Listen to this track by throwback ragtime guitarist and singular “character” Leon Redbone. It’s “Lazy Bones”, a cut off of his 1975 debut record On The Track. That album contained several renditions of pre-war tin pan alley, jazz, and country blues tunes like this one that are so authentic sounding that you can practically hear the surface crackles on them.
For all of the retro-style textures from decades ago that artists today reference in their own music, Leon Redbone preceded them all. Like an artist today might reference a sound from the seventies, Redbone in turn reached back into the 1930s and even earlier to remind his audiences that the nature of pop music hadn’t really changed that much in terms of form in that they were still short little aural slabs of joy that are designed to get stuck in your head. The album even scored an #87 on the top 100 Billboard pop album chart by 1975.
Much like the dusty musical forms he traded in, Leon Redbone was an enigma. Like the blues itself, no one really knows where he came from, and not just in a showbiz sense.
Listen to this track by itinerant musician, self-styled last minstrel man and “World’s Worse (sic) Businessman” Abner Jay. It’s “I’m So Depressed”, a cut from his independently produced and distributed album Swaunee Water And Cocaine Blues. The song was also re-issued as a single in 2009 through Portland-based Mississippi records, a label that compiled Abner Jay’s somewhat scattered output.
Abner Jay seems like more of a figure that someone invented rather than an actual person. He was the ultimate self-contained act in the medicine show tradition, traveling in a mobile home that opened up into a makeshift stage, roaming from town to town playing for country folks at flea markets and store parking lots, and selling records from a cardboard box. Amazingly, he performed his material while playing all of the instruments himself in a live setting, including a six-string banjo he claimed was made in 1748 and handed down to him by his grandfather who had been born a slave. Maybe in some ways then, he really was invented, or rather self-invented.
There has been some question as to how to qualify Abner Jay’s music, too. Is it authentic? Could it be described as outsider music? I suppose all of that is determined by how you define each of those terms.. Maybe the clues to Abner Jay’s position on the authenticity spectrum can be found in this song. Read more
Here’s a clip of modern-day proto-electric rural blues stylist Little Miss Higgins (sometimes known as Jolene Higgins when not on stage), hailing proudly from the heart of the Canadian Praries – Nokomis, Saskatchewan to be exact. It’s a rendition of her affectionate ode to her surroundings, “Middle of Nowhere” originally to be found on her 2007 album Junction City, as well as on the live document, Little Miss Higgins Live Two Nights in March.
A lot of great music has come out of the supposed backwaters of the world. The Canadian Prairies is such a place; geographically isolated perhaps when compared to urban settings. Yet it’s in place like this where tight-knit communities are found to treasure that unique simplicity of living. In the more desolate places, celebrating the joys to be found in simple things is part and parcel toward defining what ‘home’ means. And perhaps the end result leads to a greater attachment, and a deeper sense of belonging.
This is one of the appeals of Little Miss Higgins’ “Middle of Nowhere”. This song is all about defining what ‘home’ means. The place in this song may be a featureless place on the surface, but it is ultimately full of singular character. This makes the song a concentrated shot of the culture and attitude out of the place from which it comes. This can be said for her entire oeuvre, love letters to her home as it is.
Musically speaking, there is of course a heavy debt to the rural blues and country music of the pre-war period. This is a good fit when it comes to LMH’s subject matter, which is about collecting little snapshots of a place that, perhaps in the minds of many who’ve never been there, exists in 1930s sepia-tones. And even to those who are from there, the sense of community bound by common experience isn’t crowded out by slick arrangements.
In short, the music is entirely appropriate to its subject matter, and packed to the brim with unbridled affection and charming self-deprecation.
I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Little Miss Higgins perform with her musical colleague Foy Taylor (also featured in the above clip) perform at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival this year. The performance was charming, raw, hilarious, and just plain warm. LMH was like an ambassador from the rural Prairies, making ‘the middle of nowhere’ sound like a vital, and welcoming somewhere, even for us city-folk.
For another wonderful clip of Little Miss Higgins, check out this blog post from my friend Emme Rogers, which features a clip of LMH’s performing another tune of hers – “Me and My Gin”
Listen to this song, a slice of primal, primordial blues echoing down from the ages and from across continents. It’s late-blooming recording artist, and well-traveled bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s “I Cried Last Night” as taken from his 1998 record God Knows I Tried.
David ‘Junior’ Kimbrough hailed from North Mississippi, part of a veritable hotbed of high-profile blues talent that came out of the 1990s such as The North Mississippi All-Stars, and R.L Burnside. Kimbrough had a long regional career in the area, with good many of his previous recordings being singles, recorded sparingly in the 60s. Besides this limited time in recording studios, there weren’t many opportunities to build momentum as a consistent recording artist. In the 70s and 80s, he toured local juke joints, but had yet to lay down a full-length album.
It wasn’t until he was discovered in the late 80s by critic, producer and impresario Robert Palmer. His first album was recorded on the Fat Possum label in 1992. His music gained attention of rock bands as well as blues fans, with British band Gomez recording Kimbrough’s ‘Meet Me In the City’ on their 2004 Split the Difference album. “I Cried Last Night” (borrowing a riff from from Willie Cobb’s “You Don’t Love Me”), and the record it is featured on, was his last hurrah, before dying of a heart attack the year it came out, not before recording six albums. He was 68.
Like John Lee Hooker, Kimbrough’s music shows a clear and shining path back to places like Mali, where the blues was arguably first conceived, if not christened. And like the best of the blues, it is evocative and otherworldly, evoking a sort of mythical shorthand for emotional connectedness that is attached to the darker corners of the human psyche. But, this is what the blues does best. It’s encapsulates raw emotions, viscerally, and without artifice, crossing cultural barriers with ease.
Like a lot of African music, Kimbrough’s approach to the blues puts emphasis on the drone, with the guitars winding hypnotically in and out of the steady, interlocking rhythm. Kimbrough’s voice is muddy, indecipherable in places. It might as well be in another language. And perhaps in some way it is.
Here’s a clip of Texas blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins with a 1962 performance of his hit put out two years previous, “Mojo Hand”.
Sam “Lightnin'”Hopkins was a part of the early 60s folk-boom, although unlike many of his fellows working in the same musical idiom, he was not an artist rescued from obscurity. Lightnin’ had been a working musician from the 1920s when still a child, recording on a number of labels through the decades before recording this song and the album of the same name, Mojo Hand, on the Fire records label by the early 1960s.
Hopkins had a storied career, and a unique education in the blues, acting initially as a guide to Blind Lemon Jefferson, and subsequently as a partner to his cousin “Texas” Alexander. After a stretch in Houston County Prison Farm, Hopkins struck out on his own, gaining the nickname “Lightnin'” after being discovered in the 1940s by a scout from Aladdin Records. He was teamed with another artist, Wilson Smith who had been nicknamed “thunder” to match. After the duo parted ways, the “Lightnin'” stuck.
Much like the approach of many country blues players, Lightnin’ had a self-contained approach to the guitar, playing lead, bass, rhythm, and even percussion lines slapped out on the body of his guitar. A common drawback was that his sidemen were often confounded by his internal sense of timing, which was not exactly intuitive to an accompanying musician. And a song was never played the same way twice. Record producers often suffered from this phenomenon as well.
Yet, Lightnin’ remained to be a singular and respected voice through the 60s folk-boom and afterward, with his influence on rock guitarists and contemporary blues guitarists including Jimi Hendrix (who also had a self-contained guitar style) and fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughn, who’s song “Rude Mood” was based on Lightnin’s “Sky Hop”, a track which would show that Lightnin’ was just as at home with an electric guitar as he was an acoustic.
In 1959, Lightnin’ Hopkins was contacted by a folklorist, a contact which later allowed him to tap into the burgeoning folk scene and find a wider audience. His ability to play in a traditional style, while often improvising lyrics to suit his situation or current states of affairs made him a hit with the folk crowd as much as it had with the Texas club circuits where he’d honed his craft.
Although he’d seen the evolution of the blues through the years, Hopkins managed to hold onto a singular style, characterized by his dexterous playing and his craggy, storyteller’s voice. He is easily one of my favourite bluesmen.
Lightnin’s career stretched six decades by the end of his life. He died in 1982.
Here’s a clipof once-lost bluesman and acoustic guitar slinger Mississippi John Hurt with his double-entendre laden song “Candy Man Blues”, as featured on his Avalon Blues album. The record was cut in 1963 soon after he was ‘rediscovered’, actively sought out by blues archivists after 30 years of having quit music.
John Hurt was a native of Avalon Mississippi, working as a farm hand during the day and playing what is now considered ‘old time’ music in his spare time. In 1928, aged 36, he got a chance to record with legendary early jazz and blues label Okeh records. He recorded two sessions that year, in Memphis and in New York City, with the label adding the ‘Mississippi’ in front of his name for authenticity. He made eight recordings. One of the songs he recorded, was this one, “Candy Man Blues”, with plenty of sauciness added into the lyrics before records by African-American musicians became mainstream. He was paid $240 for the Memphis sessions, which he then spent to go to New York for more.
The twin problems of poor sales, and then the failing of the label itself during the Great Depression later on curtailed Hurt’s lasting career as a full-time musician. He returned to Avalon and picked up where he left off, with farm work during the day, with the odd non-professional gig at parties and other community gatherings at night. He was otherwise lost to history, at least for the time being.
Fastfoward to 1963: archivist and blues enthusiast Tom Hoskins having heard Hurt’s 1928 recordings was determined to go to Avalon to see if the voice behind the music was still around. Hoskins found the bluesman still living modestly, convinced him that he had an audience, and returned with him to Washington DC at the height of the 1960s folk-boom. Old time music and rural blues had been given an injection of life, with a new audience of students looking to hear original American folk players like Hurt, suspicious of the lack of depth and perceived dishonesty in modern pop music at the time.
In making public appearances, Hurt began the second phase of his career as a professional musician, recording his material in the studio for a new generation. An appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival the same festival which featured a young Bob Dylan, solidified Hurt’s status as a true original, his skills as a guitarist remaining undiminished. He was a star at 72 years old, enjoying another two years of fame before his death in November, 1966.
Hurt’s sound would continue to have an impact on musicians long after his death, including Bruce Cockburn, Beck, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and others. These artists, among others, contributed tracks to the Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurtalbum in 2001, produced by songwriter Peter Case who is a lifelong fan himself.
The thing I love about this story is that something which had been the victim of bad timing (the Great Depression) eventually benefited from very good timing (the Folk-boom on American college campuses in the early 60s). And I think its great when cultural treasures are discovered and given their due, which is an ongoing trend in blues in particular, a tradition which knows enough to value its own history.
For more about Mississippi John Hurt, check out his MySpace page.
To contribute to the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, a charity set up to aid disadvantaged youth, visit the official site for more information.