Blues isn't entertainment, it's me and my pain
Eric Clapton said words to this effect in Q magazine a few years back at a review of a concert he did at the Fillmore in California. I may have misquoted slightly, because after reading this I immediately tore the magazine into tiny pieces and ate them in a fit of phlegm-fountaining fury.
When Eric Clapton plays the blues it's slow, smooth and elegant. Sadly, if he'd played it to a crowd of plantation workers in Mississippi in 1931 he may not have had such a good response as he gets at the Royal Albert Hall. And not just because he dresses like an extra from Miami Vice and is officially The Whitest Man That Has Ever Lived. Nope, being Slowhand is not a virtue here.
Analysing the role of the performing musician back then is complex. It isn't about one man and his 'pain' because if it were, that one man would sit in his home all day and play to himself because there was no outlet for this type of music at the time it was written. Basically, the musician's role was nearly all about getting people dancing. And to do that as a solo guitar player you have to be hot. You have to be Fasthand.
Sure, you sang about yourself and your life, and it was dark subject matter, but you had to bring the people along with you and raise the spirits otherwise you wouldn't do well playing music and you wouldn't earn. It is about entertainment. There was no room for the introverted singer songwriter crafting their art and having the audience pay a respectful hush. They didn't write songs and make records for people to listen to on headphones in their rooms and, y'know, delicately ponder. It was all about sin and lust and bumping rhythms and making people want to dance when they sang about their worries because it was fun. It had to really motor and fill a room with sound.
There are slight exceptions to this. Or at least exceptions where the balance of motives is skewed more towards something personal but no less driven.
Nehemiah 'Skip' James cut 18 songs in 1931. He wailed. His music is unearthly, disembodied and bathed in utter dread. It is deathly. It's not 'woke up this morning'. Neither is it 'my woman left me'. It's getting a gun and shooting a woman 'just to see her fall'. It's about a life going from one town of strangers to another, leaving nothing solid or tangible behind when you die to show you had ever even lived.
It is ugly and it is nasty in its content. The gaps between the picked notes are as icy as his falsetto wail. It is genuinely unsettling. He veers off the standard 4/4 timing track, lengthening phrases and cutting some back giving the rhythmical impression of conversation more than song. Wim Wenders made a documentary about James called The Soul Of A Man that features present day artists reinterpreting some of James' songs. If it wasn't for the fact that my housemate owns the TV, I would have happily put my face through it when I saw Bonnie Raitt reduce James' 'I'd Rather Be The Devil' to a standardised, slick 12 bar, pool-hall soundtrack abortion. It's always us whiteys who mishear what's good in anything. No-one can wail like James, so you'd think she'd try and capture some of the coldness of the song somehow - but instead she just reduces this amazing song to some lowest common denominator pub blues sack of shit. Bonnie, if you're searching for your name on Google and you've come here, then e-mail me sometime. Though I doubt you'll have a computer, preferring to live in a shack in Mississippi to capture some of that there VIBE.
And that's the best blowjob in the world compared to Lucinda Williams and her band of smug richboy cumvessels who proceed to butcher 'Hard Time Killing Floor Blues' to such a degree that if you were unfortunate to receive this as an introduction to James' music, or fuck it - any music at all, you'd never think of investigating further.
The film itself seems to exist purely as an example of the type of thing that gets my goat enough to write this much about it: "Skippy [SKIPPY?] left [the studio] with just $40 of expense money in his pockets, but he sure felt like a rich man." Yeah, until he went back to work the next day. This romanticising of hardship is plain sick.
Enough of the Wenders film, lest publicising it more actually makes you intrigued enough to see it. Simply, I can't put in to words how much you need to hear Skip James if you haven't already.
Something not mentioned in Wenders' film is how John Fahey tracked down James after a long and almost mythical search through the Delta in the 60s. Fahey had this, among other similarly withering things, to say about him in his book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life (Drag City Press): "I think it is a shame to permit a man like Skip James, who had so many talents such as being a pimp and a killer, to only display one section of his creativity, i.e. his music. Limitations should not have been placed on such a multifaceted renaissance man like James."
He was something of a loner and as Fahey points out, he was also a self confessed pimp and murderer. If anyone singer fits the idea of the bluesman as people see it then it's Skip James. Man, imagine what his motives were for singing these songs. Imagine what drives someone to the act of creativity that produces this bleak music.<
Even then, this music - taken by James to its most extreme introverted form - still isn't written with any mind to recording it or even too much to presenting it to an audience. In fact, in the 60s after Fahey tracked him down and he performed in public, he showed a mixture of contempt and total apathy for his crowd. But even the king of the downer had bump and grind in there somewhere.
Practical exercise for you guitar players: get a guitar and TRY and play what Skip James is playing on the song 'I'm So Glad'. Just TRY. Tell me what that has to do with Eric bloody Clapton. Tell me what that has to do with SITTING STILL. It's like an orchestra. Clapton covered this in Cream and with three men and a wall of sound it's still nowhere near as rump shaking as the original. This music moves. Some of James' songs positively cook. However, while searching for him, Fahey noted that noone in the Mississippi Delta area mentioned James when asked about great blues singers. Seems he didn't play much or wasn't much of a success in terms of public performing (as much to do with his personality as his abilities).
Not in comparison to Charley Patton at any rate.
When you listen to Charley Patton now, for example, it's hard not to imagine him playing alone, under spotlight, to a respectful, hushed crowd - such is the emotional punch his music packs. We're used to people commanding this kind of respect. That's how acoustic, solo music is presented these days.
This might have been true had he lived long enough to be rediscovered and play to a college crowd in the 60s (he died in 1934). But this vision just isn't the case. There was no reverence for Patton, he was an entertainer, a plantation pop star (if you'll excuse the heavy-handed pun). He was, by all accounts, a veritable human jukebox of styles (sorrowful blues being just one of them) who apparently played guitar behind his head, swinging it about, dancing on it and pulling all kinds of tricks and probably with a boner for every woman in the room.
I like to fuss and fight, I like to fuss and fight lord, and get sloppy drunk off a bottle and ball and walk the streets all night
('Elder Green Blues')
He cut some of the finest recorded examples of solo acoustic music ever made in between drinking himself into an early grave, being a no good layabout and shifting from one woman's bed to another. He was also a bit of a coke-fiend too, according to legend, and if that's the case I guess it's the one thing Clapton has in common with him. Patton even survived having his throat slashed in a brawl and when W.R. Calaway, a recording executive, went to ask him to make some more records shortly before Patton's death in 1934, he found Patton and his lady (and musical partner in later recordings) Bertha Lee incarcerated in the local jailhouse for knocking lumps off each other. The man was, by all accounts, an animal.
Patton is the perfect example of a man who could make deeply affecting, sorrowful music that simultaneously inspired the listener to get up and dance. And this behaviour brings up something that hangs like a shadow over all the early blues music. Something two polar opposites in style like Patton and James shared vividly. Something that we can't hope to understand as graphically as those singers did: SIN.
People like Patton were there to get people dancing. People had a good time and they got drunk and it all kicked off. Dancing was considered sinful, as was sex and drinking. In the eyes of the church, blues singers were the ringleaders of all that is evil, whipping groups of people up into a frenzy. The church saw them as competition. And these were God-fearing times. Even someone like James who didn't perform much was responsible for his fair share of sinful activity in his private life as previously mentioned.
Everyone knows the legend of selling your soul to the devil at the crossroads to get the skills to play guitar: you go to the crossroads at midnight, you wait till the devil appears, you hand him your guitar, he tunes it and you are blessed with musical power. However, the devil now owns your soul. And he'll come and get it when he pleases. Riiiiiiight...
But, maybe this is more of a metaphorical thing. The crossroads just being the two distinct paths you can go down in your life. You either went to church and you accepted life as the horror it was, but you knew God would get you out if you stayed righteous and eventually you'd be in a better place. Or you sinned because you accepted that no God could stop you getting lynched by southern rednecks and why the hell shouldn't a person have a little fun?
Despite R&B (Rhythm and Blues) having an infatuation with thanking God at every awards ceremony, the original bluesmen were camped very firmly in the 'Against God' camp in the eyes of the Church. Plenty of the original blues singers straddled both sides of the fence, as it were. In fact, if anything can be used to define the term 'blues' in its earliest form then it's surely all about the opposing forces of good and evil and being torn between the two; the swing from sin to redemption, from lust (sexual or bloody) to regret.
Skip James gave up music to preach (Old Testament wrath and fury style admittedly) before relenting and moving back to the 'dark side' of the blues. Even then, he started his performances with a spiritual. Story has it he repented on his deathbed and promised to sing only songs of praise if God would save his life. God didn't.
This is a real struggle, both mentally (internally) and socially (externally) that these singers had to battle. This isn't Jimmy Page buying Alistair Crowley's castle and mincing about with Ouija boards surrounded by piles of money. This is DARK SHIT. This is brutal, desolate, cursed horror. But you have to remember, it's matched to the desire to seriously party despite it, or at least find a way to stare it in the face. And that, to me, is the forgotten part of this music - but that is what's so amazing about it even now, and what separates this music from modern practitioners of the 'blues' who seem to prefer to wallow in the name of art rather than attempt to rise above. So with all this exciting talk of people having their throat slit, doing drink and drugs all night and the wrath and vengeance of God almighty (not to mention lots of heavy, heavy duty fucking): why the hell is the idea of the blues in the 21st century so intrinsically linked to these pottering, slow, over-reverential, po-faced idiots?
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