Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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.”

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

Prophets of Rage, Rage On

Prophets-of-Rage.jpgOn the occasion of the one year anniversary of its formation, I filed a brief overview of Prophets of Rage, the supergroup, featuring Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford, B-Real of Cypress Hill, and DJ Lord. The rap-metal band is on a mission to “Make America Rage Again.” Read the entire story at Tourworthy:

Filed under: anti-war, Black Power,, Hip Hop, rock 'n' roll, , , , ,

I Called Him Morgan

ichm_lee-morgan-color_publicity_kcpab_francis_wolff.jpgI reviewed the new documentary on the life of jazz trumpet player and composer, Lee Morgan, in the new edition of No Recess! magazine. Let me know what you think.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, Jazz, , , , ,

Happy Earth Day

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Back On The Chain Gang

Dear Readers,

It’s an unusual post where I want to send you away from my site and toward another, but that’s the case this evening…As it happens, I’m back on the rock ‘n’ roll beat and want to point you to a couple of publications where my work is now playing:

Last week, a group of former colleagues launched No Recess! a music and culture site that aims to bring you some good reading on rock ‘n’ roll, resistance, and whatever else they feel like.

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Check my contributions, a column titled What Are We Gonna Do Now? and subtitled Rock and Resist or Rollover.  I also contribute a book review of the new autobiography by the Band’s Robbie Robertson.   And here’s a film review of I Called Him Morgan), and a news brief (an item on John Hurt Jr.)

I’m also filing a monthly column over at Tourworthy.  My first piece is on the Latino psychedelic soulsters with a message, Chicano Batman.   I hope you’ll look deeper into these new publications and lend them your eyes (and ears) as they keep you up-to-date on the sounds that matter, on the music that’s making a difference. As ever, thanks for reading!

Filed under: Protest Songs, rock 'n' roll, video, You Read It Here First

The Rock ‘n’ Soul of Jesus

This repost is an annual tradition. Happy Easter.

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US #3 with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two million copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock in the ’70s that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, though that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, these are the songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by ’69’s “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979, the last time Dylan had a high-charting single at #24).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969′s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it, branding it sacrilegious.  By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at #1 in the US and five weeks at #1 in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized also revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century).

Gospel music had been rocking souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs, to old hymns from the British Isles, and made way for a new form of expression giving voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to the theological ideas and arguments behind the music:  By evoking a more powerful spirit, gospel-inspired music served to fight the demonic institutions of slavery and Jim Crow law. The 20th Century story of how church singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and more turned gospel into soul is among the greatest stories in music history ever told, as is the origin story of the blues, a music where heaven and hell, and Jesus and the devil, go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on this gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues, soul and music’s connection to people’s liberation extensively throughout this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971, a big one for Jesus and his greatest hits: In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a #2 as well as #3). The song was originally cut by Anne (“Snowbird”) Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson—gospel’s reigning queen of soul during the civil rights era—would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring or memorable, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus, and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name.

In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at #20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,”  the “Him” being Jesus, and the “I” being Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year: After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for when the Lord gets ready  andYou Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (from their Sticky Fingers album). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,”  and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned contemporary Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and the Pixies’ Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of the ’70s was Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to an excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980) produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler.

“Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar, blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried: His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world.

In hip hop, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye “Yeezus” West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival and continues to grow stronger following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

Happy Easter to all Jesus rockers, readers, and to people of all faiths: May your spirit be refreshed as you continue in the struggle for peace and justice (A version of this column originally ran in Crawdaddy! as The Origin of Song and appears elsewhere on this site annually).

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Gospel, , , , ,

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, ,

Three Women: Yoko Ono, Buffy Sainte-Marie & Nina Simone

Coincidence or likely story, three of the great freedom singers of our time, Yoko Ono, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Nina Simone were born on nearly consecutive days in February.

 

Yoko Ono is of course a conceptual artist, a recording artist, a peace activist, wife of the late John Lennon and mother of Sean Ono Lennon. Born on February 18 in Tokyo, at 84, Ono remains a working artist and advocate for peace and human rights.

Born on February 20, 1941, Buffy Sainte-Marie turns 76 this year.  She is still a vital recording and touring artist, fronting a band, and waging peace and freedom, particularly for the First Nations people of North America.

Though she passed on in 2003 at the age of 70, North Carolinian and world citizen Nina Simone continues to win over listeners with her unique vocal and composition style and revolution rhetoric that truly remains unmatched since her prolific ’60s and ’70s period. Though she adapted her songbook as times changed, Simone kept it fierce and strong until breast cancer took her off the road in her 60s. She would have turned 84 on February 22.

All three women hold unique distinctions as pioneering vocal stylists and composers of depth and substance—pro-woman, anti-war and anti-racist—which found them as revered as they are reviled.  Yet those of us who appreciate the work, who lived in times that crossed with theirs, who were lucky enough to have seen them perform or simply feel the enormity of their contributions to the modern music canon shall pause, listen, and give thanks in the coming days that these three extraordinary 20th Century women were born.

Read more on Ono, Sainte-Marie and Simone in Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop.

 

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, Rock Birthdays, video, Women in Rock,

The Last Holiday: MLK, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron and John Lennon

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It was a long road to the third Monday in January when all 50 states observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the day named in his honor.  Largely owed for making the dream of a King holiday a reality is Stevie Wonder, who back in 1980, wrote the pointed song, “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote the idea which was first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The musical efforts were ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures that had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring a day for MLK. Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance of the civil rights giant. “Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is  the last track on Hotter Than July. The album also features “Master Blaster,” Wonder’s tribute to Bob Marley (he’d been scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate). Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, posthumously published memoir The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism, and helps retrace the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home the last US federal holiday, with the help of a song.


The Hotter Than July tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, where they played in the name of King, along with Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana. In a weird turn of events, the concert on December 8, 1980, coincided with the shocking night John Lennon was killed. The musicians and crew learned of the tragedy from a backstage television; the job fell to Wonder,  with Scott-Heron and the other musicians at his side, to deliver the news to the arena of assembled music fans. “For the next five minutes he spoke spontaneously about his friendship with John Lennon:  how they’d met, when and where, what they had enjoyed together, and what kind of man he’d felt Lennon was,” wrote Scott-Heron.  “That last one was key, because it drew a line between what had happened in New York that day and what had happened on that motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, a dozen years before.  And it drew a circle around the kind of men who stood up for both peace and change.”  Scott-Heron devotes the final pages of The Last Holiday  to a remembrance of how the murder of Lennon fueled the final drive to push for a federal observance of an official MLK Day.

The politics of right and wrong make everything complicated

To a generation who’s never had a leader assassinated

But suddenly it feels like ’68 and as far back as it seems

One man says “Imagine” and the other says “I have a dream”

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Uncategorized

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, ,

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