Archive for March, 2009

I Wanna be Jimi

(photo by Dan Nesbitt)

This is a shot of an old Fender Stratocaster I used to own. I can’t recall all of the particulars of the deal, but I bought it from a high school band buddy for around $17 (and a couple of burritos), I believe. I kept it as a knock-around guitar in college. Every guitarist should have a few of these.

It was an instrument that hadn’t really been cared for in the first place, so it didn’t matter if it banged into a wall or was scratched in a late-night jam session. When the pickups and internal wiring were fried beyond beyond repair – no doubt due to its lack of proper TLC during its early life (and perhaps in subsequent years, but was it really necessary once I bought it? I mean, I didn’t have the $$ in college to have it completely restored…) – it was time to make an offering to the gods of rock. This photo says it all.

Anyway – it’s late March, and there are big plans for this weekend that are now being ruined altered by the blizzard that’s heading our way. So I’ve got a little bit of the mother nature blues – and I’m sharing it with you. Happy Weekend from Muddy Waters and “Cold Weather Blues,” from Folk Singer, 1964 MCA/Chess.

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Post 2 of Delta Blues Series (a long one)
now also posted under ‘Voices’
(image of Charley Patton courtesy of Google search)

[The title of this post refers to Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues,” probably one of the most important recorded works in the history of the genre, laid down in a legendary session on June 14, 1929, a session that produced so much top-notch material that it defied the typical “A-Side, B-Side” rule of early singles and 78s, putting A-material on both sides.]

Ted Gioia’s journey through the history of the Delta blues continues to be a gripping read as he digs through the vast archives of tall tales and telling truths of the muddy music made in Mississippi. Anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the great myths and mysteries of the blues is encouraged to pick up a copy of Gioia’s Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music.

*The discovery of Charley Patton on Dockery’s Plantation is one story that Gioia places great emphasis upon when surveying the global picture of the blues. What some (or many?) don’t realize is that before there was ever a guitar smashing-and-burning Jimi Hendrix, there was a duck-walkin‘ Chuck Berry. And before there was Chuck Berry, there was T-Bone Walker, doing the splits while blazing through one of his burning jazz-inflected blues licks. But T-Bone Walker’s on-stage antics, guitar tricks and flamboyance, which probably seemed to come from another dimension when witnessed by audiences during his heyday, were no doubt impressive – but not the first time they had been seen.

Charley Patton, a hard-living field hand living on Dockery Farms, became Paramount Records’ next superstar after the passing of Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1929. Although his behavior onstage was dismissed as “clowning” by fellow Delta legend Son House, one can only imagine the sheer thrill or brute offensiveness of seeing Patton play guitar behind his back or between his legs, often flipping it over or banging on it like a drum. This was happening over 80 years ago in a hot, dusty, sin-soaked juke joint.

By Gioia’s description, “All the strutting and flaunting we associate with with rock stars like Jimi Hendrix were already part of Patton’s repertoire in the 1920s. He worked up the crowd…taunting and teasing, mouthing off an endless stream of lively banter.”

Gioia also brings to light another interesting observation:

“Modern listeners are often inclined to view the Delta blues as born in an atmosphere of high seriousness, dressed in black, amid tears and lamentations, but here we see a different aspect of this music, its informality and playfulness, its impatience with formalities and codes of decorum. Within the context of Delta society of that day, these antics were intoxicating for the sense of personal freedom they represented, rather than for the performance conventions they violated. Black music took liberties long before black people were granted them, and Patton was one of the first to grasp the opportunities as they came.”

Being a form of music born out of African musical traditions (most of which probably felt little or no influence from European or Western musical traditions before they came to American soil) it seems that the Delta performers were “being unconventional by being conventional,” by their standards, of course. [Phrase stolen from an online reviewer whose name I can’t recall now. Consider this an unofficial credit]

Henry Speir, a record dealer in Mississippi, enters Gioia’s story as one of the first great ambassadors and promoters for the music. Charley Patton aside, Speir’s list of artists he worked with in one way or another include Robert Johnson, Son House and Skip James, among others – all legends in their own right. Much like Rudy Van Gelder, one of the driving forces behind the sounds of the venerable jazz label, Blue Note, the impact of Speir’s ideas on how to “shape” a sound and bring out the best in the talent he worked with is incalculable.

Acting as part talent scout, part producer and part manager, Speir’s discerning ear and keen sense of producing records, having “fastidious ideas about the right tone for a guitar, the right setting for a microphone…or the the right shape of a room for recording” is astonishing, given the dearth of high-quality instruments among the most talented Delta singers or access to the best available recording equipment.

It was only in 1877 that Edison had developed his first prototype phonograph. Blues music and recording technology were growing up together. Early microphones picked up even the slightest movements, resulting in a ruined recording. Think of so many musicians whose songs depended on an animated style of delivery who were forced to remain still during sessions. If the music sounded as good as it does now, what if they had been able to leap around the studio and put forth a truly “moving” performance?

Another excellent insight that Gioia shares is that the five big companies (around 1927) that were making waves in the industry of recorded music – Brunswick, Gennett, Paramount, Victor and Columbia – “were responsible for virtually all of the classic recordings of African-American musicians made during the period: the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens; sessions featuring Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club band; the Charley Patton sides…but this golden age of black recorded music had little to do with enlightened views on racial equality, but was spurred rather by fierce competition and intense economic and technological pressures.”

Much like today’s shifting climate in the music industry, patents, mergers, takeovers, diversification moves and battles for market share transformed the business landscape and opportunities for artists to mold their music into something that would sell. However, what’s different about today’s world is that many artists are pressured into delivering hits almost immediately. Gone are the days of a label nurturing their artists over time, allowing them to explore their creativity and make records that are more expressive statements – not just a grab-bag of easily marketable hits and radio-ready flotsam and jetsam.

Had the labels of yesteryear not decided to record everything from jazz and blues, jug bands and hillbilly groups to Christian choirs, transplanted European polka ensembles and vaudeville acts, we today would not be able to hear the tremendous musical melting pot of America in the 1920s. Moreover, imagine if the proposed major label and full-scale recording facility to be established in the middle of Mississippi (many of the Delta artists had to travel to the East Coast to make their recordings) had come to fruition – there would be an innumerable number of recordings of phenomenal artists whose voices and instruments never made it to wax – no doubt stuff of gold, too.

*Any music enthusiast can appreciate this story. When mining the multi-layered history of the Delta blues, Gioia makes it so easy to draw countless comparisons between vastly different eras of recorded American music. The people and places in Delta Blues are intriguing beyond description. When viewed through the author’s lens, the music is fertile common ground for debate, discussion and dialogue between generations of music lovers.

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I Want to Take You Higher

I Want to Take You Higher:

The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone


‘Ello everyone, Happy Friday and a good weekend to all. Until I have churned through a few more chapters of Delta Blues and subject you to my ruminations on the book/genre, I will leave you with a link to my recently posted review of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly and the Family Stone (Jeff Kaliss, Hal Leonard Publishing, October 2008) at popmatters.com and a little tune to get you movin’.

Sly and the Family Stone: “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”

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Woke up this Morning

I’m reading Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). Here’s a quick synopsis of the book, a hack-job on the excellent press release from the publisher:

“Author and musician Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music reveals intricate details of his decades-long journey of discovering the true roots, depth and story of the genre’s birth in Mississippi to its migration north and later revival. Through his own research and synthesis of others’ work, Gioia’s superior writing skills and musical acuity makes Delta Blues one of the most engaging works on the subject.”

*I’ll be posting reflections & notes on the book as I’m reading – but not to worry, not every post will be dedicated to the subject.

It is my hope that I might inspire others to pick up the book or at least gain a better appreciation for an essential era of American musical & cultural history. I’m two chapters in, and it’s utterly fascinating.

Within the first three paragraphs, Gioia brings to light an incredible truth:

“No U.S President has hailed from the Delta region, or indeed anywhere in Mississippi. Nor has a vice president. No Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was born here. No Secretary of State. The region’s contributions to the fields of chemistry and physics are practically nill. The same can be said for economics, psychology, sociology, and college course catalog full of other academic disciplines. None of the Dow Jones Industrial companies have their headquarters here. In fact, not a single member of the Fortune 500 calls Mississippi home.

Yet music the world over was transformed by the songs made here. The influence of the Delta on the sound of our musical lives is so pervasive today that it is almost impossible to take full measure of its impact. One might as well try to imagine cooking without herbs and spices…our soundscapes were revitalized by the blues tonality, which found rich deposits by mining the cracks between the notes of our Western scales.”

It’s a phenomenal subject to tackle. While living in the digital age of music production, where even the least talented vocalists & instrumentalists are made into stars by AutoTune and other studio trickery, it’s deeply humbling and inspiring to think that the building blocks of all music heard today was made by poor musicians living in a state where less than 1 percent of its farms had the use of electricity as late as 1937, with only dilapidated guitars, pocketknives, bottlenecks and the ground beneath their feet to create something so riveting.

Delta blues, a frills-free form of music, is perhaps America’s most lasting musical legacy, aside from jazz, a musical form that’s just a bit “smarter” – to some, that is. Both born out of rich African musical traditions, blues & jazz are synonymous to some – close cousins that share a history and often visit.

But much like the author’s confession in the foreword – that all of his assumptions and understanding of the blues were quite limited and/or elementary, despite intensive schooling as a jazz pianist – I too have begun to doubt my own grasp on the genre, only having dedicated a few hours’ time to the book. The history of the blues is an unfathomably deep story, with plenty of leaks and holes.

However, as a musician whose training never made it to the level of a modern jazz musician, I have found a natural home in the blues – a musical form that’s concerned more with feeling and less with technical expertise. Rich historical framework aside, Gioia’s passion for the music is apparent in his descriptions of the technique of performing blues, which is right on:

“chords are not so much strummed as torn from the instrument; sometimes a single chord, with just a few modifications, suffices for an entire song, a throbbing texture of sound, insistent and unrelenting.”

By Gioia’s observation, in the Delta blues, “the voice seems to want to blend into the guitar, and the guitar aspires to be a voice – one completing a phrase started by the other.”

The guitar’s bent notes & crying slide so much sound like a voice that the growling vocals often resemble the crude chords and otherworldly tones summoned from the instrument. It’s a seamless connection, an intertwining of the human voice, wood and steel to create an expression so personal and deeply affecting that it supposedly drove one guitar-slinger to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for the ability to play (a legend well-known to some, to be explored later).

Lyrically, on the surface, much of the Delta blues seems simple – but it contains far more layers, that when uncovered, one discovers pain, suffering, love, broken relationships, and spiritual struggles – an inherent grapple between good and evil, darkness and light. Think of the often-used “woke up this morning,” an opening line to countless blues songs.

Gioia points out that “the familiar ‘I woke up this morning’ is never JUST ‘I woke up this morning,” never merely a nondescript response to the familiar ring of an alarm clock, but also brings with it half-remembered dreams and nightmares, and the sleepless anxieties of many, many long and lonely nights. This submerged region is the true psychological terrain of the blues.”

I love to sing “Walkin‘ Blues,” which opens with the aforementioned line. It’s fun to play and has a relatively easy melody. I remember first hearing it and thinking it was about having sore feet.


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