I was never into the blues that much. I listened to a bit of Roy Buchanan and Rory Gallagher but only as accidental overspill from rock. I knew the Rolling Stones’s sound came out of their love of the blues but what they added was more important (to me) than what they took. And then there was Eric Clapton. In common with a discerning portion of the British population, I loathed Clapton after his drunken endorsement of Enoch Powell’s rivers-of-blood speech. Even if I’d somehow let that slide, I could never forgive him for ‘Tears in Heaven’ which was like having a bucket of oversweetened bilge water poured over one’s head. Musically, Clapton hasn’t come up with anything interesting for at least 40 years so why anyone showed up at his annual plod-alongs at the Royal Albert Hall is an enduring mystery. Overall, no one has done more than Clapton to turn British people off the blues.
I liked it when jazz musicians played the blues, especially if the word was embedded in the title of a tune – ‘When Will the Blues Leave?’ (Ornette Coleman), ‘Blues for a Reason’ (Chet Baker), ‘The Hard Blues’ (Julius Hemphill) – but as a distinct musical genre the blues never quite got through to me. I liked bluesness as a musical ingredient and liked some of the names – Howlin’ Wolf, Son House – more than their music. Obviously I loved Dylan’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’ but listening to McTell himself was a come-down after the Dylan song. Then, a few years ago, my wife and I drove with friends from Austin, Texas, down to Mississippi – and nothing really changed. Geographically, the Delta was a revelation – the way it just lay there, like a kind of spatial waiting – but we didn’t go to any gigs. We ate at a café in B.B. King’s home town and I think we drove past Robert Johnson’s grave, but we didn’t stop and the whole trip was unaccompanied by music because the car didn’t have a functioning sound system.
I only really got into the blues in LA, after my friend Richard Grant – an English writer living in Mississippi – sent a Spotify link to something he called ‘trance blues’. That snagged my attention immediately. I’d loved psychedelic or Goan trance; more generally, what I’ve wanted from any kind of music – Bach, Keith Jarrett, Indian classical – is to trance out to it. The guy inducing this particular trance was called Junior Kimbrough, and his laid-back, one-chord, hill-country drone was all-enveloping. Intense though it was, my enthusiasm for Kimbrough remained self-contained, didn’t extend beyond him. Then, last year, Richard suggested that I listen to some tracks on R.L. Burnside’s album Too Bad Jim. From there I went back to Burnside’s earlier acoustic recordings and forward to the various remixes put out by Fat Possum Records. Feeding a familiar, life-sustaining urge to find out as much as I could, I consulted discographies, watched all available footage of him on YouTube. As often happens, this surge of interest was accompanied by an undertow or riptide of regret: that I’d never seen him play, had never been to a juke joint (if only I’d been to Junior’s place where parts of Too Bad Jim had been recorded!). By the time Kimbrough and Burnside became famous, in the early 1990s, they were both in their sixties, old and plump enough to play sitting down, rocking hard in the still centre of the beat. Junior died in 1998, before I began spending a lot of time in the US, but I could easily have seen R.L., who died in 2005.
The idea of authenticity has haunted the blues from the time, at least, of John Lomax and his fractious relationship with Lead Belly. As a student at the Juilliard Miles Davis, whose dad was a successful dentist, expressed his contempt for the idea that ‘the reason black people played the blues was because they were poor and had to pick cotton’. Still, the hard lives of Kimbrough and Burnside – rural poverty, farm-work and, in Burnside’s case, time served in Parchman for murder – were rooted in a whole mythos of the blues. Their label, Fat Possum, cannily exploited this while maintaining an authentically Davisian indifference towards any music that sounded like a dutiful old horse, ploughing a furrow that had already been worked to death. Even though, in Burnside’s case particularly, you can hear the influence of John Lee Hooker, it’s obvious that he’s advancing the form. And not only that. He and Kimbrough were doing this way before they were ‘discovered’ in the 1990s.
There’s amazing footage shot in 1974 at a place called, rather grandly, the Brotherhood Sportsmen’s Lodge. It actually looks like a low-ceilinged house party with R.L., skinny, grinning and standing, playing electric guitar and singing while trying to avoid the jostle he’s whipping up around him. On the second track, ‘Jumper on the Line’, he sets up a choppy riff that deepens into something that has the relentless drive of funky techno. People are dancing, naturally, but by the end we are on the ecstatic brink of rave – in 1974. One guy in particular is completely gone. He could be at Berghain in Berlin or one of the big dance parties in London when electronic music was at its sustained and blissful peak. But there’s something else, too, something specific to the blues, to the part of the world from which it emerged and, ‘against tremendous odds’, flourished. The phrase is from Deep Blues by Robert Palmer who played a big part in the late change in the fortunes of Kimbrough and Burnside (he produced Too Bad Jim). At the end of the book Palmer quotes Wadada Leo Smith, a jazz musician who was raised in the Delta. Growing up in that environment, Smith says, made him feel that whatever he plays ‘relates to a gigantic field of feeling’.
Listening to Kimbrough and Burnside I feel that, at last, in my early sixties, I’ve entered a corner of that foreign field, that vast and crowded zone of meaning.