Listen to this track by modern bluesman and national steel guitar-slinging songwriter Chris Whitley. It’s “God Left Town”, a deep cut on his 2004 Internet-and-gig only album, and his ninth, War Crime Blues. The song showcases Whitley’s skill as a guitarist who is able to hold the threads of an arrangement, and of emotional currents together by the strength of six strings, and a foot stomp.
This is to say nothing of his voice, which here is like a voice of one crying in the wilderness. It’s like hearing the words spoken through a sandstorm, obscured by the noise of emotional turmoil as created by the roiling lines of the guitar. And then, the whole thing just stops.
It’s hard not to connect this song, and others on War Crime Blues (such as a cover of the Clash’s “The Call Up”) with a time of unique absurdity, when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged with seemingly no end in sight, and for no definable purpose. By the time this record was created, George W. Bush had been inexplicably re-elected after initiating all of that. It was high time for a protest record.
Yet, really it seemed like a record or a song that crafted well-reasoned arguments as to why the war in Iraq was immoral, nonsensical, and waged clearly to protect the private interests of corporations was not really going to cut it anyway. No one was listening to reason.
Luckily, Chris Whitley’s record, and this song, isn’t about that at all. It’s about something more primal than that.
This song, like the others on War Crime Blues, was recorded live on the floor (and in one case, under a bridge in Dresden, the city in which Whitley was living at the time) with Whitley being the only musician you’re hearing. That arrangement serves the song exceptionally well, with the overall effect being the sound of chaos and fear, mostly because of its starkness. The words in places are completely obscured. They are not so much sung out as cried out.
Perhaps this is of no surprise, given that Whitley is singing the blues, which (when it’s at its best) is about an emotional outpouring. And Whitley is singing the blues in a style that is vital and evolved for the 21st century, and not suspended in amber.
Some of the accouterments of classic rural blues performance are in place, of course – the foot stomp, the ragged-yet-dextrous slide playing, and the mournful voice of experience at the center of it. Yet, what makes this so primal is not about those stylistic props. The reason that this song works is because of its emotional connection. It’s a terrifying song as sung from the point of view of someone who is abjectly terrified: “If God left town, where can I go?”
This was the breadth of Whitley’s talent, which never enjoyed mainstream attention, since he was too stylistically elusive, and too removed from the machinery of the music industry. He was an ex-Pat American living in Germany when he recorded this song, issuing it on the Internet and offering it at live shows. Yet despite being unconventional in the way he distributed his music and conducted himself career-wise, he had the respect of many who command mainstream audiences, many of whom guested on his records; Dave Matthews, Bruce Hornsby, Daniel Lanois, and others.
But, by the time this album was recorded, Whitley was running out of time. In November of 2005, he succumbed to lung cancer. Yet, he left behind twelve albums of intensity, with a unique voice, and a model of what the blues as a singular stylistic form could be in a modern context, and not to be relegated to being a museum piece.
For more information, check out Chris Whitley’s website.