I thought we had shut the door on 2020 but it keeps on giving. I’ve been listening to the blues this weekend. Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the Night and Cold was the Ground, and Soul of a Man. Lamentation of burden and endurance, trial by fire and test of character, spiritual rising. From an early Delta Blues song:
Oh play them Blues.
That melancholy strain, that ever haunting refrain
Is like a sweet old sorrow song.
Here comes the very part that wraps a spell around my heart.
It sets me wild to hear that loving tune a gain,
The Memphis Blues.
My journey with the blues started strangely with Yer Blues. In 1974 as India announced itself with a bang on the nuclear stage, I was on my own Smiling Buddha mission to engineer my first album purchase with my own [pocket] money at Rhythm Corner. It was next to Sweets Corner where my mother would take me for papri chaat when we visited my grandparents. They had about a 100 albums which seemed like a lot of choice in 70s socialist India. I found myself staring at The Beatles white album. It seemed fake, a colorless Indian ripoff with bootlegged songs from other albums, unimaginatively titled The Beatles...suspiciously a double album marked down to a price of one. Taking this 2-for-1 deal opened up new musical vistas as the album was a veritable musical smorgasbord. Every song seemed to open into a phantasmagoria...and one of which was Yer Blues. Decades later on my way back from a Thanksgiving in New Hampshire, I decided to revisit the White Album. After being in the US for over 20 years, steeping in American music, more aware of its roots and the debt to african-american suffering, this song seemed appropriated. While The Beatles are overwhelmingly seen as trend setters, redefining themselves with every album, they were just as keen observers of musical trends as anyone else, in particular the blues.
I had learned that it was Muddy Waters that brought the blues to England, which came back manufactured as the British Invasion making household names of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton. Not dissimilar to how British appropriated India’s centuries of textile culture and reduced it to raw material for the Lancashire Mills, and then reintroduced milled cloth to India. When Muddy Waters left Chicago for the UK in 1958, the blues were relatively unknown to white Americans and most recordings were on ‘race records’ - music by blacks for blacks. Muddy Waters was looking for a bigger, broader stage. When the Chicago bluesman took to the stage in front of a largely white audience at the Odeon Theatre (Leeds), the world of music changed forever. The critics then said “It wasn’t just the way he moved his body or the thinly-veiled suggestive lyrics; it was the volume emanating from his electric Fender Telecaster guitar. Nothing like it had ever been heard on stage before in the UK. This was the blues - raw, visceral, and literally electrifying.” Muddy Waters’ blues was a huge influence on Cream/Clapton, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, The Who and many others. In fact Keith Richards said that their name came from Muddy Waters’ song Rollin’ Stone.
In digging deeper, I found another curlicue. Lennon created Yer Blues in Rishikesh. In his 1980 Playboy interview, John explains that the song was “written in India...up there trying to reach God and feeling suicidal.” It was also a tongue-in-cheek jab at George Harrison and his pal Clapton pretending to be bluesmen. "Can Blue Men Sing The Whites (or are they hypocrites?)" was a parody song by The Bonzo Dog Band that was released in November of 1968, the same month as the White Album, that poked fun at the recent blues trend on the charts. Regardless, the British invasion in the 60s brough the blues to white Americans and to at least one Indian in the 70s. [A further fractal: Harrison wrote a grammy winning song Marwa Blues inspired by Raga Marwa, an Indian classical raga traditionally played at sunset.]
After coming to the US, I discovered blues through a John Lee Hooker album and a best of Ray Charles album. Ray Charles hated being called a blues musician, saying he was a musician who sometimes played the blues. Going to bars where they played hard charging Chicago blues, I eventually discovered Muddy Waters’, Howlin’ Wolf, and Big Bill Broonzy. And then following Muddy Waters’ back to Mississippi, the Delta blues. I learned of Son House and Blind Willie Johnson. The latter had a distinctive gravely voice (that didn’t sit right with a friend who parodied it effectively). He wasn’t born blind. His stepmother threw lye at him when he was seven in response to being accused for infidelity by his dad. A blues song in itself.
The Smithosian had a project to document the earliest blues recordings. These include Candy Man by Gary Davis, Bo Weevil by Pink Anderson, When I First Started Hoboing by Baby Tate, Coffee Blues by John Hurt. But the very first recording is a woman, Mamie Smith. Her recording of Crazy Blues is from 1920! And that was the start of some amazing music by blueswomen including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith (Wang Dang Doodle), Etta James, leading up to Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, and Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes).
The story of Ma Rainey is so effectively told by August Wilson. I saw it just a couple of days ago. Amazing performances by Viola Davis as Ma and the late Chadwick Boseman as Ma’s tragic trumpeter whose ambitions are strangled in white man’s world. “White folks don’t understand the blues. They hear it come out, but don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to fe better. You sing ‘cause that’s a way of understanding life.”
In 1995 in an intimate theater in Davis Square, Somerville, I first heard Taj Mahal. And he quickly became my favorite bluesman. I saw perform all night at Tipitina outside of New Orleans. Amazing, we never sat done once. Later I saw him open for Bonnie Raitt at the Prospect Park bandshell...and all I could think of Raitt should’ve been opening for Taj Mahal. He is acknowledged as a musicologist in addition to being a great musician. He tapped into its origins not only in the American South, but also the Caribbean, Africa, and even in Mozart. He is a touchstone for Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. Two songs I find really beautiful are Queen Bee and Lovin in My Baby’s Eyes. Keb Mo has a similar feel too.
I have always loved the New Orleans sound and the New Orleans branch of the Blues is no exception. Of course that includes Taj Mahal, but also Dr John (Basin Street Blues), Wynton Marsalis (New Orleans Bump), Louis Armstrong (Yellow Dog Blues), Allen Toussaint (St James Infirmary), and to stretch a little The Black Keys (Howlin’ for You).
Would be remiss not to throw in my association between the blues and drinking reinforced by my time spend blues bars, with songs like One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, Hey Bartender, and Bad Whiskey Blues.
Hard to make a single playlist for such an ocean of music, but here is my journey through it.