“Every night I do a show and I meet people afterwards and they tell me their own stories. When I get off-stage, they thank me for songs I’ve written. They tell me that this song saved their life; that song saved her dad’s life…”
Rory Block is a multiple Blues Award winner, an exceptional acoustic guitarist and has been playing the blues for the past 50 odd years. In this terrific interview, she told us she feels inspired, motivated and like she’s just getting started. In Part 1 of the interview, she talked about getting her Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year award, her celebrated “mentor series” of tributes to the country blues legends, and the making of her new album of Bessie Smith songs, A Woman’s Soul. In Part 2, below, she talks about Robert Johnson, overcoming stage fright, and reminisces about meeting Son House and Rev. Gary Davis.
Gary When you’ve been taking on an old blues song, whether it’s a Robert Johnson song or Mississippi John Hurt song, I guess you’re always trying to make it fresh for a modern audience. You’re capturing this style, something of the essence. But how do you go about that, you know taking a one of those guy’s songs and making it fresh?
Rory Well I don’t think it’s something that you that you consciously do. I don’t consciously say, I better do this a little different. With the Robert Johnson tribute, that was an example of where I didn’t want to do it differently. For me Robert Johnson is the top of the mountain. He is the master of that style. It doesn’t get any better than that. So it’s not like somebody is waiting for me to do it my way.
And that doesn’t diminish me as an artist. It just means that I’m not going to come up with a better way. So, I wanted to get right down to something that I felt I really understood. I heard him first in 1964 when I was 14 years old and I immediately knew that he was the top of the mountain. I mean it was so great. So, I said, I’m going to crack this code – from I first heard his music, I had some kind of a connection to it and I was very focused on it. I want to talk about that again in a second, where I had an interesting background that I think gave me a certain edge when it came to being able to play something very close to what he was playing.
And so I just said, I’m going for the way he did it, both vocals and guitar. I wanted it to be accurate and measure by measure. I think there’s not a better way than his way – I started with that. I’m not going to create a better way than his way. I’m going to do it his way. What does that evoke? Remember with the classic painters of yore. They started their careers by copying the paintings of Masters stroke for stroke because that taught them. You need to know to the best of your ability how to do what they did. So that’s how I approached Robert Johnson. I said, he’s the top and I’m the student. So, I approached it that way.
So that leads to, why do I think that I could do that? Well, the first type of American roots music that I was exposed to was Appalachian. This early mountain, country music later evolved to bluegrass and later evolved to today’s country music. The earliest mountain music had a style of banjo playing called claw hammer. And my dad played that. My father was also a country fiddle player – that was Irish music, music from the British Isles from Ireland, Scotland and England. All the people who came over here brought their music and their music evolved and changed and grew. But much of it was as written in the old style.
So there was my dad playing this really wonderful old mountain style of banjo playing called frailing, and there’s a lot of old timey music players who know exactly that style. Plucking up and slamming down was part of it. Chicka-boom, chicka-boom, chicka-boom, and it was a very unusual hand movement. Well, that translated totally into Robert Johnson, because my dad had shown me how to do that when I was a kid. So, there I was going chicka-boom, snapping up and thumping down. My dad had a thumping style on guitar and on banjo, but he played fiddle very beautifully. But his banjo playing as he showed it to me was a huge help for me when I started playing this percussive style, like when I watch Son House hitting the strings, hitting the guitar with his whole hand. Wham! You know, like a drum. And that style was completely comfortable for me because of what I had learned from my dad. And so, I feel like that gave me an edge. Because I was able to play the percussive style that a lot of those blues players were playing, in a very comfortable way. It was right there for me because I had been working on that already since 1964.
Then after Robert Johnson came Son House, and on those two recordings I felt very much like I wanted to capture the original formats of the songs. But then after that I began to do it a little different. Oh you know I was really having a lot of fun! It was starting to feel like, if I wanted to put an overdub on that wasn’t part of the original arrangement, that was okay, and you know, it got a little looser with Skip James, with Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt. I started putting slide solos on top of songs and then that really opened up the idea that the arrangements could be what whatever I felt I wanted to do. With Robert Johnson I had to do it like him. With Son House. I wanted to do it like him too, but maybe with a little more variation. But after that, I thought, well this could really open up and just not be in the expected direction all the time.
Gary That’s very interesting. Now the music that you play, Rory, is mostly nearly a century old and is from a different time, a different social context. What would you say is the enduring power of the blues? What makes it still relevant?
Rory Well, first of all if you took away all of our electrical stuff and all of our technology, we’d all just still be like the people we’ve been over the thousands and millions of years – you know, essentially still all human. We all cry, we all laugh, we all hurt. We all are excited and happy. We all are essentially the same. We’re all from the same seed – everybody. So, if you take away the trappings of what makes this century and what makes it that century, then nothing has changed. It’s essentially the same message, the cry from the soul, you could say. It’s all the same deep emotions. Look at the Irish and English, and the ballads from that part of the world from years and years ago passed down through the centuries and the ages, and they’re all about the same things that we feel and care about now and today and same thing – blues. Same thing with all forms of music that have a storyline. We’re still talking about the same stuff that we all understand.
Gary So along the way and all the ups and downs of your career as a travelling musician, did you ever think about giving up, just thinking this is too hard, especially in the early days. I can’t do this anymore.
Rory All the time! [laughs] Except now. Yeah, it’s like every time I went into the studio – and I’m thinking it happened very much with Mama’s Blues which is before the mentor series – where I just thought, I’ll never sing again. You know that feeling has come over me so much. Not really now, I just have to say, I’m on my stride! I don’t question myself that much now, but there was that day where I went into the studio to do a vocal on the next record and I thought, well all that stuff I did in the past was just by accident. Yeah, but I’m never gonna be able to do it again. And I had that feeling every time, and every time things wouldn’t go well. Look, I’ve been in a field of music that has been so marginalized for so long and all I ever heard was, you’re never going gonna make it singing blues. It’s a curiosity but it’s a thing of the past. Wake up! The message is, become a commercial artist, that’s where the career is, that’s where the money is, that’s where the success is. What you want to do, you’re never going to make it. A lot of people told me that and I felt very discouraged. But I kept on – music is all I know how to do; I couldn’t have gone off and chosen another career because music is what I know how to do. And why did you choose blues? Because blues is what I love.
But that was kind of why I kept on and kept on. But I always felt discouraged. I felt like I’m nowhere, nobody. I’m never going to be a thing, you know. And then there would be these surprises that would happen that would just make me feel like this could this could work. And these little joyous moments, moments where I said this is working, this is great. When Stevie Wonder came and played in the studio on my record a million years ago now, I said, this is the finest moment of my musical existence, if nothing else good ever happens! I’m content with this one. It was so sweet, it was so great.
And it’s still great to this day. Bonnie Raitt played on my record…Mark Knopfler – there are some wonderful people who’ve been generous and just were willing to appear on one of my recordings and that meant the world. So good things would suddenly happen out of the blue. And then I would get nominated. All of a sudden, I start getting nominated. You never know! But there was much discouragement, but always a tremendous amount of love for the music just sort of kept me on the straight line. I did band and songwriting stuff for a while – no problem there. I love that too. And then there was the Lovin’ Whisky song that became a hit record in Holland – I have a gold record for that – and then it kind of spread around different parts of Europe, and then it became much more well-known in the United States as a kind of ricochet across the ocean. [Check out the story behind the song below]
Gary And presumably what you get from your audiences when you’re performing is a big thing as well.
Rory It’s huge. I had to overcome fear and stage fright that was really debilitating. I was the worst, fearful. I have a book about my life called When a Woman Gets the Blues which is now completely totally politically incorrect from start to finish and I’m sure I’ll have to hear about it sooner or later, but when I wrote it, it was what was on my mind at the time. But I have a chapter on stage fright where I say that having been raised feeling that I was like the Little Match Girl, I just didn’t feel like I was anybody that anybody would care about. I was very insecure and that’s part of my story. I was told that I was not worthy. I went out into the world knowing that I was attached to this music and that I had capabilities and that people went, wow, when I was just a teenager, how did you learn that? Where’d that come from? I knew I had this talent, but I also had this terribly unworthy feeling as a person. So, I went on stage in the beginning totally terrified. I felt like I was just going to completely mess up and I just was so afraid and for about five years I never opened my eyes. I just shook with fear on stage and it was always humiliating and embarrassing, and I’d get off stage and I would think, Man that was horrible.
Then I had like a series of revelations about it. One of them was, wait a minute, what are you putting yourself through? The people in the audience didn’t come there because they hate you! They came there to hear your music, so that sort of means they like you! And I had this whole realization that I was like a little kid kind of hiding behind my mother’s aprons with fear and I was bringing this fear onto the stage and it was misplaced. So, I thought, well,l this is just my office. This is where I go to work every day or every night or every weekend. What reason do I have to be any more afraid of going to my office than all the other people who go to work every day in their office and they’re not, you know, cowering in fear. So, I had this revelation that these people in the audience were my friends, and I was able to come out of that debilitating stage fright and come to a point where I felt I’m in a roomful of friends, a really wonderful safe place and I can talk to them. And that’s how I relate to my audiences and they’re wonderful people.
By the way, every night I do a show and I meet people afterwards and I go, wow, people are so much more wonderful and real than you think looking at the news. When you’re face to face, person to person with the real people that are out there, you realize people are still good at heart, they’re wonderful, and people tell me their own stories. When I get off-stage, they thank me for songs I’ve written. They tell me that this song saved their life; that song saved her dad’s life. It could be anything. When people come up to me, they get real, they go, “thank you for writing Lovin’ Whisky – I stopped drinking two weeks ago.” And I go, thank you for telling me.
And somebody would write me about such and such a song, and say, I was going to kill myself…but I changed my mind. Oh man, if I’ve done one thing like that! So, I got to the point where before going on stage I had no routine – I didn’t do any deep breathing, I didn’t do anything – but I thought, if I could just do one good thing for one person, I’m good with that. I just wanted to be used to do something good for someone. And every night someone or multiple people in the house would verify that feeling that they didn’t feel alone because I wrote an embarrassing song about my own life and decided that it didn’t matter if I was embarrassed by it in case it helps someone else. And it always does, because our stories are universal.
Gary Fabulous. I really wish we could go off on a number of different tangents here it’s been very, very interesting. But I guess we’ll probably have to come to a close or else we could be here all day! It’s been absolutely fascinating. But I can’t let you go and not ask about the Reverend Gary Davis who is a particular favourite of mine. He’s just a wonderful guitarist and yet Rolling Stone magazine had no room for him in its list of 100 greatest guitarist, which is absolutely amazing.
I read Ian Zack’s Say No to the Devil. I don’t know if you’ve read that biography of Davis – it’s very, very good. Actually it’s a heart rending story, seeing Davis’s struggle and poverty, and yet seeing the level of his expertise and musicality. So, tell us a little bit about going to see Gary Davis for guitar lessons and what your impressions of him were.
Rory I was absolutely blinded with admiration with every one of the original blues players whom I met. Every one of them – it was like the light shining, reflecting from them, beautiful light that was beyond blinding and amazing. And Reverend Gary Davis was no different. I mean I just was in awe.
I was 15 and I was not a student by the way. Stephan Grossman was my first boyfriend and he would take me all these places because he knew everybody – all the record collectors, all the musicians. In Europe they were starting to play some really cool songs. There was Eric Clapton who was playing Robert Johnson stuff and including country blues influences. The Beatles were doing it, and so we knew that on the other side of the ocean people were aware of the blues, but you could count us on two hands – the record collectors, the people looking for the early blues players, and the people playing, you could count on maybe a hand or two. So anyway, Stefan knew all these people and he would take me everywhere, we’d go backstage to meet them every time someone was rediscovered because he would know about it. We would end up doing things like going to Mississippi John Hurt’s home and that sort of thing, and Son House would come and visit Stefan at his parents’ house and I was there too.
So we went to Reverend Gary Davis’s apartment in the Bronx and sometimes David Bromberg would be there too. Only a handful of people were there. Roy Bookbinder, Woody Mann, a few others. Jorma [Kaukonen], told me and he didn’t actually meet Reverend Gary Davis but he just immersed himself in his music which is also a deep and real way to get to know the music. Like me and Robert Johnson. So anyway, Reverend Gary Davis was awesome and beautiful. He was witty, he was funny, sharp, quick. He was a phenomenal player, as you know. But he didn’t stop and say, you put the second finger of your index finger on the third fret and so on. He didn’t teach you anything like that, he just played. And he and Stephan would just sort of roast each other. I mean when Gary Davis would start, you had to keep up with him if you wanted to be his student, and he would just play and he would be, I think correctly, saying, I’m showing you my hand. You see what I’m doing? Now do it. So that was like the hard knock school of great guitar lessons and then he would sort of really tease Stefan, if Stefan didn’t pick it up immediately. He was so funny and he’d rib Stefan, but Stefan kept up with him, and they would go back and forth. Stefan learned it that way, and so did David Bromberg and Roy Bookbinder. That’s how they learned. That was really being an apprentice, I think.
Gary Fantastic. Thank you Rory. Thank you for being so generous with your time.
Rory No problem, Gary.Thank you.