#1: IF THE BLUES EVER ENDS
Many musicians from unknowns like me to guys like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan have been greatly influenced by the music we call the blues. I think it’s because the blues is life set to music. Simple music. There’s a magic about a 12 bar. It says what it has to say and moves on. The often repeated first line draws you in and then the rhyming third line delivers the punch, always. The equation works, for reasons beyond fathoming. The blues gets deep inside us in ways other music often fails to achieve. It is rudimentary, raw, earthy and honest.
I would never call myself a blues singer but the influence is there.
One day, some time ago, I was listening to some blues – I think it was Blind Willie McTell (yeah, the man of whom Dylan sang, “I know no one can sing the blues like…) – and I got to thinking about where this music originated and how far it had come.
The blues is rooted in the sordid past of America. It is rooted in slavery. It is rooted in the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised, the powerless, the owned.
So how, I asked myself, could someone like me…or even those famous players with blues influences…ever dare to dabble in this musical form? We cannot possibly understand, as empathetic as we might like to think we are, the dark emptiness of life that led to the need for a simple, powerful musical outlet – songs chanted in the fields or played into the night on battered old guitars.
But the blues grew beyond its origins. The power of the blues, the notion of singing out your troubles to rob them of their power, the idea of putting all of human emotion into a disciplined and simple format to celebrate, complain, seek revenge or simply record events large or small, became universal.
A very clear and honest thought came to me: I “caught” the blues as a young man. The music itself, in certain people, inspires more music. And I was one of them. For many years I dare not attempt what could be called a blues song because I knew I was dealing with something special and precious. But I had already been infected by listening to Robert Johnson and friends…
“Didn’t see it coming, just music I thought – But the blues took my soul and I spent my life caught.”
The song flowed from those first words (not that they ended up being the first words of the song). But I had to make it clear I was not claiming any special experience, any special understanding or connection with where this music was born…
“I’ve still got the blues but they’re worth nothing more – Than this pain in my heart that I bought one time in a record store.”
I didn’t hesitate for one moment, in fact I enjoyed putting in the record store reference even though they are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. In my youth they not only were a popular place to hang out with friends but you could even listen to records before you bought them. Of course, we abused this privilege and were able to listen to a lot more music than we could afford to buy. But this was also the method by which we ended up buying imported discs from America, the discs that would introduce this most American of music forms to eager British musicians in their early stages of development.
“Small town kid, nowhere to run – Found a home in these voices baked in the sun.”
I remember also going to see a tour featuring a whole bunch of great bluesmen. John Lee Hooker and Big Joe Williams were the stand-outs for me. I have never been a big autograph collector but this was one time I rushed to the stage door hoping to get my program signed by these amazing artists. Big Joe, who walked with great difficulty by then and had to have his guitar brought to him on stage after he was already sitting down, was already on the tour bus. Waiting a moment until the guy guarding the door of the bus was distracted, I then climbed the few steps to where Big Joe sat in the first row of seats. He saw the program and pen in my hands and reached for them without me asking. He turned to the page that was filled by a single photo of him in mid tune…and holding the pen like a dagger marked a large X in one corner. We never spoke. I took back my pen and the “signed” program and he smiled a smile I’ll never forget. I don’t know if he saw it in my eyes, but from that moment I can truly say I had the blues!
Something like 40 years later, I remembered that meeting…
“Mississippi John Hurt, Big Joe Williams and friends – Can you come back and tell me if the blues ever ends.”
A very young Bob Dylan with Big Joe Williams (seated) 1962. My encounter with Big Joe was a couple of years later. He died in 1982.