Thursday, March 02, 2017

Been Here and Gone: The Art of the Blues by Bill Dahl and Blues Unlimited, edited by Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe and Mark Camarigg

I was five or six years old when I heard my first blues song. If I remember right it was Tennessee Ernie Ford singing Milk Em In the Morning Blues. Tennessee Ernie liked to stop  to chat with me before his radio program on KXLA in Pasadena, which came on the air just after my dad's program. Not that I knew blues from blintzes, but, hey, any song with cows or horses in it was  okay by me. Some years later I would be listening to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, etc.. But I still wasn't aware of blues as a form, nor would I be until I was in my mid-teens and first heard Leadbelly, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and Lightnin' Hopkins, probably on Les Claypool's evening program in the early 1960s on KRHM-FM. It was also around that time I bought my first country blues record Samuel Charters's classic compilation The Country Blues. How could I not fall in love with music the Cannon Jug Stompers, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell, the Memphis Jug Band, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, etc.. That was followed by LPs by the likes of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr, Ray Charles, etc., and pretty much whatever was available at the time, which meant LPs on labels like Folkways and Prestige. Within a few smaller labels would join in the fray, releasing compilations and LPs devoted to recently discovered country blues musicians.

I was fortunate enough during those years to have been able to hang out  at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles  where I heard practically every blues musician playing the coffee house circuit, from  Lightnin', Muddy, Bukka White, Son House, Sleepy Estes, and Johnny Shines, to songsters like Mance Lispscomb and Mississippi John Hurt.  I must have heard Lightnin' a hundred times, so much so that I found myself taking him for granted, to the point that it would be another twenty years before I was able to appreciate him for  the blues poet that he obviously was.

My friends and I would sit in the front row of the Ash Grove listening to those bluesmen, as well as any number of  great bluegrass and old-time musicians, trying to figure out how they did what they did. "Dumb-ass kids," is the way Ed Pearl, who, along with his brother, Bernie, ran the Ash Grove, would refer to us in an interview I read some years back. Which I thought was funny, if a bit unfair. Though we didn't have money to spend, we were as much if not more into the music than anyone else at the club. Ry Cooder was there as well, but he was already on a different level, thanks not only  to his obvious and precocious musical prowess but because he had the sense to ask various musicians to give him private lessons. I was too stupid to think of anything quite so enterprising.

When I moved to the Bay area, I still kept eyes and ears open for whoever came through town, and was able to continue see and hear  Little Walter, Muddy, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt,  B.B. King, Skip James, Albert Collins, Albert King, Earl Hooker, etc. at places like the Fillmore, the Avalon, the Matrix, as well as, in Berkeley, the Cabal and Freight and Salvage. There were also small clubs in the Haight and Fillmore district that booked blues musicians. I remember seeing T-Bone Walker, for instance, at the Haight Levels, with no more fifteen people in the audience. Sometimes the musicians would travel with a band and sometimes they would play with whoever was available.  This could lead to some incongruous pairings, such as the nights I heard Little Walter backed by the Quicksilver Messenger Service.  I don't think Walter was all bothered. Anyway, he was clearly drunk most of time, and not in the best of health. Not that his condition stopped him playing far better than most other bluesmen could do healthy and sober.

By the time I arrived in Britain in the 1970s there were only a couple record shops- Dobells and Colletts- where one could buy blues records. It must have been at Dobell's on the Charing Cross Road that I first picked up a copy of Blues Unlimited. But it led me to realize that Britain was a hotbed for blues scholars, collectors and aficionados.  Mainly it seemed centered around  Blues Unlimited,  edited by Mike Leadbitter and Simon Napier and writers like Mike Rowe and John Broven.  At the time I was also renewing my interest in the rhythm and blues music I had grown up with in L.A., as avid fan of  Johnny Otis's t.v. program and late night radio hosted by DJs such as  Hunter Hancock and Huggy Boy. The Blues Unlimited crowd were fairly parochial in their tastes, and, though each had their specialty, weren't all interested in separating  the various strands of the music. I liked the fact that the  magazine was produced in the sleepy seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea-  jokingly referred to as "the southland's home of the blues" or something to that effect- where Leadbitter lived Napier and Broven lived. Of course, there were other important British writers working at the time not connected to the magazine as such, like Paul Oliver, whose books I avidly consumed. But when it came to periodicals, Blues Unlimited was, for me,  the most interesting. I even contributed to it at some point in the mid-1970s with a review of Charlie Gillett's book on Atlantic Records. Some of Blues Unlimited's pre-1970 articles were collected in a book that Leadbitter edited entitled Nothing But the Blues (1970). Other than the dedication and scholarship, maybe I liked the magazine because it was in that British tradition of the obsessive amateur, a tradition that invariably cuts  across class lines.  Of course, America has its own brand of rogue collectors, not to mention academics, but there it seems, at least until recently, as much a profession as  a vocation. And, of course, back in the day it was more difficult  for Brits to get access to the music, which might have made many appreciate the music that little bit more. Of course these days that's changed, and, unless one collects 78s, everything is pretty much available in one form or another.

Which brings me to the recently published Blues Unlimited- Essential Interviews From the Original Blues Magazine. Though it might be a bit  similar to Jim O'Neal's Voice of the Blues, published a decade or so ago, which also consists of interviews from O'Neal's magazine,  the recent Blues Unlimited reaches further back, drawing from the magazine's archives a more esoteric bunch of musicians. The interviews, all of which go into great depth, are divided into geographical regions, moving from Chicago to L.A., stopping along the way in Detroit, St Louis, Mississippi, and Texas. Certainly the likes of Red Holloway, Fred Belew, Snooky Pryor, Baby Boy Warren, Big Maceo, Arthur Crudup, Lonnie Johnson, Juke Boy Bonner, James Cotton, Albert Collins, Roy Brown, and record men Henry Glover of King Records and Ralph Bass of companies from Savoy to Chess, are not your usual suspects.  Though it should be said that when these interviews appeared in the magazine, the subjects were still working musicians or producers. Now the musicians are simply distant remnants of the past. Though the subjects might be  dead and gone,  their influence continues. And do their recordings, now their words preserved in books like this one, nicely presented and edited by  Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe and Mark Camarrigg. Fascinating reading for any dedicated blues fan.

Though Blues Unlimited might be nicely presented,  it can't hold a candle in the looks department to Bill Dahl's The Art of the Blues. A mere glance at the photos is enough to make any bluesnik remember why they got hooked on the music in the first place. Every photo and poster  is like a short story, and a small bit of history.  Romanticised, perhaps, but important artifacts from specific eras and an evolving music whose influence continues to this day.  The ultimate blues coffee table book, The Art of the Blues  is  divided into chapters covering such subjects as sheet music, prewar record ads, catalogs, pre and post-war 78 labels, posters of the music and movies, album covers, blues publications and promotions, etc.. It probably should have been titled The Art of the Blues and Early Jazz, because it covers the latter as well. But don't  be fooled into thinking that just because it concentrates on the art and imagery of the blues that Dahl's book lacks the substance of  the recent Blues Unlimited. On the contrary, there is a great deal of content here, with short but informative essays on a variety of subjects and figures. While so far we have not only the Art of the Blues but The Poetry of the Blues (Paul Garon and Kevin Young),  Conversations With the Blues and Blues Off the Record (Oliver), Nothin' But the Blues (Leadbitter), Nothing But the Blues (ed. Cohn), Deep Blues (Palmer)  and so many others, none  can compare- and I think most of the authors would agree- to actually listening, I mean really listening, to the music itself.

1 comment :

Mathew Paust said...

Funny how the blues always cheer you up--me, anyway. I need to hold of these books!