I know Robert Johnson Better Blues Player Than Me....but He Dead!”----John Lee Hooker, dressing room at Four Leaf Clover, New Salem, Ma....1975
Of course John has now passed as well, which brings us to today's topic: the tendency of blues media (and blues people) to focus on the obituary page.
Let's face it: there aren't many areas of American life that are more focused on the past than the blues...unless we count the southern evangelists, whose motto is : “If it's true, it ain't new...and if it's new, it ain't true”. Problem is, sometimes that's the motto of the blues as well. In what other music form does a new release compete with a “new” bootleg of a dead performer, (possibly with dogs barking on his porch)? ….don't tell me hip-hop, their dead performer would be twenty and was shot during the bootleg....last week! And European blues magazines are full of pictures of young performers in pork pie hats (we have white bands here that do that....what year did bluesmen dress like that?...I've only been following since 1968, and James Cotton was more likely to be in jeans and a t-shirt ...Junior Wells might feature a “Huggie Bear” Australian bush hat....and Albert Collins was the king of polyester....nary a pork pie hat to be found, but what the hell!) And there used to be a regular ad in Living Blues that proclaimed “If a guitar ain't been in no pawn shop, it can't play no blues”. OK ALREADY! I GET IT! We like authenticity...no problem there....that used to be a quality that Country Music valued...if you were gonna sing that you were a coal miner's daughter, you'd damn well
better BE a coal miner's daughter! And maybe the rappers still need street cred. But my problems with our “looking backward at the plow” are two: First, to our young emerging audience, it's all just MUSIC. They don't know or care whether you've been in a coal mine or have worked as a male model “MerMAN!!”...and they feel excluded... “do I have to pass a test to listen to this music? I thought that was Jazz!”
And secondly, (I pause before speaking this heresy) in a music that's constantly evolving through continual improvisation, this thing called “progress” occurs, and songwriting or performances that would once have been “state of the art”....are now....wait for it....sometimes not that good. Yeah I said it...at one time, blues might be a series of unrelated one-liners, time and measures might wander (the aforementioned Hook was famous for this!) And while it is extremely rewarding to check out the building blocks of what came after, and while the true classics are so brilliant that they still jump off the disc today, if we make blues programming into a history class, no wonder the young people think we're boring! Wouldn't we have been better served to give the artist some air time while they were at their most productive, rather than 9 tracks in a row on the day they died, starting with their last performance at age 96!
If you've been a blues fan in my area (western Massachusetts), you've no doubt heard Katie Wright's show on WMUA (UMASS Amherst, Thurs 2:30-4:30, 91.1FM)....heck you've probably heard me hawking some show on there! I've always thought Kate had great taste in blues, and have been continually flattered to find that she might play my stuff, but a couple of years ago, I phoned in my first complaint....it was, to be precise, Jan 26th, 2012. “What's with all the ancient acoustic stuff”, I asked, “Muddy Waters done invented electricity, ya know.” “Well, it's Leadbelly's birthday”, she answered, “Or at least it MIGHT be Leadbelly's Birthday...we're not exactly sure about the date.” “It MIGHT BE Leadbelly's Birthday?” “ IT MIGHT BE LEADBELLY”S BIRTHDAY?????”.....I'm fired up now “For THAT we're putting UMASS to sleep?” Katie calmly deflected my inquiries, but I think she's mostly avoided the museum approach since (maybe alarmed by crazy people calling in!). But this Jan. 26th, I was headed down to NYC for a gig, with bass player Dave Kenderian in the car. After we'd played all my CD's til they skipped, we tried radio....and...lo and behold: A BLUES SHOW!! But a blues show playing really old, scratchy records (believe it was WKCR...Columbia?). Thinking I'll impress Dave, I whip out my phone and call in (as we now know, calling on cell while driving in NY is a no-no, but I digress). The DJ calmly tells me she can't play any Wildcat today, it's...you guessed it....Leadbelly's birthday!....couldn't help saying “You mean it MIGHT be Leadbelly's birthday!”
A couple of John Lee Hooker notes: One, if you loaned him your guitar (he was reluctant to bring his on planes), when you got it back, you might find the strings in BETWEEN the bridge saddles...5 out of 6 for me....John struck the guitar rather firmly, you might say. Two, when I first met John, he had a pickup band from Boston and would play three song forms: shuffle, drone, boogie....shuffle, drone, boogie...shuffle drone, boogie....but later (after Blues Brothers movie?) he brought a terrific band out from West Coast with Deacon Jones, who would shadow his every move (14 bar blues, then 18, then 11 and a half....didn't matter what he did, they were right with him). After another year or two, some new guys joined and you might catch Deacon cue-ing them...then eventually it was back to pickup band, which led John to say the sweetest words an opening act could ever hear...he said to me “ I need you to start late....and play overtime”....not exactly what openers are usually told! Oh, and three, once when I wanted to take a photo with him, and my wife Amy had wandered off, I had Katie Wright (then a Smith undergrad) fill in as photographer, letting the Hook think she was my better half....high comedy ensued later when John Lee asked Amy if she wanted to come back to the hotel with him and she replied that we were married ...I can still picture the Hook looking from Amy to Katie.....finally he asked me if I was a Mormon.“