Growing up in the 80’s, it seemed there was a guitar solo in every song. Wherever there’s a guitar the blues is not far. In those days, it wasn’t weird to hear Stevie Ray Vaughn soloing on a David Bowie song or BB King jamming with U2. Every time I heard a “bluesy” section in a song it would stop me in my tracks, by the age of about 12, I somehow worked out that there was a term for this music that I loved so much and it was blues.
Once I found out that there was a name for this music that gave me this soulful feeling, I never really listened to mainstream music again.
The best of BB King was the very first CD I bought. I listened to it constantly and sang along at the top of my voice, even when my Dad told me I sounded like a had a pole jammed up my arse! He did however give me a tape Tom Waites’ seminal album Heart Attack and Vine. I listened to that album so much that I wore that tape out. I made another copy, removing all the ballads and just leaving the bluesy tracks in. And that’s how I was with the blues. The “bluesier” the better. Even within the genre of blues there were a lot of blues musicians that I just couldn’t get in to, they were just too folky or too happy and not bluesy enough. But what is blues music? Well, it’s a feeling… but we’ll get to that. I wanted the deep stuff. As a teenager while my friends where listening to Ice T or The Red Hot Chilli Peppers I was obsessing over Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, BB and Albert King.
Listening to Melbourne Community Radio stations like RRR or PBS was my education in to the sub-genres of blues music. At the time they would jump from recently released Buddy Guy’s Damn Right I Got The Blues to Robert Johnson doing Come On In My Kitchen. I just couldn’t get enough, I was a sponge and constantly absorbing and playing along to all of the greats.
I had started playing guitar at the age of 10 and by the age of 13 it was pretty much blues only for me. By 15 I found myself in my friends lounge room as he pleaded with me to give Hendrix a chance, but I thought he was too much of a shredder and not bluesy enough for me. He put on the studio version of Red House and something exploded in my chest, this was a celebration that confounded all of my ideas of what blues was and could be. From that day onwards Jimi Hendrix has remained an influence on me. But as opposed to most guitar players that love Hendrix I am generally only in to the bluesy bits, the bits in Jimi that were a tribute to Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Elmore James and Muddy Waters.
It can be hard to define what is and what is not blues. And of course we have to realise that all of this is subjective. I think discussing boundaries and limitations is the boring way to look at it. I would rather talk about what I think is the best example of the “bluesiest” you will ever hear. Serves Me Right To Suffer, by John Lee Hooker on the live album he recorded with Canned Heat is possibly one of the “bluesiest’ I’ve ever heard. The original spooky version of Aint Superstitious by Howling Wolf, Iodine In My Coffee by Muddy Waters or Born Under A Bad Sign by Albert King. To me that is soulful, bad arse and bluesy.
What makes something bluesy? To me It’s something felt really deep, it’s mournful, it can be melancholy but not always. The best Blues transports you. In reading Alan Lomax’s book, The Land Where The Blues Began, I started to learn all of my favourite artists came from Clarksdale Mississippi and surrounds. Life was impossibly hard and cruel. Black people suffered under a system that was apartheid in everything but name. When Robert Johnson was poisoned by a jealous lover at a gig, he took three days to die, the idea of him going to a hospital was not even an option.
Blues evolved out of the field hollers and work songs that came from the fields, the laying of the railway tracks, the chopping down of the trees in Mississippi, the building of the massive levy on the Mississippi river in which many workers were worked to death and buried on the job, sometimes alongside the mules that they sung to to keep them working to death as well. The men that sang to the Mules where called Mule Skinners, there were many Irish workers on the Levy but only African Americans where used as Mule Skinners as they were the only ones that could sing in a way that would propel the mules to work themselves to death. I still listen to those field hollers and work songs to this day, (although not written for entertainment) are some of my favourite songs of all time, not exactly party music, you can feel the suffering, a depth and soulfulness that is just so moving. The purpose of these songs was actually practical, giving people the rhythm to work to and often gave instructions for the workers. For example, a white foreman would instruct a caller who was usually the best singer who would sing freestyle lyrics that would include instructions on how and where to lay the tracks, all of the workers would respond in a call and response fashion.
This is the context that spawned the greats like Son House, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson even John Lee Hooker who famous for being the Detroit blues guy but actually came from the Delta as did BB King and Buddy Guy. There is a lot more I could say about this stuff and I will cover the history of some these guys this month in the lead up to my blues gig on July 18th 2020.
For tix purchase tickets for my online blues show click here.