In honor of the passing of B.B. King and the Clippers' abject collapse, I'm blogging about five blues records I love.
Listening to the blues is part of my regular musical diet. Sometimes nothing else satisfies like the blues. As the great Texas songwriter Townes van Zandt said, "There's only two kinds of music: the blues and zippety doo-dah."
Of course, there are many sub-categories of the blues: country blues, folk blues, urban blues, British blues, delta blues, Chicago blues, piano blues, jump blues, gospel blues, New Orleans blues, Cajun blues, and on and on. But they all share an honesty, directness, and groove that I love.
I probably listen to acoustic blues – folk and country blues – more than anything else. Of course, there are whole gray areas and ambiguous thoughts for a white person listening to music that was generated by black people's suffering, what was thought to be "slave music." But there are no rules for the love of music. Blues music runs deep, as deep as any music there is, and sometimes I need to tap into those places.
Here are five records that I love. I could come up with another five, and another five, and another five....
ROBERT JOHNSON – SWEET HOME CHICAGO -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8hqGu-leFc
If there is one mythic figure that rules over the blues in the same way that Charlie Parker rules jazz, Hank Williams rules county, and Bach rules classical music, it is Robert Johnson. The Robert Johnson LPs – "King of the Delta Blues Singers Vols. I and II" – constitute the Rosetta Stone of the blues. The Faustian legend of his selling his soul to the Devil for his musical ability at the mythical "crossroads" near the Dockery Plantation in rural Mississippi is the dominant myth of the blues.
I must have listened to these albums hundreds of times. And I'm not the only one: THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE BLUES says, "Quite simply, Johnson was the most influential bluesman of all time, and stands alongside Dylan and Elvis Presley among the architects of popular music in the modern era."
The fact that his entire legacy consists of only 42 recordings (29 songs plus alternate versions) shows how potent his music was. As Dylan himself wrote about Johnson, "He seemed like a guy who could have spring from the head of Zeus in full armor." Of course, it was a woman – Athena – who sprang from the head of Zeus in full armor. But that's about how accurate I expect Dylan to be on these matters
Every Robert Johnson cut is valuable. His music is essential to American music. His "Sweet Home Chicago" I especially love, now that I live in that "land of Califurnia."
MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT -- THE BALLAD OF STAGGER LEE (long version) -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4scedJs6hC8
I probably listen to more folk-country-acoustic blues than hard-urban-electric blues, and I don't think there's anyone I listen to more than Mississippi John Hurt. His voice is so comforting and intimate, and his finger-picking is so precise and rhythmic that every time I put on one of his songs I feel instant relief. As scary as Robert Johnson can be, that's how soothing John Hurt is.
The story of John Hurt's rediscovery by the music business in the 1960s after nearly three decades of obscurity is heartening. He released some wonderfully wise records that only an older man could make.
Listen to this cut and remember that it's just one person playing the guitar. And try not to smile.
MAGIC SAM – I FEEL SO GOOD (I WANNA BOOGIE) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSwgwRhsLzw
Very few entire blues albums are absolute classics, but Magic Sam's WEST SIDE SOUL, recorded in 1967, is one of them. Along with Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, Sam (born Samuel Maghett) was forging a new kind of Chicago blues, infused with soul, when he died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-two.
Who knows what great music he would have created? He had just made his breakthrough at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, was days away from signing with Stax Records, and the sky was the limit. At least he left some killer recordings behind.
SON HOUSE – JOHN THE REVELATOR -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7m-Kenqhpk
This is one spooky song from one of the true fathers of the folk blues: an acapella rendition of an old spiritual, with just Son's voice and his handclaps.
I've listened to this cut hundreds of times, and it always gets to me. Especially the way that he says "NEKKID."
This is the real blues.
BIG MAYBELLE – CANDY -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPMZZeKekk8
Not all blues are sad and suffering; some blues are joyous. Here is a cut that might not be a classic blues, but I love it just the same. It was a pop hit for Big Maybelle in 1956 and the record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Born Mabel Louise Smith in 1924 in Jackson, Tennessee, Big Maybelle had lots of health problems and drug problems. At one point, she was more than three hundred pounds and would perform in her bedroom slippers because they were the only shoes she could get on her swollen feet. But she lived a very big life and was one of the best blues and R&B singers of the 50s. Aretha Franklin credits her as an inspiration.
Listen to her squeak at 2:30. It's the cherry on the icing on the cake.
I probably should include something from B.B. King -- "Sweet Little Angel" off the LIVE AT THE REGAL album, one of the great live albums of all time, in tribute to Lucille's master.
So here's a "bonus" link to it -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYxPz7KpdG
Maybe on the next Five Blues Songs I Love blog I'll repent for leaving out John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, both Jameses (Skip and Elmore), Sonny Boy Williamsons I and II, Buddy Guy, Bobby Blue Bland, Jimmy Reed, and T-Bone Walker. Not to mention Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi. And Stevie Ray Vaughan!
Hell, I could have blogged on my Five Favorite Ray Charles Blues Songs.
The blues is a state of mind, frozen in music. Everybody has the blues sometimes – even someone as generally cheerful as I am. And sometimes the only thing that makes you feel better is hearing someone sing who feels even worse than you do.
I think Aristotle called that "catharsis." The blues is that old. It just took a while to get a backbeat.