Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Afrossippi Crossroads

"The Blues – A Visual History – 100 Years of Music That Changed the World,” by Mike Evans, forward by Marshall Chess, 2014

This book is a delight if you are a blues fan.  Stitching together the history of the genre and its connections to ragtime, jug band music, jazz, country, gospel, folk, skiffle, boogie-woogie, R&B, soul, rock & roll, blues-rock, heavy metal and rap, it compliments the narrative with pictures of blues performers, album covers, concert posters, records, period scenes, and what-have-you.  For once, a coffee table book that will actually be looked at.

The blues has been born, lived, forgotten, revived, beaten to death by cliché and repetition and still linger on mostly behind the scenes.  In blues bars, the ‘party blues’ have replaced the sad ones.  If you think Led Zeppelin is a roots band, think again.  Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have brought heavy blues-rock into the present, but they are in a minority.  Music kids and musicians study older music styles, but most popular styles pushed by corporations are distanced from roots music of any kind. Roots music like the blues continues in the nightclubs, bars, festivals and coffee shops of the modern day, in the interstices and corners of popular life. 

Dominant present styles like pop, rap, country, EDM and alternative rock only distantly reflect the roots and are more and more denatured.  Heavily processed reality-singing shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol” would not let a voice with excessive character ever win.  Even ‘country’ has become a bro cliché of girls in short-shorts, pick-up trucks, beer and partying, sung by almost identical singers.  There is no real ‘country’ left – at least not in that pushed by corporations. Artists based on the blues are now relegated to the ‘Americana’ sub-genre. To this day about half the visitors who come to Clarksdale, Mississippi – the musical heart of the Mississippi Delta - are from outside the U.S.  What this says about the cluelessness of the ordinary American music fan is voluminous.  In fact, the last old ‘jook’ joint in Clarksdale (from a West African word ‘joog’ meaning disorderly, rowdy or wicked), Red’s Lounge, closed last year, according to reports.  Thanks a lot, America.

The book connects your favorite blues songs to who actually wrote them, not to who made them famous.  It digs up the origins of the blues around 1900 in obscure 12-bar songs with 3 chord changes and the first lyric repeated, played by unknowns.  It tracks the birth of rock and roll in 1949 or 1953 out of earlier styles like blues.  It details the different blues – country, folk-blues, Piedmont, rhythmic New Orleans-style, Chicago electric, West Coast LA blues, Mississippi Hill Country, highlighting the players.  Be they pioneering standout women like Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Ida Cox or Ma Rainey; country-blues performers like Charlie Patton, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson; the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, the folk blues of Lead Belly & Josh White, or the guitar blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Joe Turner & T-Bone Walker, they are all here.  It describes the pioneering fusion of rock and blues by the Rolling Stones, the psychedelic blues of Jimi Hendrix, the blue-soul of Janis Joplin and the heavy blues of Cream & Led Zeppelin. 

Modern blues musicians like Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo, Susan Tedeschi, Joe Bonamassa and Gary Clark Jr. are mentioned as continuing the blues tradition into the present.  Hell, there is even an African blues genre. But none of these musicians has the weight that earlier musicians once had.

Among many different book sections, there is a one on the political nature of blues and one on ‘working man’ blues. Many players started by busking on the streets. Playing blues paid better than sharecropping or working on a plantation, or some shitty job in the city, especially if you were blind.  As a result, blues players had more money and dressed better than most.  After all, blues makers are known for their iconic clothes and hats.  The problems of the police or jail, the 1927 flood or bad bosses are accompanied by songs about racism.  These got especially pointed in the 1950s and 1960s, starting with the influence of proletarian leftists like Seeger and Paul Robeson.  Josh White was black-listed just like Seeger for being too political.  Here is a lyric from J.B. Lenoir:

“They had a huntin’ season on a rabbit
If you shoot him you went to jail
The season was always open on me;
Nobody needed no bail.”
J.B. Lenoir – Down in Mississippi, 1966

 “My brother was taken' up for my mother, and a police officer shot him down…”
            J.B. Lenoir – Alabama Blues, 1965

Ferguson is not new.  There is another section on ‘The Great Migration’ – when millions of black people voted with their feet and left the south to move to places like Chicago, Detroit and New York.  Pullman Train Car porters were key in this migration, and sneaked the banned ‘Chicago Defender’ newspaper back into the South.  The blues went on the trains north with them.

One of the arguments about blues is the appropriation of blues music by white musicians.  There is no doubt of this.  For instance, a white singer’s voice, Frankie Ford, was over-dubbed on top of a black backing band, replacing the black singer Huey ‘Piano’ Smith on the vocal of “Sea Cruise.”  Elvis Presley did Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s songs, “That’s All Right,” and “My Baby Left Me,” making them bigger hits, then copied Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.”  Led Zeppelin made money off of “When the Levee Breaks,’ a song originally done by Memphis Minnie, long dead.

Yet what is ignored is that some of the white players and producers, at least in the 50s and 60s, brought the blues back from oblivion.  With that came money.  This volume notes the contribution of leftists around the Almanac Singers and the Weavers - principally Pete Seeger.  They touched off a folk-blues revival in the 1950s that fed into the blues revival of the ‘60s.  By bringing Lead Belly, Josh White, J.B. Lenoir, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to a wider audience - all of whom did some political songs - they laid the ground work for the huge blues explosion of the 1960s.  The efforts of Alan and John Lomax at the Smithsonian or Moses Asch at Folkways Records in recording and publishing original blues songs and lyrics helping bring musicians back into public view.  Sam Phillips at Sun in Memphis, Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic in New York and the Chess brothers in Chicago all played a role in early recordings.  Massive shows of blues musicians titled “The American Folk Blues Festival” toured Europe from 1962 to 1970, events that were never repeated.  After that individual blues players still found an audience in Europe and Japan for years.

In essence, there is no way to create a wall of separation between music styles, as music becomes an inspiration to whomever listens to it.  In a way, the ‘color barrier’ was partly broken around this music. It was born from black work songs, gospel and the problems of poverty.  It grew to encompass much more than that.
Mayday Books carries a good selection of books about music. 
Books that reference blues music that are reviewed below:  Love, Janis,” “In Search of the Blues,” “33 Revolutions Per Minute,” “Rising Tide” and “Life – Bio of Keith Richards.” Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
January 6, 2015

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