Friday, 22 October 2010

My journey to the blues, or how R.L. Burnside saved me from a lifetime of polite jazz appreciation...


The Conventional History of The Blues, as recorded by a British music scholar or American folklorist in the mid nineteen-sixties, states that blues music was born in the Mississippi Delta in the twenties and thirties where men like Robert Johnson played blues in Juke Joints or farm shacks, drank bad whisky and picked fights. As mechanisation made large numbers of agricultural workers obsolete The Blues moved north to Chicago, where men like Muddy Waters plugged in their guitars and invented the electric blues. Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top were only a step away.

This, it's probably unnecessary to say, is a bit of a simplification.

Which brings me to my own epiphany. Having loved blues from an early age, by about seventeen I'd grown tired of widdly guitar solos and the hunt for the next SRV. I'd got into the uber-sophisticated world of jazz, where music isn't loved on a gut level, but appreciated for it's cleverness. Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, although clearly brilliant musicians, have never produced music you can dance to. I'd downloaded a song by this chap called R.L. Burnside, I'm not sure exactly where from, but it was in the glorious free-for-all of the first rush of Napster, so that would be a likely contender. Having quite enjoyed it I picked up an album, I think during my travels in Australia, and I was totally blown away.

What the usual version of blues-history skims over is the fact that the exodus north was by no means universal. Plenty of people stayed behind in Mississippi. Some, like Burnside himself, moved north but didn't like it and so went home to drive tractors. These people didn't give up their culture and traditions, but neither did they preserve them in stone. They bought electric guitars, and John Lee Hooker records and listened to the radio and learnt off their neighbours and went largely unnoticed by everyone in the outside world who were too busy listening to Stevie Ray and Buddy Guy as the people of North Mississippi created the trance-like dirty, wonderful blues music that I first discovered as I listened to that R.L. Burnside CD.

So Miles Davis was just a fad for me. In the next couple of years I'd resumed playing the harmonica, taken up guitar and started learning Son House slide licks. Almost ten years on and I've been working steadily as a musician for a little over three years, and I'm desperate to give up the day job. I've done my share of drifting, but I like to think that moment, when I first fell back into love with blues music was the first step on the road to where I am now.

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