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.
Listen to this song by R&B kingpin Magic Sam. It’s ’21 Days in Jail’, a rollicking little number about being down and out and scared out of your wits while doing time. You can find this genre-defying gem on the compilation album With a Feeling 57-66: The Cobra, Chief & Crash Recordings.
If you thought that the barrier between R&B and country music in the 1950s and 60s was only being scaled by white people, this ought to set you straight. Where Sam had cut a number of straight-ahead West side Chicago-style blues, this one is pure Memphis rockabilly even if it wasn’t recorded there. Chess Records’ linchpin Willie Dixon co-wrote and played bass on this, but I could swear it was Elvis bassist Bill Black instead.
Magic Sam was both an innovator and a developing artist at the same time, it seems to me. On the one hand, he stuck to a specific template when it came to his early recordings. His debut single “All of your love”, was in many ways reproduced with only subtle variation on ensuing singles like “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”. But, then he’d come out with something like this, which seems to work in an opposite direction from where you might expect. During his brief career, Sam would also incorporate pop music, soul, and other textures into his brand of blues, which helped to expand the possibilities of the genre.
Sam would only enjoy the beginnings of a world-dominating career, dying young at the age of 32 of a heart attack. Yet his sides for the Cobra label, and the impact he had on contemporary bluesmen like Buddy Guy, and a new generation of blues guitarists who also incorporate country music influences into their playing like Stevie Ray Vaughn would immortalize him.
For more music, check out this article about Magic Sam from Gibson.