Back to the Blues

When I was in college (more than 30 years ago) I would write, occasionally, about the blues music for the student paper. I haven’t written anything similar since.

Last night, however, I was watching American Masters: Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records on PBS, I got to thinking about the blues, especially when Sam Phillips talked about hearing Elvis singing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama”—something that galvanized Phillips into immediate action and that launched Presley on his way to stardom. Phillips knew that, given the racial climate of America at the time, he would not be able to promote the music of the black proto-rockers into popular success. But Elvis, a white boy who could sing the same songs with the same passion… well, that was something he could work with.

It wasn’t questions of race that interested me last night, though—but the dominoes that started falling, each with the name of a blues musician important to my own odyssey as a fan of the music. As I listened to the show, I opened a cabinet and started plowing through my old lp’s—that’s “long-playing” records, to those of you born after 1980. What follows, then, is a bit of nostalgia from my own record collection. No history of the blues, it’s a history of listening, of connections and leads.

My introduction to the blues came in 1963 with the base lines played on Hudie Ledbetter’s 12-string guitar—on a record someone I knew happened to own. Leadbelly stunned me, as he did many of my generation and even more of the generation preceding. I couldn’t get enough of him, or enough of the older Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had influenced him greatly. Wanting more, I soon was devouring the works of Bukka White, Bo Carter, Blind Boy Fuller, Fred McDowell, Lonnie Young, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and more—not to forget Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Soon, I discovered Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis… both of whom I still listen to regularly.

John Hurt led me to Dave Van Ronk and Taj Mahal—also still favorites.

Somewhere in there, I stumbled over the music of Bessie Smith. I’ve listened to her ever since, constantly astonished by the power of her music. With an assist from Bob Dylan (“Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedrolls/Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”) and a couple of re-issues, I discovered Smith’s predecessor, Rainey, sometime in the late 1960s. By that time, I had also become a devotee of Tracy Nelson, who still carries Smith’s heritage.

Often, as I progressed into electric blues, it was white musicians who led me back to black ones. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (which I may have discovered through Michael Bloomfield—whose guitar work on that same Dylan album with the Ma Rainey line–Highway 61 Revisited–had mesmerized me) was one of these. As was Canned Heat, a band I just loved listening to live. Then there were lesser-known ones, such as the Siegel-Schwall Band, Charlie Musselwhite, Marvey Mandel, and John Mayall. They led me to the likes of Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wold, Muddy Waters (and Otis Spann), Magic Sam, and B.B. King. This bunch, in turn, drew me back to Joe Turner, Elmore James, Ike Turner, and “Big Boy” Crudup—the musicians the Sun Records “sound” is most beholden to.

In the early 1970s, I lived not far from Chicago so was exposed to new Delmark recordings by the likes of J.B. Hutto and the Hawks and T-Bone Walker and the All Stars. Oh, and the early Alligator recordings of Son Seals, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, and Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell (thanks, Bruce Iglauer—he would sell the records, almost literally, out of the back of his car).

Soon after, however, I moved on to other musical interests, particularly the post-avant garde surrounding the ex-members of Ornette Coleman’s band and people like Carla Bley—a congregation that centered, for me, on the old 5 Spot in Greenwich Village.

But that’s another story.

I’ve watched the popularity of the blues grow over the past decade or two, but have not really returned to the music. Looking at those old lp’s, however, has convinced me I should.