Blues Harp Magic

Blues Harp Magic

Recording technology and economics have a peculiar way of influencing the progress of music.  I remember when the folks at Apple first opened their iTunes store, and started selling individual songs for 99 cents each.  Some people bemoaned the death of the long-playing album, saying sales would suffer if people could pick and choose only the songs they like.  The poor LP was already in trouble in pop music, where a darling of the music industry would be packaged and polished and an album forced out with a few potential hits mixed in to a load of rubbish.  I actually like well-made albums that capture a bigger musical vision of the recording artist(s).  A product that was put together with emphasis on the overall sound, order of the tunes, and totality of tonal balance.

The origins of the LP record in the 1960’s had the opposite effect that the iTunes store created in more recent times.  State of the art in the early 60’s was to record 2-3 minute single songs, for play on the radio and sale as 45 rpm record singles.  This was the format that had commercial potential, and was the recording outlet for musicians at the time.  It took a few record producers with vision, and guts to spend money on studio time, in order to take the chance on making and marketing an entire album.  One of the greatest early successes in the genre of blues music came when Bob Koester of Delmark records enabled Junior Wells to cut Hoodoo Man Blues, a legendary Chicago blues album.

Junior Wells, “Snatch It Back and Hold It”

JuniorWellsHoodoo Man Blues is a 1965 landmark of the Chicago Blues sound, with the vocals and harp of Junior Wells and the guitar work of Buddy Guy.  Wells is a master of the blues harp, a Richter-tuned harmonica, which he cupped in his hands and played close into a microphone.  In this way, he could play powerfully expressive solos and bend notes in every which way with an amplified sound.  On a personal note, I miss the liner notes that came with albums. They always had valuable information included.  In the liner notes to Hoodoo Man Blues, Junior Wells tells a story of how he obtained his first harmonica.

I went to this pawnshop downtown and the man had a harmonica priced at $2.00. I got a job on a soda truck… played hookey from school … worked all week and on Saturday the man gave me a dollar and a half. A dollar and a half! For a whole week of work. I went to the pawnshop and the man said the price was two dollars. I told him I had to have that harp. He walked away from the counter – left the harp there. So I laid my dollar-and-a-half on the counter and picked up the harp. When my trial came up, the judge asked my why I did it. I told him I had to have that harp. The judge asked me to play it and when I did he gave the man the 50 cents and hollered “Case dismissed!

Junior Wells, “We’re Ready”

The title of the album comes from a song by the same name, and is seventh on the record.  It is a tune that Wells recorded years earlier on a 78 rpm single, but never got much radio play at the time.  He liked the tune a great deal, and wanted to include it on the album.  “Hoodoo” is a sort of folk magic originating in the Mississippi Delta from a mix of West African, Native American and European influences.  It is not the same as Louisiana or Haitian Voodoo.  A “Hoodoo” man would then be a practitioner of this folk spirituality, and a character that gets Hoodooed himself in “Hoodoo Man Blues”.

Junior Wells, “Hoodoo Man Blues”

Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy

This album is a gem that launched a recording career for Junior Wells, and is close to the first album length document of the Chicago blues sound.  The guitar playing of Buddy Guy, a blues legend himself and frequent recording partner of Wells, is an absolute treasure on the album.  It is actually Buddy Guy’s guitar that I was first searching out when I found this record.  He almost wasn’t on this album, as he originally was thought to be under contract with another record label at the time. He was actually going to be listed on early presses of the record as “Friendly Chap”, a play on his name.  During the recording sessions, Buddy’s guitar amp broke.  For some of the tracks, his guitar is wired through the speaker of an electric Hammond organ that was in the studio.  Necessity again was the mother of invention.

If you don’t know about the Chicago Blues sound, you better go ask somebody.  Then go listen to this album on repeat.

Junior Wells, Hoodoo Man Blues on Spotify



Devilishly Good Stuff

Devilishly Good Stuff

king-of-the-delta-blues-singersThe 1961 blues record King of the Delta Blues Singers by Robert Johnson is a legendary recording that was released at just the right time.  Johnson had been dead for over twenty years by the time this LP was put out, but it became one of the most influential recordings for some of the biggest names in music.  There was a growing interest in folk and blues music at the time, and owning a copy of this record was a badge of being hip.  Musicians from America and England studied this music intensely, namely Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Steve Miller, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and so many more.

Many of the details of Robert Johnson’s life are vague and surrounded in mystery.  This has just added to the legend of this Delta Bluesman.  He was born in Mississippi in 1911, and started out on harmonica. Also,  in the beginning he was a lousy guitar player.  He disappeared for a while, and when he was seen again, he had a ferocious guitar technique.  This has led to the story that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar skills, while standing at the “crossroads”.  Johnson was very protective of his musical style, and if he saw someone in the audience studying him too hard, he would pack up and leave before someone stole his tricks.  Some of his original compositions have added to the devilish legend, with titles like “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Hellhound On My Trail”, and some the lyrics of “Cross Road Blues”.

Robert Johnson, “Hellhound On My Trail”

Johnson 2Research into Robert Johnson’s life is a frustratingly impossible task.  He traveled constantly, from Memphis, Tennessee to Helena, Arkansas and all through the Mississippi Delta.  He would stay sometimes with extended family members, and often times with women with whom he cultivated a relationship.  He used at least eight different surnames as he traveled, and the woman in the current town surely didn’t know of the woman in the next.  He would play on the street corner, in juke joints, in bars and anywhere he could make some money playing.  He often played popular songs and whatever people wanted to hear, but he’s best known today for his original compositions.  They come from two recording sessions, one in 1936 and the other in 1937.  The first, in November of 1936, was set up by Brunswick Records in a makeshift recording studio in a room at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas.  Robert Johnson played into a corner of the room (for added reverberation) and recorded his original songs.  The raw emotion and authentic despair in the singing is so powerful.  He accompanies himself on guitar with a complex and difficult finger style technique.  Just one man, his guitar, his songs, on recordings made to fit the limits of one side of a 78 rpm record — but more emotion is packed into each song than you could find in a 45 minute Mahler Symphony.  This is the raw, real output of a musician who had mastered his style. Many feel they are the sounds of a tortured soul.

Robert Johnson, “Me and the Devil Blues”

Robert_JohnsonRobert Johnson died in 1938.  He has at least three gravestones throughout Mississippi, with no one knowing for sure which is the real grave.  The story is that he was murdered by a jealous husband who took offense to Robert flirting with his wife.  Sonny Boy Williamson, another blues giant, had warned Johnson not to drink from a bottle he had not personally seen opened.  Williamson went so far as to knock a bottle of whiskey from Johnson’s hand, but Johnson did not heed the warnings.  He eventually drank from a bottle that was poisoned by the jealous husband, and took three long days to die, at the young age of 27.  Without those recordings, we might never even know the name Robert Johnson, or any of his songs.  There are only two known photographs of the man, and 29 songs that were recorded.  Those 29 songs have gone on to influence rock and roll in ways no one at the time could have imagined.  I’ve always listened to Johnson’s songs from a re-release of The Complete Recordings.  Today, I would recommend The Centennial Collection:  The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson, a 2011 remastering of the recordings that is the best sound available.  It is essential listening, and devilishly good stuff.

Robert Johnson, The Centennial Collection on Spotify

Complete Johnson

My Will Is Strong

Willpower.  The greatest creative force known to humankind.  The sheer force of will that fuels the effort to bring into existence something, where once there was nothing.  The willpower to bring a vision into reality.  Drive, commitment, resolve and tenacity are the things that overcome obstacles, bridge long distances, and make the seemingly impossible, possible.

Segovia-AndresAndrés Segovia is the godfather of classical guitar, and was a man of immense will.  There was almost no such thing as a classical guitar recital before Segovia.  There was no repertoire, no audience, no precedent.  The guitar was a so-called “peasant” instrument, and didn’t have a place in the “art-music” world next to the piano or the violin.  Segovia changed all that.

segovia-guitarThere are times when I am really in the mood for classical guitar.  It is a sublime instrument.  Subtlety is king in the music of the nylon-stringed guitar.  The dynamic range is small, with the louds and softs all being pretty quiet, and there is endless debate about how a string should be plucked.  With a fingernail, the flesh of the fingertip, or a combination of both?  Guitarists are fiercely protective of the nails on their right hand.  Breaking a nail the night before a recital is a disaster that ruins months of preparation.

To create a body of music to play, Segovia had to transcribe music originally written for other instruments.  He enlisted composers he knew to write music especially for him.  Some of my favorite pieces are the transcriptions of Bach for guitar, which is no shock, since I am a great fan of J.S. Bach in the first place.

Andrés Segovia plays Bach

segoviahispageAs his reputation grew, so too did the commanding presence that Segovia had on stage.  He started his concert career before electronic amplification.  The audience had to maintain absolute silence for anyone beyond the third row to hear any of the music.  There was a bit of reverence and awe in the recital hall for Segovia, and a measure of contempt for anyone who coughed.  All classical guitarists you hear today owe and acknowledge a debt to Segovia.  In fact, during his lifetime, many players claimed to be students of Segovia even if they weren’t.  He once said:

“All over the world I have ‘pupils’ I have never met.”

As can be expected for a man with such tenacity and will,  Andrés Segovia had a bit of a stubborn streak in him.  He was very tough on his (real) students, and there was only one right way to do things  — HIS way.  Segovia didn’t just transcribe music for the guitar, but often notated his own interpretations into the score, adding his own thoughts to the original composer’s.  He would only perform works with which he had a personal connection, and completely rejected music he did not.  If it didn’t suit his taste and musical sensibilities, he didn’t play it, and likely didn’t believe anyone else should either.  I would say he probably earned the right to his opinions, even if I don’t agree with all of them.

Andrés Segovia‎- Recital Intimo (full album)

I would like to think I have at least half of the backbone that a man like Andrés Segovia had.  I have a pretty good track record of meeting my goals, slaying the dragons in my path, and bringing my visions into reality.  If I have a superpower, I would hope it is guts and sheer force of will.  I could do a lot worse.  If I get two superpower wishes, maybe the second should be a cool car like the Batmobile.  Chicks always dig the car.  batmobile