Saturday Night Music — Remembering B. B. King

There have already been a number of on-line tributes to B. B. King.  I prefer to remember him for his music and the way he made his guitar “Lucille” sing for him.

I came to the blues during two periods of my life.  The first was as a youth in the mid-1960s when bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, and others were “rediscovered” during the British music invasion.  Then in the early 1980s a blues revival hit the country with the introduction of the CD, placing the credit (and many financial rewards finally) where it belonged.  Suddenly the older recordings of Son House, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others became available side-by-side with the electric sound of Robert Collins, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, among so many others.

The blues have spoken to me ever since.  It is the music of a people who face hard times and indignity, yet are able to enjoy the little things in life.  As an American folk form, it is among the headwaters of jazz, rhythm & blues, and rock and roll.  Without the blues, the full expression of the human condition cannot be documented.  Unlike so-called “Classical” music, which is really a set of disparate styles of music from different periods, the blues does not exist or continue to exist because of the social and cultural ambitions of political and economic elites.  Instead, it is the music of the people: it originally springs from a people–from the freed-slave African-American experience–who were denied equal rights, their humanity, basic dignity, and the ability to express themselves when they wished in the normal course of life until the last quarter of the 20th century.  But the blues, sung in roadhouses, honky tonks, juke joints, front porches, and within the safety of their homes, gave life to this expression.

As any American should or would, I found a common appeal to the blues, though I come from a different set of ethnic origins, part of the immigrant experience in fleeing Europe.  For within the blues is expressed the basic striving of humanity.  My background growing up in my earliest years in the tenements of Hoboken, a melting pot of immigrants and ethnic groups all striving to one day find a better life and some human dignity, is, I think, the reason for it.  There I viewed and played with other children of every color and hue.  Even later, during our own flight into the suburbs, that experience from my formative years stayed with me.

I listened to an interview that B. B. King gave back in the early ’90s where he explained that in the blues there is always some twist that demonstrates the comedy in the tragedy of human life.  He cited as his example the song “Nobody Love Me But My Mother.”  The lyrics go like this: “Nobody loves me but my mother.  And she could be jiving too.”

Now, brother, that is the blues.

But the blues doesn’t discriminate, because as with all American folk music, it a democratic music.  Women blues singers, both black and white, reach back to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Billie Holiday, and Big Maybelle, through Alberta Hunter, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Sippie Wallace, Nina Simone, to more recent blues singers such as Irma Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, Susan Tedeschi, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, and Ruth Brown, and the list could go on.  The blues is alive and vital.

The blues as a folk form originated from a different place, but intersected with the folk music of singers as varied as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and Jimmie Rodgers.  Sometimes both traditions became embodied in one person, such as Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) and the aforementioned Muddy Waters.

Like the music and the society around him, B. B. King changed with the times.  His early music concentrated on rhythm & blues and electric blues focused on a largely African American audience.  Later in life he expanded the blues audience into the larger society, merging it with other musical styles such as blues rock.  As such, he became the penultimate blues popularist.  So in tribute to the great B.B. King, who will be missed, I bring you two of his performances on the excellent Austin City Limits, one from 1983 and one from 1996.  The King is dead, long live the blues.

Saturday Night Music — Whitehorse performing “Sweet Disaster”

Wow.  If some of the licks sound familiar it’s because you remember them from The Zombies’ “Time of the Season.”  Whitehorse consists of husband and wife Canadian singer/songwriters Melissa McClelland and Luke Douset.  Since forming Whitehorse in 2011 they have pursued solo careers, but in their collaborative effort they have established a unique sound of southern and country-and-western influenced North American roots music that feels as if it could be out of a modern western road movie.  Their latest album, Leave No Bridge Unburned, has already garnered rave reviews, following on the heels of their critically acclaimed album The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss.  There is not a weak track on either offering.  Check them out.

Here is the official video release from Six Shooter Records.  You decide which version is better.

Holiday Music Interlude — Trigger Hippy performing “Who Will Wear The Crown”

Trigger Hippy is the roots supergroup out of Nashville. Coming out of the AmericanaFest they were crowned as the Best Supergroup by Rolling Stone in their “20 Best Things We Saw at AmericanaFest”.  The group is made up of singers Jackie Greene and Joan Osborne, Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, bassist Nick Govrik, and guitarist Tom Bukovac.  Most supergroup efforts are hit-or-miss affairs, especially given the conflicting egos and visions of musicians otherwise used to performing with an established set of bandmates or acting as a leader in their own right.  This is not the case here.  These talented individuals have a common feel and passion for the music and it can be heard in their playing.  Their album was just released this past September and has earned raves from critics.  Their musical influences are from the blues, rhythm & blues, soul, folk, and country-rock.  Here they are performing at the XPoNential Music Festival 2014 this past September in Camden, NJ.  WXPN, which is the sponsor of XPoNential is the public radio station of the University of Pennsylvania.  They can be found at XPN.org, and for those who haven’t given them a listen.  If you do I think you will agree that they are also one of the best radio stations in the country.

Return to Blogging Music — Otis Taylor performing “Blue Rain in Africa”

There are few uniquely American forms of music most devalued in its own country than the blues, though many musicians outside its genre have not hesitated to co-opt its forms, often without attribution.  Otis Taylor was born in Chicago in 1948  but grew up in Denver.  His father wanted him to be a jazz musician but his first instrument of choice was the banjo.  When he learned that the banjo had been co-opted by white 19th century black-face minstrel shows playing bluegrass, he dropped the instrument in favor of guitar and harmonica, and later the mandolin.  In Denver he was inspired through the Denver Folklore Center, where he was influenced by the music of Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi John Hurt.  Hearing Etta James sing “All I Want to Do Is Make Love to You,” also was an inspiring moment in his life, drawing him closer to the blues.  I can understand the inspiration.

As a teenager and young man he started a couple of bands based in the blues.  He reached maturity in the ’60s, stayed in the U.K. for a period of time in order to close a deal for a stillborn record contract during the heyday of the British enthusiasm for American blues, and after a few more years of performing quit altogether to be an antique broker in 1976.  Fortunately for all of us that wasn’t the last word from Otis Taylor on music.  Prodded by bassist Kenny Passarelli, he returned to music in 1995, initially for a benefit concert, and continued to pursue his musical talent.

Taylor is not an artist to avoid hard topics, which elevates his music beyond its genre.  His early life was marred by violence and racism, and his family history included lynching and other humiliations that attended being black in mid-20th century America.  This experience is documented in his early music.  Since 1995 his music has evolved as society has evolved, focused on concerns of social and economic injustice, the invisible ties between America and Africa, the day-to-day struggles, hopes, joys, passions, and humiliations of everyday people.  As the core of his narrative has remained grounded in the blues folk form, his music has expanded to include jazz, rock, funk, and other instrumentation.  In this way he successfully reflects and epitomizes the history of American music itself–from the blues, to jazz, to rhythm & blues, to rock and roll.

As a student of history I am often perplexed by historical amnesia in modern society, especially when one considers the life experience of someone like Otis Taylor.  He rose out of a world in which white society was built on the neo-slave labor of Jim Crow in the American south and de facto segregation and redlining in the north; lived through the Civil Rights era as a member of that disenfranchised group, and witnessed the breaking down of de jure racism and segregation; experienced the backlash that attended “benign neglect” and the neo-Confederate Southern Strategy; and then lived through the slow process of acceptance through individual struggle.  It is clear that, as William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  As such, Otis Taylor’s music lives in the present but links us to the history that is an essential part of our collective memory on topics that are never comfortable.  He entertains but the entertainment always comes with a question, a thought, a reflection, a perspective.

In the album, “My World is Gone,” Taylor turns his attention to the experience of American indigenous people in modern American society.  Here he is with American Nakota Nation guitar wizard Mato Nanji of the band Indigenous on “Blue Rain in Africa.”  The birth of a White Buffalo has significance to the storyteller in the song, since it is a hopeful sign in Native American folklore, but he experiences the event via the medium of television: the incongruity of the mystical and the modern, connections unseen, and pondered.

This year Saharan dust traveled the ocean and fell to the ground in Florida drifting on the trade winds, as it has done for tens of thousands of years, if not longer, but at least since the Sahara became a desert.  It is all interconnected, though perhaps not in the metaphysical realm.

Saturday Music Interlude — Ruthie Foster singing the blues

As a relatively young nation (still) the United States has few forms of music that it can claim as its own.  American folk, bluegrass, and country have their roots in Scots-Celtic and British folk forms of expression.  Many of the songs currently performed today even reprise traditional themes and melodies, but graft onto them American concerns and limitations for a rich fusion of the traditional and modern.

Two forms of music, however, that are uniquely American are blues and jazz, which eventually gave rise to Rhythm & Blues and early Rock & Roll.  The blues are the folk music of a people enslaved, given the hope of freedom, enslaved for all intents again, and–as the country has progressed–achieving full citizenship and freedom in law if not fully in practice.

Jazz, of course, which is based on the blues, is America’s classical music.  Despite attempts to straight-jacket it, as European classical music has been straight-jacketed–where variation from an accepted form based on the tastes of a privileged economic elite is the rule–jazz continues to develop and improvise.  This is to be somewhat expected.

The various forms of European classical music was financed and supported by royalty and robber barons–and continues to be financed by an economic elite which tends to expect uniformity.  The music, while among the greatest forms of human musical expression, has had over the years been allowed only so much freedom within the established boundaries of approval by a ruling class.  The genius found within it is to hear the rebellion under the surface, borrowing from folk forms where it can be masked from disapproving ears.  The subversive music from Mozart’s Barber of Seville, among others, comes to mind.

Jazz, however, is based on a democratic ideal–that the players working together, each given improvisational freedom within a structure, will create something new–a synthesis of old and new that drives the music forward.  Segregation allowed African Americans to freely express themselves and to do so in ways that ran under the surface of society.  The brilliance of the musical expression was soon realized and the mainstream of American society adopted many of its forms of expression and the lifestyle that often accompanied jazz and blues life.

Thus the core belief in both jazz and blues is progression–driving things forward, to a better day; not as individuals who work against each other and who strive against the success of the other–which would undermine and destroy the composition and the music–but together.  Only then can the music succeed.  Thus, while jazz is the music that speaks of the ideal of democratic society, blues speaks the story of the individual in society which can be cruel and unforgiving without love, compassion, decency, forgiveness, and more than a little bit of luck.

Ruthie Foster is an effective purveyor of the blues.  She started singing in her church choir and, leaving her rural town, continued to perform while on active duty in the U.S. Navy Band.  Since leaving the Navy she has taken the blues community by storm, winning multiple awards since her first release in 1997.

One can hear her background in her songwriting and singing.  On her newest album, Promise of a Brand New Day, the song “Let Me Know” contains the familiar call-and-response structure, though a chorus never enters into the song, the instruments providing an effective substitute for the anticipation of the response to the powerful instrument of her voice.  Here she is singing some selections from her new album.

Monday Night Music Interlude — Shannon McNally on “One on One”

A lot of blogging to catch up on as I return from yet another extended trip

The classic country lilt is somewhat misleading for this Long Island native.  According to the site Allmusic, she was greatly influenced by folk-blues from her parents’ record collection.  I first heard about (and heard) her at her electric live performance at the 2007 New Orleans Jazzfest, where her rendition of “Sweet Forgiveness” (which can be heard on the critically acclaimed album North American Ghost Music) set the crowd on fire.  Please enjoy.

Saturday Music Interlude — Humming House, Little Hurricane and Laura Mvula

The 2014 edition of the SXSW Festival showcased so much talent that it is hard to choose the standouts.  Now we’re well into music festival season with the New Orleans Jazz Fest just concluded.

Music, as all of the arts, is a rough business.  For every band that “makes” it with a modicum of fame, there are hundreds just as talented that operate just below the surface of popular culture.  Having spent significant parts of my life in and around New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and other cities in the United States, for me it is those performers–just a step away from recognition–that stitch together the strands in the fabric of civilization.  For it is these people who live for the art, for the love of the thing.

Having been a jazz enthusiast for virtually my entire life, I have listened to, watched, and met performers of the art of that uniquely American form of improvisational music dedicate themselves to excellence in their craft.  Most of them are unknown to the great majority of the populace and their recordings have been heard by very few that have been fortunate enough to have had that opportunity.  Yet they press on.

One day I met a saxophone player who was the featured musical artist at a poetry slam that combined poetry readings with improvisational jazz.  During the break we talked about The Music and he told me about a time when he had the opportunity to play with the great Art Blakey at Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio.  “I played the best music of my life in that set,” he said.  “But then Rudy looked over at us and he realized that the recording equipment had malfunctioned and hadn’t recorded anything.”  Though I was a stranger–a mere fan listening to the story of a malfunction many years removed–I felt distress for the man before me at hearing his story.  “Weren’t you disheartened?” I asked.  He smiled then.  “No, because we weren’t doing it for the recording.  We were doing it for the thing.  When you do it for the recording, for others to hear you, then that’s just ego and that ain’t nothin’.”

I realized then that he was right, and that his admonition that when you pursue “just ego…that ain’t nothing” applied to other pursuits and not just to music.

Since that day when I walk down Frenchman Street in NOLA and come upon a group of young people in an ad hoc brass band I know–I feel–that they are doing it for “the thing.”  When I go to Nashville and come upon artists plying their music at the local bar and at the street corners I know they are doing it for “the thing.”  Walking down Venice Beach, in the clubs of San Francisco, in the neighborhoods of Philly, the boardwalk on the Jersey shore, outside Santa Fe with the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance, remembering the Hoboken of my youth, and the music I heard in Spanish Harlem and in the Cuban section of Miami, on the old Steel Pier in Atlantic City, in the jazz bars of Manhattan (or what’s left of them), I heard that same thing–that voice, that joy, that playfulness, that anger, that sadness, that blues, recording who and what we are; recording the human experience and human emotion in all of its hues in ways that only music can accomplish: “the thing.”  Then, given this knowledge, when you find those artists that combine the heady admixture of originality, genuineness, and musicality, it is a transcendent experience.

All of this is simply preface to three very different talents that I’ve come upon and who stick in that part of my mind that says:  “here is something.”

The first is Humming House and, full disclosure, I came upon them via WordPress when they responded to one of my previous musical posts.  So I decided to check them out.  What I found was a group of talented performers communicating absolute joy through their music.  Working out of Nashville, Humming House is one of those bands that seem to open for every first rate act and whose music can be heard in many mediums while never quite breaking through.  Their genre is American roots, folk, country and pop.  They performed in Austin and the following is a SXSW Showcasing Video.

The next band also turned some heads at SXSW and the following video is from the Jam in the Van franchise.  They are a rock and dirty blues outfit from San Diego, California consisting of two members:  Celest “CC” Spina on drums, and Anthony “Tony” Catalano on guitar.  On the following song “Superblues,” Catalano’s vocals are electric with Spina propelling the music forward using an idiosyncratic drumming style that still manages to work.

Finally, the last artist is from the U.K. but was mentioned as the standout first timer to the New Orleans Jazz Fest.  Her name is Laura Mvula.  Her voice is an impressive instrument that she manipulates to remind one of singers as different as Nina Simone and Sade.  The performance that follows from a U.K. music program is simply electric.