Listen to this track by underappreciated blues and rock architect Big Mama Thornton. It’s “Ball and Chain”, a cut that Thornton wrote in the early 1960s, recorded by the end of that decade and can be heard on the Ball And Chain compilation album. The song provided the runway for her resurgence as a performer at that time, too.
This particular rendition was recorded for public television in 1970, including Buddy Guy and his band behind a very formidable Thornton. The two artists had worked together on live shows in Europe in the mid-sixties, the musical rapport they create here perhaps indicating how simpatico they are. During her intro, Thornton mentions Janis Joplin who also had massive success with this song, inspired as she was by the elder singer’s powerful and heart-wrenching original version. Joplin would later invite Thornton to open shows for her.
Yet, Thornton was the pioneer while Joplin trod her path. This being the music industry, and being our world in general, that path was fraught with perils for someone like Big Mama Thornton. The first casualty was her own fame, or lack thereof. Read more
Listen to this track by Akron Ohio blues-rock twosome The Black Keys. It’s “Tighten Up”, a single as taken from their 2010 album Brothers.
The single was twinned with another hit in “Howlin’ For You”, hearkening back to the days of the double A-side. Both songs evoke the spirit of one of the band’s greatest influences, that being Howlin’ Wolf. Even the album design mirrored Wolf’s 1969 album The Howlin’ Wolf Album on which the self-referential words “This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either”. Even if that statement about his view of his own record was true, it showed that the blues was changing by the latter years of Wolf’s career, mixing with rock music and psychedelia.
Even if this song hearkens back to what Wolf helped to establish – echoey and subterranean blues that is coloured with an edge of desperation and menace – it also demonstrates that the form is not stagnant by the 21st century, either. It still had plenty of space to grow, with The Black Keys certainly playing their part to get the music back on mainstream radio and on video screens too. With this, another aspect comes to the fore; that this is not mere musical curation of sounds from days gone by. It’s a part of a living tradition that also has a place in the pop charts. Read more
Listen to this track by Detroit proto-punk progenitors MC5. It’s “The Motor City’s Burning”, a song that appears on their 1969 album Kick Out The Jams. The song was written by Al Smith, and previously recorded by no less than John Lee Hooker, making an appearance on Hooker’s Urban Blues live album in 1967.
That was the year that the riots which inspired this song occurred, in July and indeed at the corner of Clairmont and 12th street in Detroit. Given that both Hooker and The MC5 called Detroit home, this was more than just a blues tune full of violence and sadness, which it certainly is. It’s not even a protest song as such. It’s more like simple a view of the action, with no sides taken, but with a personal stake in the outcome all the same.
What is that personal stake? Well, it’s all tied up in the value of home, and from a band who are not only from Detroit, but who had attached their identity to it. Read more
Listen to this track by Austin Texas blues-honky-tonk-rock trio Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. It’s “Cold Shot” a hit single from their 1984 record Couldn’t Stand The Weather, their second as a band. Along with performing well chartwise, the video for it received heavy rotation as well, noted for its humour.
The song was written by W.C Clark, a local Austin blues legend, although by the early to mid-80s, Vaughn had made a name for himself in his own right. Vaughan had been a student of the blues since he was a kid, along with his older brother Jimmie Vaughan. This tune was one of several cover songs on the record, with other songs written by Guitar Slim, Jimmy Reed, and Jimi Hendrix. The blues in these primordial traditions was on the wane in many ways by the early 1980s as far as mainstream audiences went.
So, given that, how did Stevie Ray Vaughan get so big in that era? And, what does this tune represent in the middle of all of that? Read more
Listen to this track by redheaded guitar slinger and roots and blues ingenue turned American music matriarch Bonnie Raitt. It’s “Love Me Like a Man” as taken from her second album Give It Up, released to the world in the summer of 1972, when she was a fresh-faced 22 year old.
Bonnie Riatt is known today particularly for the work she created in the late ’80s and into the ’90s. Albums like Nick Of Time and Luck of the Draw, plus songs like “Something To Talk About”, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” led to armfuls of Grammies. They also reveal Raitt’s superior command of emotional tone, arrangement, and great chops, even if they were created with a polished, adult contemporary sound in mind. But, her career began well before that work was created, upon a sturdy foundation of the blues.
The idea of “contemporary blues” is off-putting to some. It’s a bit of a red flag for me, if I’m honest. But, this song is certainly one that can be called contemporary although maybe in a different way then one might expect.
Listen to this track by Vancouver, Washington folk-blues journeyman Kelly Joe Phelps. It’s “The House Carpenter” as taken from Phelps’ 1999 record Shine Eyed Master Zen.
The song is a well-travelled British folk tune steeped in tragedy. There’s nothing like it for a great folk ballad from that tradition. And it doesn’t hurt for a blues tune, either. Because of Phelps’ command of the material, this rendition is potent, seeming to touch on both of those musical traditions all at once.
The song has its roots in Scotland, with the tale varying over the years as many, many folk musicians interpreted it over generations. In some versions, the devil is a character, with the song also known as the more floridly titled “The Daemon Lover”. In earlier versions, the devil lures the house carpenter’s wife away from her home, and her child, with the promise of riches abroad. That’s a bit of a crossover into the world of the blues, too. The devil is a busy guy in many blues tunes from Skip James to Robert Johnson.
But In Phelps’ version the devil in his guise as a deal-cutting, saint-tempting figure of ultimate evil is nowhere in sight. There is a force more insidious at the heart of this version. Read more
Listen to this track by incomparable High Priestess of Soul herself Nina Simone. It’s “Sinnerman”, a traditional gospel-blues song of misty and mysterious origins as captured on her 1965 record Pastel Blues. The song closed that record, an epic length encapsulation of nothing less than the Fall of Humanity, the hope for redemption, and the fear of damnation.
Covering this tune was likely a product of Simone’s upbringing in the church. But, it is also likely that “Sinnerman” was well-covered on the Greenwich Village folk scene, of which Simone was also a part. The Weavers recorded a version of it, which may have been responsible for it being something of a standard of the ’60s folk boom. It has since become a well-covered standard across a number of musical spectrums.
This one is the real thing; over ten minutes long, and with Simone’s full-powers behind it, and making it her own. It would have an impact well after this version was recorded. Read more
The record is a protest album, with songs that have a razor keen satiric edge to them that is refreshing to hear in an era that sorely needs songs like that, helpfully presented in a variety of styles including rock/pop, country, reggae, tejano, and of course, the blues. This song is certainly satirical, providing some comic relief to songs about crooked bankers, Mexican refugees, damaged soldiers, and obtuse politicians.
Ry Cooder has entered a new phase in his career, from guitar slinger, to folk music archivist, to soundtrack composer, to world-music curator, to an artist who has found a voice as a social critic with an eye for historical events informing current ones. More recent albums Chavez Ravine,My Name Is Buddy and I, Flathead, known as his “California Trilogy” all reference sociopoltical themes of the past, tying them to themes today that show that things haven’t really changed.
As such, this album doesn’t come out of nowhere. And even if this song about John Lee Hooker has some comedy value, complete with a well-observed impression of the late lamented bluesman, there is a strain of truth to this song that makes it more than just comedy relief.
Listen to this song by much-missed R&B stylist, and elementally gifted vocalist Etta James. It’s “Tell Mama”, a broiling example of full-on soul-power, charged with the fire of the blues, as taken from the album of the same name, Tell Mama, from 1968.
The record and song was something of a comeback for James, who first broke out in 1960 after some minor dents in the R&B charts previously. She had become sidelined by the middle of the decade by a series of personal problems, including a growing heroin habit. Her addiction to drugs would continue to be a personal millstone around her neck for many years.
Yet, the sheer power of her voice, and the uniqueness of the same, would remain undiminished. And this tune is my favourite of her songs, which is really saying something given the quality of her output.
The comeback itself was successful, with this song being top 10 on the R&B charts, and with the album being her first for almost half a decade to hit the Billboard 200. This tune would become something of a signiture hit, along with “At Last”, her version of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, and another cut off of the same LP – “I’d Rather Go Blind”.
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.