Sippie Wallace was born in Texas in 1898 and, remarkably won a W.C. Handy award for Best Blues Album in 1984, having been nominated for a Grammy the year before! After having performed, first in tent shows all over Texas and then in clubs in Chicago in the 1920s, Sippy retired temporarily when the blues craze died down in the 30s. But – you can’t keep a good gal down, and she resumed her career in the blues revival of the 1960s (she’d made a few recordings in the 40s and 50s). Bonnie Raitt was one of her big fans and both befriended her and performed with her. Perhaps the most famous collaboration was the song Woman Be Wise, typical of the sass and wit that had characterized Sippy’s style over the years.
Interestingly, Sippy’s father had been a deacon in the Baptist church and she had grown up singing and playing piano in the church and seems to have maintained or re-found her faith in later years, playing both blues and gospel as she grew older. Shortly before she died in 1986, she said, “I play for a church right now…you don’t see any place in the Bible that says you’ll go to hell if you sing the blues. If you can sing gospel, you can sing the blues.” Well said, Sippy. People have always tried to play faith off against the blues – gospel versus the devil’s music. It’s a false dichotomy, however. As Lurrie Bell said recently, “the devil don’t have no music.” Music is music, it’s either good music or it’s not – there’s nothing inherently bad about a particular style. And the blues – rooted in human anxiety, trouble and heart-ache, but which plays and sings its way towards better times – seems to me able to express something of the Christian gospel, which essentially revolves around this theme of human failure, suffering and lostness, with the good news of rescue and hope for personal and social transformation.
As Willie Dixon said: , “the good Lord in his spirit had to send somethin’ down to the people to help ease they worried mind. And that where the music come in – it would work in what you tryin’ a do, what you strivin’ for, to help give you a vision of a brighter day way up ahead, to help you get your mind offa what you are in right now…and the blues, like John Lee Hooker says, is a healer.”
Aaron Burton’s 2013 release, The Return of Peetie Whitestraw (not to be confused with early bluesman Peetie Wheatstraw), is a terrific album of country blues, driven by Burton’s excellent slide and acoustic chops, and his assured, well-phrased vocals. With fourteen original tracks, the album is a delight, with a range of traditional blues subjects tackled, from unfaithful lovers to travelling and drifting to drinking.
There’s one particularly interesting song in the collection – If That’s Religion, where Burton takes issue with a number of biblical themes or interpretations of the Bible. “The world was created in only seven days? And Abraham’s willing to sacrifice his son?” he sings. Well then, “if that’s religion, I swear I don’t want none.”
We perhaps can sympathize with Burton’s difficulties here, as with the disagreement he has in his song that events like 9-11 point to the “last days.” There are, to be sure, difficulties in readings of the Bible which assume this ancient text should perfectly align with 21st century science – and if it doesn’t, that we should abandon our science. Or with readings that assume that it must have something to say about events in our own lifetimes. The Bible was never meant to tell us about science or about specific events in our own history. And to try and shoehorn it into that role is both unhelpful and distracting from properly understanding its message.
Which is one of love and justice. The Bible tells the story of a world gone wrong, a world full of suffering and injustice. And the story of God’s plan to make things right, to redeem and renew his world. And the opportunity for us to join in with this story, to allow God to make it our own story and then to work for newness and change and justice in God’s world. All this made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But Burton finds the idea that “Jesus rose from the dead” too far-fetched to swallow.
A difficult idea, to be sure. Dead men don’t get up. But however we might interpret the Old Testament stories of the creation or Abraham and Isaac or the ethnic cleansing of the land by Joshua – everything stands or falls on the veracity of this one central story of the resurrection. St. Paul said that if the Messiah wasn’t raised, then there was no point in having faith, we might as well eat, drink and be merry. For him, a Jewish scholar and zealot, who hated the ideas of the new Christian group, solid evidence was needed – which he felt he had in spades from the witness of numerous people who had seen the risen Jesus, and in his own experience on the Damascus road.
If religion’s all about trying to make difficult Old Testament stories somehow fit a modern scientific world view, then Aaron Burton’s right – “if that’s religion, I swear I don’t want none.” But if Jesus really is risen from the dead, then the world is in the process of being transformed and we can share in that process. If that’s religion, then I want some of that.
Walter Trout has had a pretty torrid last year with serious illness that ended up with his being at death’s door awaiting a new liver. I saw him play in Belfast last autumn, where he looked a shadow of his former self, but nonetheless played his heart out and seemed to draw life from the response of the appreciative crowd. He’s now got his new liver and reports are that he’s recovering well. Let’s hope that continues and that we get to see him playing his unmistakable blues licks and taking command of the stage as only he can. I saw him play Glasgow about three years ago – the support band was a group of young guys, up and coming, with a guitarist who could play blistering solos, at great speed and with great intonation. They were very, very good. But when Walter and his guys took the stage, the whole gig was transformed – here was a guy who had all the technique and musicality, but who owned the stage, who connected with his audience, and who reached out and grabbed you with his music and his lyrics, and who sent you away with a smile on your face.
Remarkably, Walter’s new album is released this month – The Blues Came Callin’. Willie Dixon once famously said, “The blues is the truth.” The blues has always told the truth – not only about individuals’ struggles and feelings, but about the way the world is, the injustice it contains. Well, Walter has given us a blues album that tells the truth, is all its starkness and rawness.
The song Willie alludes to Walter’s experience of being ripped off in the music business, about someone who has come back to “pick my bones and “peck away my eyes.” We get blues about lost love in Hard Time and blues about facing your own fears in The Blues Came Callin’. And, perhaps most poignantly, Walter gives us an insight into what he’s being going through of late in Wastin’ Away and The Bottom of The River. As his health failed, he found himself looking through the mirror, realizing he’s “living day to day” and feeling like he’s “wastin’ away.” Regret for the past surfaces when he sings “lookin’ back at where I’ve been, good times and mistakes I’ve made, The people I have loved.”
He goes on to compare his experience to falling into a river and getting caught in a current so that he almost drowned. “It was cloudy – it was cold, At the bottom of the river, Is where I met my soul.” Again the past haunts him – “all the people I had loved…all I had done wrong,” yet somehow he hears a loud voice telling him “This ain’t your time to die.” “That’s when I decided to make it to the light,” he says – a remarkable testimony to Walter’s inner strength and determination in the most adverse of circumstances.
The music on the album attests to this remarkable strength of spirit. These are all blues songs, but none are downbeat. Yes, you can hear, here and there, that Walter’s voice isn’t as strong as we’ve heard it. But there’s life, there’s hope, there’s determination here. Despite the subject matter of some of the songs, the album is life-affirming.
In Take a Little Time, Walter reflects, as perhaps – sadly – only people facing the most adverse of circumstances take the time to do, on the need to step away from the pressure, the busyness, the “telephone…buzzin’,” the “people at the door,” and just take a deep breath, and focus on the most important thing in life – the people you love. As somebody famously said, nobody on their death bed regrets not having spent more time in the office. The truth is, for most of us, “the days are flyin’ by, goin’ too damn fast.”
So has it always been – Job, in the Bible said, “My days are swifter than a runner, they speed by,” and the writer of the Psalms thought we should “number our days, so that we might live wisely.” Or as Walter puts it:
“You gotta take a little time, baby, Take a little time for love.”
Walter’s looked into the face of death and gained some perspective on life. That gives the rest of us the opportunity to get that same perspective now, before we reach the point where regrets loom large.
Thanks, Walter, for giving us this gift of an album – honest, lyrical, beautifully arranged and produced. Let’s hope we can all take your advice. (And here’s wishing you a speedy and full recovery).
Postscript: Walter’s wife Marie wrote on 1st June: “Walter continues to do well…[he] now has a very good chance of living for a couple decades or more. His body will regenerate… The experience has shown us the beauty of the human spirit. We have experienced a powerful and encompassing sense of community and goodwill.”