I have a problem with blues music. Not the genre, not the songs themselves, not the black originators or even their apprentices. I have a problem with European, white, ‘blue-eyed’, blues rock merchants.
That they like the music worries me not. That they play it doesn’t concern me. That they purport to live the blues, understand the blues and be of the blues irritates me tremendously.
This neglected subject was heightened for me, recently, when I had a long talk with legendary Kinks vocalist and lead guitarist.
In 1965, the group were banned from entering the USA. Hence, The Kinks missed out on further exposure to the home of the blues. A genre, they all enjoyed, “It had an affect on our music,” Davies told me. “It internalised us and made us look more about where we lived and came from. The blues guys had their roots – we decided to look at ours and our own culture.”
So while Howlin’ Wolf had the Mississippi for inspiration, brother and principle song-writer, Ray Davies, looked towards his nearest village green. B.B. King was infused by T-Bone Walker but the Kinks were enamoured with Noel Coward.
For many Kinks contemporaries, the problem was self-indulgence. Keith Richards, Clapton et al (self-absorbed, decadent, foppish, culture cuckoos of the 60s renaissance) were living the blues experience vicariously through their blues heroes as fanboys, desperately trying to compute, in a slightly bewildered fashion, how witnessing Muddy Waters painting the Chess studios ceiling was to fit into their adopted blues angst. Meanwhile, in their slipstream, ‘axe men’ like Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee, was trying to convince Woodstock audiences to take a long trip while he selfishly satisfied himself with yawn-inducing electric guitar solos and plenty of masturbatory gurning.
My own irritation on this matter was succinctly summed up by krautrock legend, Can’s percussionist, Jaki Leibezeit, a fan of the blues. He would tell author, David Stubbs, in his book Future Days, that it would be geographically inappropriate to adopt the blues as his own, “You can only create in this tradition if you can be a part of this tradition…as a European, as a German, it’s a lie to try to play pure blues.”
If that’s the lie. Where is the truth?
You can seek it via Lightnin’ Hopkins, Tampa Red, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Baby Face Turner and more. These men were part of the blues fabric. They didn’t adopt the blues at the age of 18 and it didn’t reach out to them from a vinyl groove, their birth represented another brick in the wall of blues. The blues emanated from the pores in their skin.
Jim O’Neil wrote the notes to the excellent Ace compilation Tampa Red: Dynamite!:the Unsung Kind of the Blues, which features rare Red productions. His songs were regularly sung by the likes of Elmore James, B.B. King and more but Red struggled against the system until O’Neil, “…found him living on public assistance. We visited him a number of times, at his apartment, in the hospital and in the nursing home form 1973 until his death on 19 March 1981. We were able to get some royalty cheques sent to him and tried to help as we could. It just seemed the right thing to do for such a proud and dignified man who had contributed so much to the blues…”
Life as a blues man or woman was no cake walk. This was a passion, devoted to a style of music that said everything about who you were and are. Travellers on the some cultural pathway, your family, friends and any passing stranger would also know exactly were you were coming from.
Lightnin’ Hopkins was another. In 1948 he sang Tim Moore’s Farm on the Goldstar label. The song (which can be found on Ace’s 2CD His Blues) was about a plantation in Grimes Country, Texas. Moore was well known for his cruelty towards his black workers (the original song-writer wished anonymity because he feared reprisals from Moore). It illustrated the plight of the black sharecropper.
Ace also has a series of blues compilations called The Modern Down Home Blues Sessions from the Modern record label. Sourced from a series of little known blues cuts, eagerly sought after by dedicated blues collectors, the Modern cuts include the recently passed, B.B. King who can also be found on Unlock The Lock: The Kent Records Story 1958-1962 via Ace. King, was born on a plantation to sharecropping parents, “I guess the earliest sound of blues that I can remember was in the fields while people would be pickin’ cotton or choppin’ or somethin’,” he said.
Karaoke blues players are a dime a dozen. Some of them have achieved technical brilliance, it has to be said. Some can even make their guitars jump through hoops, flip over and play dead on their command. But they can’t play the blues for toffee. If you have the opportunity to see archive concert footage, look into the eyes of B.B.King before he even tunes up. He knows. Even though he probably wished he didn’t. That’s the difference.