dylan to pick up the acoustic guitar. Dylan’s recording debut (prior to his own solo album, on which he name-checked Lead Belly) came as a harmonica player, for calypso and Lead Belly fan Harry Belafonte, who cut the traditional “Midnight Special” for his 1962 album of the same title. Belafonte had previously recorded Lead Belly’s composition “Cotton Fields” in 1959, one of the songs that gets covered and covered by artists diverse as Buck Owens to Buckwheat Zydeco (young Jimmy Page played it with his skiffle band). By 1969, when Creedence Clearwater Revival covered both “Cotton Fields” and “Midnight Special” for their Willy and the Poor Boys album, doing Lead Belly had become a rock ‘n’ roll requirement or at the very least a very trendy thing to do—even the Beach Boys had a hit with “Cotton Fields.”

In 1970, Led Zeppelin got the Lead out when they turned “Gallis Pole” into “Gallows Pole” on their adventures in acoustic folk album, III (they later revived it in their Page and Plant incarnation). First recorded by Lead Belly in 1939 as “Gallis Pole”, the song is based on “The Maid Freed from the Gallows”, likely of Scandinavian origin and run through the British ballad tradition. Page first heard the song as arranged by Fred Gerlach. “He’d been influenced originally by Lead Belly,” Page is quoted as saying in Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography, though Zeppelin was certainly not unaware of Lead Belly. “He was one of the main movers when I was a kid,” says Robert Plant (quoted in Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, also the source for the endorsements by Harrison, Cobain, and Morrison above). Plant and his collaborator, Alison Krauss, first bonded musically at a Lead Belly tribute concert. Perhaps there is more to the story of how they got the Led in their name than goes the legend of John Entwistle’s joke about the potential for a supergroup to fall flat, “like a lead zeppelin.”

But like cotton, the King of the 12-String could not remain king forever. Them old cotton fields back home were beginning to recede from popular consciousness as songs of urban discontent began to take their place. In addition, the Rolling Stones, who had previously brought their audience to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were now touting Robert Johnson. Their 1969 version of his song “Love in Vain” preceded to the market place the 1970 release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, with its new cache of Johnson songs. The Johnson and Delta influence remains a big deal to this day, its legends and iconography completely enmeshed with blues culture as we know it. Lead Belly’s prison songs, children’s songs, and field and work songs didn’t fit so neatly into bluesology, and rock became a Lead-free zone, with a few notable exceptions.

In 1977, Ram Jam put some Southern rock funk into Lead Belly’s “Black Betty,”  though the Top 20 single wasn’t a hit with critics or (according to lore) with racial equality groups. The track played Lead Belly’s rock potential to maximum effect (though it is regrettable if anyone got hurt by it). As the ’80s arrived, punk rock and new wave took Lead Belly underground with it, as Bongwater, Michelle Shocked, and X became keepers of the flame. Proudly in synch with the pulse of the people and the hard times that echoed his original era, X turned “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” into an elegy for a loved one and revived “Rock Island Line” with their folky side project, the Knitters.” A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly joined Little Richard and Fishbone on “Rock Island Line” and Beach Boy Brian Wilson came back for another pass at Lead Belly on “Goodnight Irene”, though the project did more for boosting the rock cred of Guthrie (who got the Springsteen and Mellencamp treatment) than it did for Lead Belly.

From there, it was on to the Pacific Northwest and under the bridge where Kurt Cobain lived. The Nirvana man brought his tape of Lead Belly songs to his band’s earliest rehearsals; he and fellow founding grunge scenester Mark Lanegan shared an enthusiasm for him, as heard on their duet of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (found on Lanegan’s The Winding Sheet album). Nirvana’s definitive performance of the song on Unplugged was an immediate highlight of that show, when Cobain’s guttural wrenching was assumed to be tied to his personal life and precarious emotional states. It’s hard to top that one, though when Alvin Youngblood Hart rejuvenated “Gallows Pole” in Lead Belly-style on his 1996 album, Big Mama’s Door, he brought back Lead Belly’s quickness and dexterity on his instrument full circle: Just man and guitar.

Lead Belly lived out his final days in New York, eventually succumbing to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1949. Had he lived another year, he would’ve seen his signature song, “Goodnight Irene”, turned into a million-seller, a #1 hit as interpreted lightly by the Weavers. The overlooked genius of Lead Belly is that his songs and mighty rearrangements continue to transgress genres and generations, from folk to rock, from Pete Seeger to Jack White. Just think what we would’ve missed had Jimmy Page pursued a career in research science as he’d intended rather than picking his way to the top of the “Gallows Pole.” By the 21st century, the White Stripes played “Red Bird” and “Take a Whiff on Me”, and if the show went well, they’d close it with “Boll Weevil”, yet another folk tune popularized by Lead Belly. I’ve heard of Two Gallants playing “Mother’s Blues” aka “Little Children’s Blues” live, though only time can tell who’ll be the next in line to shine an ever-lovin’ light on the songs of Lead Belly.

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Origin of Song, rock 'n' roll, Rock Birthdays, , , , ,

Memphis Minnie’s Blues

In what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has over time been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While  Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy. As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW OF WOMAN WITH GUITAR: MEMPHIS MINNIE’S BLUES AT BLURT ONLINE:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Book news, Poetry, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Furry Lewis Born Today, 1893

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and God-given name of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him and Lewis hated it (it crossed some lines). He appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88. His “Judge Harsh” blues made a real impression on me in 2004 (The Year of Our Injustice) which was also around the time Fat Possum released Good Morning Judge (there are plenty of other Lewis titles available but I like that one).

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. Listen for the way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony. His delivery and his guitar style are unique (check the move he calls “spanking the baby”).  His outlook was generally optimistic, though his lines and the rhymes will break your heart.

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said. Personally, I rely on his blues to chase away my own. When I play Furry Lewis, I find I just can’t stay down too long. Covering the spectrum of life in his songs, from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow, he’ll turn your face red and your money green. Of course he also had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee. And it’s for that, I thank him most of all.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , , , , , ,

Remembering Mike Bloomfield

photo by Mike-Shea

Mike Bloomfield died in San Francisco, CA on February 15, 1981

Bob Dylan calls him “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Carlos Santana remembers his distinctive style: “With an acoustic guitar, a Telecaster, a Stratocaster or Les Paul, you heard three notes, or you heard one note and you knew it was Michael.” B.B. King credits him with his own crossover success with young, white audiences. “I think they felt if Michael Bloomfield said if he listened to B.B. King, we’ll listen to him too,” said King, still on the touring circuit at age 88.

So how is it in the age of excess information about guitar styles and rock ’n’ roll, Mike Bloomfield isn’t cited more often as a major contributor to the music’s evolution?

(Read entire article by Denise Sullivan at Blurt online).

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, film, Interview, new article, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , ,

Happy Birthday Etta James

Etta-James2Today is the birthday of the great R&B singer, performer and songwriter, Etta James. Californian by birth, Jamesetta Hawkins entered this world on January 25, 1938, the child of a wayward mother and a father she liked to say was the pool player, Minnesota Fats (her belief was never exactly disproved). Shipped off to live with relatives who could better care for her in San Francisco’s Fillmore District (“The Harlem of the West”), she was discovered and rechristened Etta James by Greek-American Johnny Otis. Both Otis and James created identities as specifically California blues artists that they grew into international followings. Together they cut “Roll With Me, Henry” (an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and a few more sides before she left Modern Records for her ‘60s tenure with the Chess brothers in Chicago.

Known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, she was an inspiration to drag queens (the disco artist Sylvester learned how to party in her apartment), rock’n’rollers (most famously Janis Joplin) and anyone with a pair of ears. Etta herself was at one time inspired by the charismatic speaking of Malcolm X; she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean from drugs (it was a battle she waged for the better part of her life).  As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta where Louis Farrakhan was minister.  ”I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim…No more slave name.”  She believes her example may’ve had some influence on her friend Cassius Clay turning toward the organization, though in her case, the faith didn’t stick (she lived to tell these stories and more in her autobiography, A Rage to Survive). Often sidelined by trouble, she resurfaced in the late ’80s after appearing in the Chuck Berry tribute film, Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll, to largely resume her career and thrive. She received awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. She also ultimately got to grips with her addictions. First Lady of the Blues, James passed away a few days shy of her 74th birthday in January of 2012. We miss you Etta James:  The blues just ain’t the same without you.

Above, “I’d Rather Go Blind” was written by Ellington Jordan and James, and is among her most beloved recordings. Below, Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt paid tribute to James at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Keys was also born on January 25, as was the pre-war Tennessee bluesman, Sleepy John Estes.
Read more about Etta James and Alicia Keys in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Keep On Pushing, Malcolm X, Rhythm & Blues, Rock Birthdays, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Soul, video, , , , , , ,

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