This is the first of a series of blues posts here at A Truer Sound, intended to supplement the fine music that Matt posts for you with some original blues by artists who influenced much of the music you hear at this site. I’m Brad, a friend of Matt’s, living in Blacksburg, Virginia. Recently, I found out that Matt has only a passing acquaintance with what I will call “real” blues, the music from the largely Southern cultures that gave rise to it. He has mainly heard all the (often great, sometimes not so great) blues covers done by popular recording artists starting in the 1960s. Most anyone who reads this blog probably has more than a superficial knowledge of these artists—the Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, Led Zepplin, Clapton, Hendrix, and even Bob Dylan, among many others. Some of these artists, in my humble opinion, went on to create amazing, synergetic syntheses of blues and rock, and added to the vocabulary of the blues in profound ways. As you might expect, I think others didn’t, and they aren’t of much interest to me. We can and should have disagreements about who goes in which category, and I hope some of my comments in assessment of the music I play will stimulate that kind of healthy debate. (Heck, I recently had a friendly enough debate with a friend of Matt’s on the merits of Jimmy Buffett—me taking the side of “little or no merit.”)
I’ve wrestled with different ways of presenting this material, but I want to present some artists that many of you maybe aren’t familiar with. I use Matt as my guidepost here. No one loves music more than Matt, and he, like me when I was his age, has mainly only heard the blues through covers by rock bands and performers. Some of you are blues lovers—and I hope these posts will be of value to you as well– but most of you have never really heard much of the original material, other than the Robert Johnson catalog that Columbia did such a good job with. Like Matt, you’ve probably heard Muddy through some of the (by and large great) 70s albums that were produced, lovingly, by Johnny Winter, or his early hits. Maybe you’ve gone back and listened to some of the famous songs you’ve heard in cover versions. I’m less interested in that material than I am in, say, the recordings that Alan Lomax made of Muddy in 1942.
By and large, though, I’m interested in presenting performers that I think you need to know, people that you might have overlooked. Performers who were often quite influential, but may exist to many of you as names mentioned by a current performer you love. It might seem scattershot for a bit, a little electric blues, a little acoustic, some prewar and some postwar blues, some ‘deep’ stuff and some not so deep. (And I’ll explain these terms and others as needed.) This is, of course, World War II we’re talking about. 1945 serves as a good dividing point in blues history; what happened before was, for the most part, quite different from what happened after.
I will provide some biographical and cultural material that will be helpful in understanding why these musicians sound the way they do. I’ll provide interesting quotes and stories about them, illustrating the often brutal and harsh conditions they lived in. This will expand your reference base for the things they say in the lyrics. You can’t understand the blues, the original music, without understanding the often virulent racism that gave rise to it. And that these performers couldn’t speak of those things directly, since they were always afraid of being lynched or beaten. Only in the 60s did some performers begin to speak of the conditions directly. (There are, of course, exceptions.)
Blues is largely, but not solely, black music. Throughout its history, it was adopted by some white performers who watered it down, like Pat Boone watered down the soul and power of Little Richard—while selling lots more records. That shouldn’t completely overshadow the fact that there were serious white musicians throughout the South (and beyond) who were responsible for the simultaneous creation of some great, “real” blues. I’ll be posting some of those artists. The thing to understand is, they very often exchanged ideas with and played with black blues musicians during the day, but couldn’t perform with them at night. Nor could they record with them. The spectre of racism hangs over the creation of this music in both black and white cultures.
To be clear on this, I am not one of those people who think that white people can’t sing the blues. I am, though, one of those people who think that musicians from outside the indigenous blues cultures only rarely add anything of much value to the blues. The exceptions are almost always notable, and I will note them. The inability to express directly the lived experience of racism created the conditions for deep, poetic, non-literal expressions of the racism. But another factor inherent in the blues is that this was music that was very sexual. That couldn’t be sung about directly either, especially by blacks (There are a few exceptions that made it on record, I’ll do a post on them) so they buried sexual references in metaphoric language, speaking of “jelly rolls,” “bananas in fruit baskets,” and such. Robert Johnson has a song, Terraplane Blues, comparing sex to starting and driving a car, much like a famous poem by e.e. Cummings. The difference—e.e. cummings is a celebrated figure in literature, and Robert Johnson most likely couldn’t read and write. (I’m going to pick up on this theme—of the illiterate blues singer anticipating a theme in literature– in a later post.)
As a way of introduction, I’ll tell you just a little about myself and my background in the blues. I grew up and went to high school in the mid-70s, listening to Dylan, Springsteen, and other folk rock music with one group of friends (ok, it was me and one other guy), and Foghat, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Black Sabbath with another. Blues to me was Johnny Winter, the Stones, ZZ Top, Led Zepplin, and Foghat. (Not a bad way to be introduced to music that, by the original artists, was later going to go to the top of my listening preferences.) Both ‘groups’ paid lip service to Muddy Waters, but we would have never really listened to an album by him.
Things changed, oddly enough, when I bought Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first album, Texas Flood, in 1983. I would read guitar magazine interviews with him, and he said he was doing nothing but Albert King and Albert Collins licks (and he was right). One thing led to another, and soon I was reading Deep Blues by Robert Palmer and moving to Mississippi—albeit for a woman, not for the music. (As will be noted in most of the songs I will post, the two are causally, maybe even conceptually, related.)
Though I will present some biographical material that is helpful in understanding the music, I am mainly interested in pointing out things that are going on in the music itself. An aesthetics professor I once had used to insist, “If it’s not on the canvas, it’s not relevant to the evaluation.” In music, of course, the recorded sound is the relevant analog. While I don’t entirely agree (for reasons I have mentioned above), it’s what’s on the record that I will focus on. (Mark Twain, of course, took the position of my professor, commenting, of Richard Wagner, “It’s probably not as bad as it sounds.”)
To quote a great line from one of my favorite movies about music, “Enough of my yakkin’.” Let’s hear some music (in the next post).