Doing battle with daily dragons

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Blues Primer

Somewhere out in the far reaches of the solar system, there are 2 bleeping boxes silently whizzing through space. These boxes, launched into space in 1977, have passed through the heliopause, outside of which our sun holds no dominion. In addition to millions of dollars worth of technology, these boxes also serve as mankind’s ambassadors in deep space. Their golden records contain mathematical maps pointing back towards earth, diagrams of human beings and sounds from all over Earth, including a recording of a made in 1927 by a bluesman called Blind Willie Johnson.

One has to wonder what those who discover the Voyager’s golden records will think of the Blues. Chances are Blind Willie Johnson would have something particularly wise and laconic to say on the subject.

The Rock Star and I were watching Wim Wender’s documentary “Soul of a Man” last night; one part of a seven part series for PBS featuring different directors (including Clint Eastwood, who is an accomplished blues pianist, by the way.) and their take on the blues brought under one banner by producer, Martin Scorsese. I have to admit to being a bit late in “getting” the blues, although The Rock Star has been a huge fan for a decade or so. I’ve picked up a good deal of my musical taste from him (which is lucky for both of us. I can’t imagine what might have happened if I couldn’t stand Guns N Roses.) and have come to admire not only the music, but the rich tradition behind it. Without the blues, there would have been no rock and roll. Rock was just the blues sung faster by white people.

Record company exec #1 (circa 1950)- Well, we got all this black music that sells okay, but what do you reckon we have to do to make some real money off of it?

Record company exec #2 (circa 1950)- I’ve got it! Hey you! Skinny white kid with the funny hair! Yeah, you! The one who can’t stop shaking his ass! Come here! Plug in that there guitar and speed these 12 bars up!

Skinny kid with the funny hair who can’t stop shaking his ass- Thank ya vera much.

The blues are an acquired taste. And these are 10 of the songs and artists that acted as my primer, so I thought I’d share. They’ll have you howling, “WHOOOOOA, BABY” in no time.

1) Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground- Blind Willie Johnson- Ry Cooder called it a “The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music." Serious hairs on the back of your neck kind of stuff. It’s inclusion on Voyager’s golden record served to further validate the work of a man who died penniless in the late 40’s, living in the burnt out ruins of his house.

2) Hard Time Killing Floor Blues- Skip James (as recorded by Chris Thomas King)- Old blues recordings are sometimes hard to get next to due to the quality and often modern recordings are more palatable without losing the spirit of the original. Chris Thomas King, for any of you who’ve seen “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”, played Tommy Johnson in the film, subject of the famous “Devil at the Crossroads” myth and cousin of legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson.

3) Come On in My Kitchen- Robert Johnson (as recorded by Keb Mo)- Johnson, who recorded some of the most covered blues songs in history, didn’t live to see his 30th birthday. In true blues tradition, legend has it his whisky was poisoned by a jealous husband. If you didn’t die from alcoholism, a beating after cheating at cards or jumping out someone’s bedroom window, you just ain’t got the blues. I got turned onto Keb Mo (real name, Kevin Moore; not a particularly inspiring blues name) while working in Borders in Minneapolis and we received one of his promotional CD’s. I played it whenever I was stuck back at the music information desk and thoroughly annoyed all my colleagues. The Rock Star has seen him twice and I’m very jealous.

4) Boom Boom and House Rent Boogie- John Lee Hooker- John Lee Hooker, at the time his autobiography was published when he was in his 80’s, was still going to bed at night with 2 blondes at a time. House Rent Boogie is more of a narrative than a song, and one that seriously tickled the Rock Star and me.

5) Mannish Boy- Muddy Waters (as recorded by Muddy Waters/Johnny Winter)- Chances are you know this song already- it is the classic parodied blues tune.

When I was at summer camp as a kid, we used to play “the Blues Game” at night in our cabins, taking turns making up songs about each other. They tended to go something like this:

Kid 1- His name is Mike…

Rest of the cabin- Da NA na NA na.

Kid 1- He better cover his head…

Rest of the cabin- Da NA na NA na.

Kid 1- Cause at 3 in the morning…

Rest of the cabin- Da NA na NA na.

Kid 1- Gonna put a snake in his bed!

Then the cabin would collapse into laughter and Mike would attempt to destroy everyone involved. This usually went on all night.

6) The Constipation Blues- Screamin Jay Hawkins- Hawkins was a serious oddball character in the Blues. I suppose you could call this a parody, but it’s definitely good for a laugh. Anyone who’s ever been stopped up can probably claim to have suffered from the blues.

7) The Thrill is Gone- BB King- “Blues Boy” King is probably the best known modern Blues performer of them all. At 80, he’s still touring. We’re hoping to catch him on the UK leg of his tour this year.

8) Pride and Joy- Stevie Ray Vaughn- A lot of people were rocking up the blues in the 60’s through the 90’s, but few did it better than SRV. “Texas Flood” is a must-own album.

9) Riverside-Kenny Wayne Shepherd- Kenny Wayne Shepherd owes a lot of his style to SRV (whose amp he sat on as a boy and listened to the great man do his thang.) but brings a fresh approach to texas blues/rock. This isn’t a traditional blues piece, but it’s brilliant and soulful nonetheless.

10) Burning Hell- Joe Bonamassa- a relatively new kid on the blues scene, but with serious axe skills and a gravely voice, he completely incinerates the stage.

Whoa, baby.