Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

Once in a while there comes an album that is so musically perfect and so in tune with its times that you know on one listen that it is destined to be a classic. Such is Freedom Highway, the second collection that Rhiannon Giddens has released under her own name. Its songs are drenched in her country’s history while speaking directly to its troubled present. There is horror here, but inspiration too.

Continue reading “Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens”


Mose Allison, the William Faulkner of jazz, dies aged 89

Mose Allison, the William Faulkner of jazz, dies aged 89

Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, on a trip to London, we were lucky to see Mose Allison perform a set at the Pizza Express which included such characteristically witty and sardonic songs, rooted in the blues, as Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy,  I Love The Life I Live (I Live The Life I Love), Gettin’ There, Tell Me Somethin’, and Your Mind Is On Vacation.

Today, in his Guardian obituary of Mose Allison, who has died aged 89, John Fordham writes:

At the PizzaExpress jazz club in London, which he took to visiting twice a year in the 90s and early 2000s, Allison would sometimes seem to be in a fascinating private reverie, in which stomping bluesy figures would wrestle with swirling, wind-in-trees melodies, or turn into a jerky clatter like a silent-movie soundtrack. Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues, Trouble in Mind and Knock on Wood might hurtle by in a blur.

‘Pizza Express has been a real godsend for me,’ Allison once said. ‘I’ve been working there for several years, six weeks a year. You can go to work every night and play. It’s a nice little club. It’s just about the right size for me, about 150 people.’ Continue reading “Mose Allison, the William Faulkner of jazz, dies aged 89”

Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s

Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s

On Monday evening, waiting for Allen Toussaint to begin his solo set at  Ronnie Scott’s, I recalled the times in the early sixties when I would lie in bed listening to songs like ‘Working in a Coalmine’, ‘Mother in Law’ and ‘Fortune Teller’ on Radio Luxembourg.  Although I was not aware of the fact at the time, all these hit singles had been written and produced by Toussaint.

It was only in the 1970s, when reading the liner notes of albums by Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat and Lowell George, that I discovered that songs such as ‘What is Success’, ‘On Your Way Down’ and ‘What Do You Want the Girl To Do’ were authored by Toussaint – and that this was the same man who had been responsible for those hits by Lee Dorsey, Ernie K Doe and Benny Spellman I had enjoyed a decade earlier. Continue reading “Allen Toussaint performs his songbook at Ronnie Scott’s”

The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil

The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil

Two years ago, in February 2013, I wrote an adulatory review of a concert at the Liverpool Phil by the Heritage Blues Orchestra.  At the time they were pretty much an unknown quantity in the UK, having only recently released their first album, And Still I Rise.

Last night they were back – and gave a show that like the first was a tour de force, and a tour of the blues in all its historical forms. With some variations, the numbers performed were the same as the last time (I had thought there might be more new material since a second album is imminent). This time the orchestra was an eight-piece, since trumpeter Michel Feugère was absent. Continue reading “The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil”

John Renbourn: buckets of tears

John Renbourn: buckets of tears

Tomorrow evening I was planning on seeing John Renbourn play at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton, one stop on a tour he was doing with guitarist Wizz Jones. This morning I opened the paper to learn that he was dead. Continue reading “John Renbourn: buckets of tears”

BB King: no Life of Riley

BB King: no Life of Riley

BB King

BB King performs during a concert in Denmark in 1969

Speaking of bad luck and trouble
Well you know I had my share
I’m gonna pack my suitcase, move on down the line
Yes I’m gonna pack my suitcase, move on down the line
Where there ain’t nobody worried
And there ain’t nobody crying
– ‘
Every Day I Have the Blues‘, recorded by BB King in 1955

BB King was born on 16 September, 1925, on a cotton plantation near Indianola, Mississippi.  It would be many years before he lived the life of Riley.

Riley B King’s life started out far from carefree: born in a shack whose walls had gaps wide enough to look through and tell the time of day, his mother died early from diabetes and before the age of nine he was working the cotton fields, steering a plough and holding the reins of a mule.  Jon Brewer’s superb documentary The Life of Riley, shown on BBC 4 last Friday, is a film I have wanted to see since it was released to great reviews last summer.

Riley King was born in a cabin on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi delta. His father left when he was five, and after his mother remarried, he was raised by his maternal grandmother. In the film, King tells Brewer of how he was doing arduous farm work, cotton-picking and driving a mule, from the age of seven. Even small children toiled, he says, ‘from can to can’t . . . from when you can see to when you can’t.’  King speaks of witnessing the lynching and castration of a young black man by a white mob – his crime had been to wolf-whistle at a white girl.

‘I remember the holler,’ says BB. ‘Holding the reins of a mule pulling a hoe through them cotton fields.’ The field holler, he explains, was a lament sung by a single voice. It also served to alert others in the field that the boss was coming, or that water was needed. ‘Yeah, the holler is where it all started. I think it’s in all of us.’

He sang gospel at the local Baptist Church and first heard the blues listening on his great-Aunt’s phonograph to records of Blind Lemon Jefferson. His uncle, the bluesman Bukka White, would sometimes visit from Memphis, and  play and sing.

Brewer’s film draws on old and new interviews with King himself and the recollections of people who knew him as a young boy to vividly bring to life the story of those years.  After his grandmother died, Riley went to live with his father 50-miles away. But, missing the Delta and the life he had known, he returned, riding his bicycle. An elderly couple sit on the porch of their home remembering that day when the nine-year old Riley cycled home. They talk movingly of the four years that he lived alone in a shack, working to pay off his dead mother’s and grandmother’s debts.

In 1943, King left to work as a tractor driver and play guitar with the Famous St. John’s Quartet of Inverness, Mississippi, building a local reputation performing at area churches and on WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi. The film focusses heavily on the early years, piecing together his path to success.  In 1946, King followed Bukka White, his mother’s first cousin, to Memphis where Bukka and other musicians were willing to help him learn. He served time as a disc jockey at WDIA, America’s first all black radio station. His nickname there – Blues Boy – was soon shortened to B.B.

Now here it is three o’clock in the mornin’
And I can’t even close my eyes
It’s three o’clock in the mornin’, baby
I can’t even close my eyes

In Memphis BB King developed his unique guitar style – the vibrato that is instantly recognisable as BB King’s after only a single note. He was staying with Bukka White, and as he tells it:

Bukka used to play slide using a bottleneck, or just a piece of pipe. I wanted to do that, and I tried and he showed me how – but I got stupid fingers, see, and I just couldn’t do it.  But the sound Bukka made went all through me, and I devised my own technique for producing the tremolo without the slide. I swivel my wrist from my elbow, back and forth, and this stretches the string, raising and lowering the pitch of the note rhythmically. With my other fingers stretched out, my whole hand makes a fluttering gesture, a bit like a butterfly flapping its wings.

King built his band and released his first hit, ‘Three O’Clock Blues’. In The Life of Riley, King and band members recall the days of performing on the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit, playing to strictly segregated black audiences. ‘Though I never called it any Chitlin’ Circuit,’ says BB King. From that time on, the road became home for King.  Sometimes he would perform 350 days a year, staying in segregated hotels, eating at segregated restaurants.

Everybody wants to know
Why I sing the blues
Yes, I say everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
I really have paid my dues

When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip
And everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I’ve been around a long time
Mm, I’ve really paid my dues

‘I’ve put up with more humiliation than I care to remember,’ King says at one point. ‘Touring a segregated America – forever being stopped and harassed by white cops hurt you most cos you don’t realise the damage. You hold it in. You feel empty, like someone reached in and pulled out your guts. You feel hurt and dirty, less than a person.’ He tells of one night at the Gaston Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was staying at the same time as Dr Martin Luther King, when ‘they bombed the place. The bomb rocked my room.’

I’ve laid in a ghetto flat
Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs
To give the roaches some
Everybody wanna know
Why I’m singing the blues
Yes, I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve paid my dues

King re-tells the story of how he came to name his guitar Lucille.  A fight in a juke joint led to a can of kerosene being knocked over and the place catching fire.  Everyone fled, but BB realised he had left his guitar inside and ran to get it. Discovering that the fight had been over a girl called Lucille, ‘I named my guitar Lucille to remind myself not to do something like that again, and I haven’t.’

I walk through the cities, people
On my bare feet
I had a fill of catfish and chitterlings
Up in Downbill Street
You know I’m singing the blues
Yes, I really
I just have to sing my blues
I’ve been around a long time
People, I’ve really, really paid my dues

In Brewer’s film, there is a montage in which several great blues guitarists acknowledge King’s unique style, and their ability to recognise it instantly. King says: ‘I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.’  One of the most moving aspects of the film is the way in which BB King speaks of the white British blues musicians who recognised his qualities and so enabled him to break through to a much wider audience.  He describes playing a gig one night in Chicago when four white guys arrived. ‘One of them was extra white,’ he recalls, referring to the albino blues guitarist Johnny Winter. BB suspected they were tax inspectors, so when Winter asked if he could sit in on a number, King was initially reluctant. But he relented, and, he says, ‘He was good. I tell you, he was good.’

From interviews with many of the British musicians who followed his example, Brewer’s film tells how King’s unique electric guitar sound – a sound that blended delta blues, jazz, pop, swing, and jump blues – inspired the 1960s generation of rock artists and introduced him to young, white audiences.  We hear from John Mayall, who nurtured a stable of King-admirers that included Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor,and others such as Keith Richards. ‘I can tell BB from one note,’ says Eric Clapton in the film.

In another memorable sequence, King describes the first time he played at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in San Francisco. At first, seeing the lines of young white people queueing outside, King thinks he is in the wrong place.  He is overwhelmed by the audience reception and confesses that he was so moved after several standing ovations that he ‘cried back up the stairway’.

Yeah, they told me everything
Would be better out in the country
Everything was fine
I caught me a bus uptown, baby
And every people, all the people
Got the same trouble as mine
I got the blues, huh huh
I say I’ve been around a long time
I’ve really paid some dues.

What emerges from this fine film is a picture of BB King as a warm and generous man who has worked hard and lived life to the full.  In the end, I guess, he really did live the life of Riley.

Paul Lamb and Chad Strentz: Hootin’ And Tootin’

Paul Lamb and Chad Strentz: Hootin’ And Tootin’

Paul Lamb

Hootin’ And Tootin’: Paul Lamb

According to his Wikipedia entry, Newcastle-born blues harmonica player Paul Lamb ‘has had a four decade long career … with fans around the world’ so I must apologise for never having heard of him before seeing him perform a blistering set last Saturday night at the Philharmonic’s Rodewald Suite.

The advance publicity spoke of Lamb being known by aficionados and music press around the world as one of the greatest blues harmonica players of our time. He generally performs with his band The King Snakes, but either because space at the Rodewald is limited, or because the Phil’s budget won’t extend to a band, what we got was Paul as one half of an acoustic duo with King Snakes guitarist Chad Strentz.

Chad Strentz and Paul Lamb

Chad Strentz and Paul Lamb

Lamb began playing the harmonica as a boy, inspired by Sonny Terry, with whom he later performed.  He’s been playing clubs since the age of fifteen, sometimes alongside heroes such as Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Brownie McGhee.  I’m often wary of the ‘white men playing blues’ thing – although the recreation may be accurate, it rarely seems truly authentic.  But, supported by superb  guitar-picking from Chad Strentz, Lamb’s blowing and wailing harmonica was truly impressive.  Adding to the pleasure of seeing masters of their instrument put on a storming performance was their repertoire: branching out from traditional blues to embrace soul, country and pop numbers in terrific versions of songs such as ‘Take These Chains’, /’Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘Games People Play’ .

There’s a detailed review of the show on the Blues in the Northwest website, from which I quote:

The show started with their own ‘The Underdog’ – one of only a few originals on the album – before a first dip into the Ray Charles songbook for a passionate ‘Take These Chains’, beautifully sung by Chad, with Mr. Lamb adding some glorious acoustic harmonica. Other first set treats were the Professor Longhair number ‘Ya Ya Blues’, taking us back to N’Awlins; then another cover from a soul giant – the late Solomon Burke’s timeless ‘Cry To Me’.

Paul Lamb’s showcase tribute to Sonny Terry, ‘Hootin’ And Tootin’” saw him amply demonstrate his brilliant harmonica playing; with a most enjoyable first set ending with a Ray Charles/Johnny Cash medley on ‘I Got A Woman’/’Folsom Prison Blues’ . . . given a rockabilly feel by Chad Strentz’s driving acoustic guitar and, of course, wonderful vocals.

After a short break the duo were back, opening up with their adaption of the George Gershwin  tune, ‘Summertime’, retitled ‘Summertyne’ as a nod to Paul’s native North East, with some quite beautiful chromatic harmonica playing. Chad was back in the spotlight on a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland number, ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, before a dip way back in time for Stick’s McGhee’s ‘Drinking Wine Spody Ody’. Paul Lamb took a solo turn on some classic Sonny Boy Williamson (II), and delivered more virtuoso harmonica on ‘Fattenin’ Frogs For Snakes’ . . . taking alternate vocal and harmonica lines.

This special night ended with a brace of Big Bill Broonzy songs, ‘Feel So Good’ and ‘Key To The Highway’, broken up in the middle by the gorgeous ‘Careless Love’, an often-covered song that saw Chad featured. A much-demanded encore saw some audience participation on the traditional tune, probably best known for Leadbelly’s version, ‘Midnight Special’ . . . a rousing end to a most enjoyable evening from two great musicians.

Goin' Down This Road_ cover

Their latest CD: Goin’ Down This Road

Afterwards, I bought a copy of the duo’s latest CD, Goin’ Down This Road that features a generous selection of the songs featured in the show. The album is acoustic and contains a mix of pure blues, some soul and jazz flavours with covers of songs by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ray Charles and Lloyd Price. The album opens with ‘The Underdog’, the Lamb/Strentz original with which they began the Liverpool show, and also features that great version of ‘Summertime’.  There are lovely accounts of the songs that stood out in the live show: ‘Careless Love’, the Solomon Burke tune ‘Don’t You Feel Like Cryin’ and a fine version of Joe South’s classic, ‘The Games People Play’.

Another outstanding moment in the show had been ‘Hootin’ And Tootin’, Lamb’s tribute to his hero, harmonica legend Sonny Terry, and I was glad to see that that was on the album, too. Chad Strentz provides most of the vocals (he has a very good voice) and plays excellent acoustic guitar throughout. Years of playing together mean the pair have an almost telepathic understanding of each other – something that was apparent on stage and is also obvious on the CD.

Paul Lamb and  Chad Strentz perform ‘The Underdog’

Paul Lamb & Chad Strentz: acoustic session in Kirchdorf, Austria performing ‘Drinking Wine Spo-De-o-Dee’, ‘Cry To Me’, ‘Games People Play’

Paul Lamb plays ‘Summertyne’

Paul Lamb and Chad Strentz: ‘Hootin and Tootin’

The Heritage Blues Orchestra: an outstanding show

The Heritage Blues Orchestra: an outstanding show

It was a privilege to be at the Liverpool Phil last night to see The Heritage Blues Orchestra at one of only two dates that this astonishing new band played in the UK.  I haven’t been so totally knocked out and blown away by a new band in a long time.  The group released their first album – the magnificent And Still I Rise – in 2012, and soon began receiving adulatory reviews from critics across the board.

The HBO are on a mission – to breathe new life into the blues in all its forms, whether that means work songs and field hollers, gospel, down home country blues from the Delta or urban blues from Chicago’s South Side, New Orleans marching jazz or rhythm and blues. This talented nine-piece do everything, and last night they electrified a full house at the Phil.

Heritage Blues Orchestra

Every member of this band is a virtuoso. Lead vocals are taken by Bill Sims Jr., his daughter Chaney Sims, and Junior Mack, who also plays blistering slide guitar. Bill Sims also plays electric and acoustic guitar, and piano.  Kenny ‘Beedy Eyes’ Smith is currently the most sought-after blues session drummer in Chicago, and you can see why: he was a powerhouse of varied rhythms that drew on on the rich tradition of blues drumming in new and inventive ways.

Adding to the richness and variety of sounds that the HBO can generate are Vincent Bucher on harmonica (considered one of the most experienced and accomplished harmonica players anywhere), and a horn section consisting of Bruno Wilhelm on tenor sax (he also provides the horn arrangements), Clark Gayton on trombone, sousaphone and tuba, and Kenny Rampton and Steve Wiseman on trumpet.

As the evening progressed we were treated to several different configurations of the HBO, ranging from the full, storming nine-piece to acoustic interludes of guitar and vocals, a simply stunning duet with Chaney on vocals accompanied by her father on piano, and a capella vocals by the three lead singers – which was how the concert began, with Bill Sims’ call-and-response leading into a poignant version of Leadbelly’s chain gang work song ‘Go Down Hannah’, sung by Chaney Sims with the male vocalists grunting in response:

Go down, go down to the river around 1910
[Huh, hah]
You’d see they worked the women just as hard as the men
[Hah, huh]

Then, in the shimmering silence as the voices died away, Junior Mack’s guitar and Kenny Smith’s drums settle into a terrific modern day version of Son House’s ‘Clarksdale Moan’.  This is a perfect example of what HBO are about – bringing a sympathetic 21st century arrangement to a nearly century-old Delta blues.  I can’t describe it better than Steve Pick, reviewing the album on Blues:

A taut, finger-picked guitar riff sets the stage. Then ‘bomp’ goes the bass and the snare drum, as the riff settles in for a comfortable stay. A lonesome harmonica floats overhead, and then the vocal enters, firm, pure, and full of pride. “Clarksdale’s the town laid heavy on my mind/I can have a good time there and not have one lousy dime.” The rhythm is kicking hard and solid, the guitar and harp are dancing nimbly and elegantly, and there is more to tell us about this town. “Clarksdale, Mississippi is always gonna be my home/that’s the reason why you hear me sitting around here and moan.”

Now adding new punch, there are horns, packing more harmony into the sonic equation. They separate and come back together; the harmonica sounds mournfully in-between their dissonant blasts, and “every day of the week I go down in the town drunk/give me a bottle of snuff and a bottle of alco-rub.” “Nobody knows Clarksdale like I do/the reason why I know it I follows it through and through.” Those horns are digging deep into the singer’s soul, capturing his mingled feelings of love and hate and fear and hope for his home. And always that stomp from the drums, the guitar sticking to its riffing guns, the harp moving back and forth between joining it and commenting on the horns or vocal. And a final bit of moan before the guitar concludes the journey…

The traditional ‘Get Right Church’ opened with Junior Mack’s slide guitar before the male chorus joined, transporting us to some backwoods church service: ‘Get right, church, and let’s go home. I’m going home on the morning train’.

There was a rousing cover of Eric Bibb’s ‘Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down’, but whereas Bibb’s original might be likened to a relaxed jog on an old mule, the HBO come at the song like an indomitable force, drums kicking and horns blaring.

There were outstanding moments when Chaney Sims’ vocals took centre stage, none more so than a truly stunning version of St James Infirmary, on which she was accompanied beautifully by her father on piano.  This is not on the album – we can only hope that this spine-tingling performance will be on the next.

Chaney Sims was superb, too, on ‘C-Line Woman’, a traditional song, but with added lyrics, mysterious and sensual, by Chaney. The interplay between tuba, male response vocals and drums was just magnificent.  The performance reminded me a bit of Sweet Honey In The Rock, that wonderful female a capella group that was founded back in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon with similar aims as the HBO.

That was followed by the equally raunchy ‘Big-Legged Woman’, with Bill Sims taking lead vocal – one of several more songs drawn from the first album.  Another spine-tingling moment came with the acoustic ‘Hard Times’:

Hard times here, hard times all around
Well I believe hard times gonna carry me down
Got no flour, ain’t got no corn or meal
Ain’t got none, make me rob and steal

Cut your wood, I’ll light your fire
I’ll do any old thing your that heart desires

This was one of those times when you realise you’d have paid the entrance fee just to hear this one number. ‘Hard Times’ begins as an acoustic blues, before shifting into a New Orleans funeral brass midsection that abruptly gives way to a rousing jazz/blues climax.  This is Steve Pick’s description again:

The album ends with another traditional tune, ‘Hard Times’, performed as a three-part suite. Chaney Sims sings honestly and directly of the difficult aspects of life, with the men joining in on harmonies at the end of each line. Then comes a dazzling display from the horn section, which starts off echoing the melody of the tune before modulating into some gorgeous directions halfway between 20th century classical and the complex arrangements of Gil Evans for Miles Davis and orchestra. Finally, the band returns to the song, hard and stomping with the abandon of a frantic Saturday night in a Mississippi juke joint.

The band left the stage to a thunderous standing ovation, before returning to perform the number that gives the album it’s title: ‘In The Morning’:

In the morning
When I rise
All my trouble will be over
There’ll be no more sorrow
I’m gonna rise up singing
in the morning
When I rise

This was a tremendous show that just about covered the length and breadth of African American music, revealing the depth of the musicians’ appreciation for the history, meaning and continued relevance of their music.  I wonder whether title of their CD –  And Still I Rise – might have been, at least in part, inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise’ which exudes the same spirit and the same sense of a shared history – on of such terrible suffering, yet yielding so much pride and beauty:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

See also

The soul of a song

The soul of a song

Blind Willie Johnson

I’ve been dipping into the second volume of Clinton Heylin’s exhaustive study of the songs of Bob Dylan.  ‘Dipping’ is all I can manage: I find the accumulated detail exhausting. And, moreover, it’s not ‘the songs of Bob Dylan’ – it should, more accurately be subtitled  ‘the recordings of Bob Dylan’ because Heylin exhaustively catalogues every known recording, but is less interested in the words – really the only thing on which it would be worth spending the time required to read the books from end to end.

Anyway, one thing that caught my eye was his discussion of ‘Blind Willie McTell’, the magnificent song that Dylan inexplicably left off the Infidels album.  There had always been something puzzling about the song – and Heylin confirms my suspicions:  Dylan got the wrong Blind Willie.

Dylan’s lyric ‘reeks of  the fumes of hell-fire’ in Heylin’s words. The song is drenched in religious and apocalyptic imagery that decries greed, vanity and corruption.  There is cruelty and pain; people are fallen, in chains, under the whip:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying, This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in His heaven and we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is

Now, Willie McTell was a great blues singer, but this imagery doesn’t evoke his work.  His material wasn’t religious and he rarely sang spirituals. Rather, he was a broad-brush entertainer, more likely to be singing ‘Beedle Um Bum’ or ‘Mama, Let Me Scoop For You’ than warning of sin and the Apocalypse.

Born William Samuel McTear in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood. He showed proficiency in music from an early age and learned to play the six-string guitar as soon as he could. His father left the family when McTell was still young, so when his mother died in the 1920s, he left his hometown and became a wandering busker. He began his recording career in 1927. His style was a form of country blues that bridged the gap between the raw blues of the early part of the 20th Century and the more refined East Coast ‘Piedmont’ sound. McTell’s most famous songs are ‘Statesboro Blues’ and ‘Your Southern Can Is Mine’.

There’s no doubt that Dylan revered Blind Willie McTell.  He paid tribute to him in his 1965 song ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ in the second verse, which begins, ‘Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose‘, referring to one of Blind Willie McTell’s many recording names, and he recorded his own versions of McTell’s ‘Broke Down Engine’ and ‘Delia’ on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong.

But still…there is another Blind Willie, whose work exactly fits the imagery of Dylan’s song and who consistently sang about sin and redemption, judgement and the Apocalypse: Blind Willie Johnson.

The lyrics of all Blind Willie Johnson’s songs were religious, drawing on both sacred and blues traditions.  They have titles like Can’t Nobody Hide From God’, ‘I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole’, ‘Jesus Is Coming Soon’ and ‘God Don’t Never Change’:

Yes God, God don’t never change
He’s God, always will be God

God in the middle of the ocean
God in the middle of the sea
By the help of the great creator
Truly been a God to me
Hey God, God don’t never change
God, always will be God

God in creation
God when Adam fell
God way up in heaven
God way down in hell
He’s God, God don’t never change
God, always will be God

Johnson’s most famous recordings include ‘In My Time of Dying’, his rendition of the famous gospel song ‘Let Your Light Shine On Me’, and the raw and powerful ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’, where he sings a wordless moan that will make the hairs stand on the back of the neck of even an atheist. ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground’ was included on the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.  Johnson’s gravel-voiced growl is just as eery on his ‘John The Revelator’:

Well, who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
Who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
Who’s that a-writing? John The Revelator
A book of the seven seals.

Tell me what’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
What’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
What’s John a-writing? Ask The Revelator
A book of the seven seals.

Father, who art worthy, son’s right and holy
Bound up for some, Son of our God
Daughter of Zion, Judas the Lion
He redeemed us, and He bought us with his blood.
John the Revelator, great advocator
Gets’em on the battle of Zion
Lord, tellin’ the story, risin’ in glory

Blind Willie Johnson’s music and life were featured in the brilliant 2003 film The Soul of a Man by Wim Wenders for the PBS series The Blues. In his film Wim Wendersfocussed on the dramatic tension in the blues between the sacred and the profane, exploring the music and lives of three of his favorite blues artists: Skip James, J. B. Lenoir and Blind Willie Johnson. The film took its title from another of Blind Willie Johnson’s unearthly blues:

Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can!
Want somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man
I’m going to ask the question, answer if you can

If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man?
I’ve travelled in different countries, I’ve travelled foreign lands
I’ve found nobody to tell me, what is the soul of a man

I saw a crowd stand talking, I came up right on time
Were hearing the doctor and the lawyer, say a man ain’t nothing but his mind
I read the bible often, I tries to read it right

As far as I can understand, a man is more than his mind
When Christ stood in the temple, the people stood amazed
Was showing the doctors and the lawyers, how to raise a body from the grave

So, Blind Willie Johnson seems a more likely inspiration for Dylan’s song than McTell.  But Dylan knows his blues: maybe it he chose McTell rather than Johnson because it offers better rhyming opportunities.  Or maybe the song is not so much a tribute to Blind Willie than a homage to an era with which he is apparently obsessed – at least going by his Theme Time Radio shows, his two albums of blues covers, and other evidence . Maybe it’s simply that listening to McTell – or any blues artist – takes him back to a time ‘big plantations’, ‘bootlegged whiskey’, ‘chain gang[s] on the highway’ and ‘the ghost of slavery’.  And then, because it was intended for Infidels, an album saturated in admonishments concerning power and greed, he adds the final verse that thrusts us back into the present:

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

In his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Michael Gray is convinced that the song really is about Blind Willie McTell.  He notes a spooky coincidence:

‘Blind Willie McTell’ manages to commemorate not only the death of McTell but his birthday also. McTell was almost certainly born in 1903, and the only specific birthdate ever mooted has been May 5. Either by eerie coincidence, or because Dylan is a walking blues encyclopedia, when he came to record ‘Blind Willie McTell’ in 1983, he did so on
May 5′.


Remembering Blind Willie McTell

And I know no-one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.
— Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell, 1983

I came across this today, from Metro Spirit, Augusta, Georgia. It’s 50 years since the death of Blind Willie McTell – the subject of the outstanding song left off Dylan’s Infidels album:

In the 50 years since his death, Thomson native Blind Willie McTell has become known as one of the country’s most influential bluesmen, inspiring famous musicians across the globe including Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. Don Powers, an organizer of the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival, held in Thomson each year, said this country lost a great blues legend on Aug. 19, 1959.

“From my point of view, Blind Willie is one of about five country blues guitarists, or early blues and ragtime guitarists, whose influence is still felt through music today,” Powers said, comparing McTell’s influence to other great blues musicians such as Robert Johnson, John Hurt, Arthur Blind Blake, Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson. “Those people, in my opinion, are the best in the acoustic country blues.”

But what makes McTell stand out from those other blues artists is the fact that he played a 12-string guitar and was known for writing well-crafted songs with a touch of humor, Powers said. “His style is called Piedmont Blues and that is a description used for guitarists in the South Carolina and Georgia region of the country,” Powers said. “He didn’t write songs just like, ‘My baby done left me and I’m broken-hearted.’ His songs had verses and bridges and, typically, had a little humor in them.” While living in Milledgeville, Ga., in 1959, McTell is believed to have died from a cerebral hemorrhage at 58.

Powers vividly remembers the first time he heard a recording by McTell. “It was back when I was in college,” Powers said. “I met a guitar player back in the early 1970s. And when I introduced myself, I said, ‘Hello. I’m Don Powers from Thomson, Ga.’” The young guitarist laughed and told Powers that he had been trying to learn a tune by a bluesman from Thomson. “That’s when he told me about Willie McTell,” Powers said. “I had already heard ‘Statesboro Blues’ by the Allman Brothers, so I knew who he was. But I went over to his house and he played me the Library of Congress’ recording of Willie McTell.” The recording was done by historian Alan Lomax, who spent much of his life collecting traditional music from around the country, he said. “Alan Lomax met Willie in Atlanta and took him to a hotel room and turned on the recorder,” Powers said. “And about an hour later, they had 15 to 20 songs recorded.” During the recording, McTell mentions he grew up in the Happy Valley region of Thomson, Powers said.

McTell, who was born in May 1901, did not let the fact that he could not see prevent him from both reading and writing music, according to the Activities Council of Thomson. Through the support of his family, he eventually learned to read and write music in Braille. “Even though he was born and raised in Thomson, he didn’t stay here long,” Powers said. “He lived his teenage years in Statesboro, but he didn’t stay there long either. I guess if you had to pick his music home, his musical home would be Atlanta.”

Blind Willie McTell: Lonesome Day Blues

Blind Willie McTell: Your Time To Worry

There’s an interesting essay on the Bob Dylan song on this blog, that ‘Counts Down The Songs of Rock’s Best Artists’, from which I’ve extracted this passage:

On a song featuring just Dylan on piano and Mark Knopfler on acoustic guitar, who would have thought that center stage would go to Bob? One of the things that I’ve noticed by listening to all of these songs in a bundle is just how integral his piano-playing is to the success of many of them, and nowhere is that more true than on “Blind Willie McTell.” He plays the chords with a unique rhythm, often suspending the song for a moment here and there to maximize the impact when he does pick things up again. For his part, Knopfler is restrained and plays exactly what the song needs when it needs it.

Bob’s singing is also marvelous here. He takes it easy in the first few verses, soulfully sticking to the minor-key tune, before ratcheting things up in the final moments to a guttural howl. His heartache at the way things are going down gets the best of him as the song progresses, his voice finally veering up high and losing its composure to really drive the emotion home.

Many of the songs which I have ranked way up high on this list are the long, epic tracks with lots of verses and words for Dylan to tell his tale. But “Blind Willie McTell” is thrilling for the way he juggles so many topics without ever digressing and does it all with efficiency and economy. Only five verses of eight lines each, no run-on lines that jam all the words haphazardly together. It’s compact and powerful.

The narrator in the song is omnipresent and ageless, able to witness and describe all of the events for us. Most take place somewhere in the American South, its history so rich and complicated, so much of it tied to race. And yet it goes beyond that: “Seen the arrow on the doorpost/Saying, “This land is condemned/All the way from New Orleans/To Jerusalem.” Again, a continuum, not just across a distance of thousands of miles, but across time, from Moses to Harriet Tubman.

The narrator is there to see moments of revelry, “charcoal gypsy maidens” dancing joyously in front of him. But he also is there to see the awful legacy of slavery. He sees this legacy in reverse order, recounting the Civil War’s denouement first and the slaves arriving last: “See them big plantations burning/Hear the cracking of the whips/Smell the sweet magnolia blooming/See the ghosts of the slavery ships.” Beauty and terror intermingle in his senses, but it’s his hearing that produces the most severe jolt: “Hear that undertaker’s bell,” dead bodies the ultimate result.

In the fourth verse, we are again stranded in time as the images showcase Southern traditions, some noble, some dubious. The refinement and gentility of the well-dressed young couple is undercut by the illegal whiskey they’re drinking. We also rocket back in time to see the degradation of prisoners in a chain gang, but when Dylan follows that up with “I can hear them rebels yell,” it conjures the battle cry of Confederate soldiers that struck fear into their Northern enemies.

By mixing up the history into a messy stew, Dylan seems to be saying that it’s never easy to pinpoint a cause or assign blame for the ever-present anguish. But he then attempts to do just that, starting off the final verse with a sweeping condemnation of the human race that goes beyond any regional borders: “Well, God is in his heaven/And we all want what’s his/But power and greed and corruptible seed/Seem to be all that there is.” I probably quote this line more than any other of Bob’s, simply because of its relevance and all-encompassing nature; much of the world’s pain really boils down to those four lines.

The final section of the song is a brilliant ploy by Dylan to bring the whole song back to the present-day. He sings, “I’m staring out the window/Of the St. James Hotel,” which means that all of the sights and sounds and smells he just related to us were in the narrator’s brain all the while, not in front of his face. Many people make the connection to the blues song “St. James Infirmary,” but you could also place the narrator in St. James, Minnesota, in Bob’s home state, another indication that these societal ills are not confined to the South.

And, with the refrain, it all comes back to the blues, specifically Blind Willie McTell, who wins the narrator’s admiration for his talent, providing a useful distraction from the world of woe he has just described. The continuum is evident yet again.

Bob Dylan: Blind Willie McTell

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem.
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
hear the undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell