When all is said and done, there is only one constant in life and that is change. No matter what we might prefer to be the case, nothing ever stays the same and the music W.E. see (see O&S 20 for an explanation) and others call “blues” is no different. The definition of the term keeps taking on new meanings; performance styles have also altered over time; the major audience for the music is vastly different from its original one… the list goes on. And there’s not one damn thing we can do about it except to adequately report on it all from our knowledgeable vantage points. Some folks rave on about “the good old days” (or as Lockwood has said, “that old time shit”), looking back at the music with rose-colored 20:20 hindsight as happens with some White jazz aficionados (“Mouldy Fygges”) since the 50s. These folks generally say that what they do not approve of is not really blues… so simple, innit?! Please note that the musicians and singers (and their original audience) are not a party to such debates – they just keep on keepin’ on and never consider themselves to be either “traditional” of even “transitional”! Therefore, the likes of Albert King had no problem playing with Stevie Ray Vaughn, as one example. Or Jimi Hendrix (on guitar) jamming wit Janis Ian (on piano), as I witnessed one night at a club called generation (later the site of Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studio). The MUSIC keeps rolling along (even if W.E. don’t), darting here and there and forming some new kind of main tributary of artistic expression. It’s all a matter of perspective.
As outsiders to the culture(s) who produce the art, and applying Western European historical thinking, W.E. see a certain kind of “progress” over time not all that different from Charles Darwin’s THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. Different forms and modifications “do battle” (as it is popularly understood, or better said, misunderstood!) and over time certain types of music survive and others die out – especially in the intended marketplace, which is really what it’s all about, Alfie. The truth of the matter seems to be that blues has long ago ceased to be solely a form of African American musical artistic expression. It’s listening and record-buying demographic has altered over time (surprise!) and expanded, plus it has become yet another color in the palette of late 20th/early 21st Century music-makers at large.
The “truest” musical forms generally have their beginnings within some given community, often showing examples of Jung’s concept of “independent invention” or “collective unconscious”… certainly blues is one such music. Later, a musical form may become taken up as a commercial entity, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. (As examples of the latter, one need look no further than the psychedelicized albums “by” Muddy or Wolf that Chess released in a vain attempt to be “hip” and “current”! Then they were critical flops back then – now, some look back with fondness and appreciation. It’s all a matter of perspective.) So thanks to either/or/and the South Bronx and Jamaica, sampling, mixing, rapping/toasting are performance styles and tools that are here to stay and are part and parcel of the musical mainstream, and many of its tributaries.
A relatively recent major hit album is PLAY, by Moby, a White guy from the American east coast (CT) living and working in the UK. While he may not “play’ an instrument in the technical sense, he makes music nonetheless. The studio became an instrument many decades ago (George Martin, and Frank Zappa come easily to mind; Sam Phillips in earlier times) and that is the “instrument” that Moby plays. What makes this album notable for at least some readers of this journal is his use of older Black material from Alan Lomax’s SOUTHERN JOURNEY albums on Atlantic Records: Joe Lee, Vera Hall, a.o. become part of his tools. His blending of loops from that source is flawless and meaningful, creating an interesting soundscape that even makes one want to dance (“perish forbid”, as one of my little sisters once said)! And that’s often the point of music, am I right!?! I sent a tape of some of this to Alan before he died and I have no idea of his reaction – I could imagine it to have been negative (he once told me that the German-American bandmasters in the SW were responsible for killing off “real” polyphonic jazz with their use of sectional arrangements… can it really all be the fault of Wilberforce Whiteman?), but with Alan, one could never be sure of anything! But Moby isn’t the only one to get on the hit parade wit such shenanigans.
When I first arrived in Auckland, NZ a few years ago, I heard some interesting music in a café playing a local radio station. It turned out to be by St. Germaine, a group from France that had deconstructed jazz and incorporated it into their production for Blue Note Records, of all places! One of the pieces on the album entitled TOURIST is called “Sure Thing” and it utilizes samples from a film soundtrack by a truly odd couple… Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker. St Germaine use bits of Hooker (1) on this, mainly his guitar or humming, to good effect in this looping musical selection. I find the synthetic drums unlikable, but that’s only my personal aesthetic speaking – this cut, and the whole album are most interesting and grabbed my attention. (The last record I bought “off the radio” like that was an LP, “In The Beginning”, by Rev. Rhyme, a gospel rapper from North Carolina in the early eighties while living in Philly!) The group toured NZ while we were out of the country, so I unfortunately have no idea how this stuff translates into a “live” context… it could be interesting.
This use of sampling of blues and blues-related material goes back some years and is not merely a phenomenon of recent times. A group calling itself Little Axe released an album a number of years ago entitled THE WOLF THAT HOUSE BUILT. The band was made up of some members of the house band for Sugar Hill Records in New Jersey, the label owned by Joe and Sylvia Robinson, one of the early movers and shakers in the then-burgeoning world of hip hop and rap. On this CD the band incorporates the voice of Howlin’ Wolf, his speech and his, well, howlin’, into their pieces of music to really great effect. This is one tough album and the broadminded among you should keep an eye out for a copy in your favorite used “record” store (remember records?). There is more recently a newer album out on Fat Possum, of all places, called “hard Grind”. Little Axe’s stuff is very good, indeed.
Another and more recent example of such work comes from about as far south as one can go: Sydney, Australia. There has been an interesting trio there called The Backsliders, a band that’s been around and successful for decades now in its small marketplace. They do interesting things with acoustic blues material, both old and new. Their guitarist, Dom Turner, has also got a side-project (as do most musos in Sydney), which he named after his favorite “el-cheapo” guitar – Supro. This band incorporated Vietnamese musical samples and loops of Leadbelly into his songs/pieces. And it bloody well works! Then there is bass guitarist Sol on Music Maker who utilizes samples from the MMRF recordings in his pieces – there are others doing this as well, but this is just a few that have come to my attention.
So there it is folks. I’m sitting here nearing seventy-five and I’ll always love a good Blind Willie McTell from time to time, but I still can give an ear to some of the R.L. Burnsides on Fat Possum (a moderate success musically, but I find much of Matthew’s output racially cringe-worthy in its publicity). It takes a Duke Ellington, Elmore James, or a Sonny Rollins to really grab me by the short and curlies in a way that Wynton Marsalis will probably never do… Branford, Jason, or Ellis, on the other hand… . It’s all fair game out there, “same as it ever was” (D. Byrne) and since most popular music is shit and transitory, you have to do the filtering yourself… but it’s worth the effort to find the good oil – I think so, at least!
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM #177 – Mar 2003, p. 19.