Corey Harris, Insurrection Blues, Bloos Records / M.C. Records
“I felt there was a duty, a responsibility, to use the craft to say something”
Corey Harris’s 20th album is what acoustic blues is all about. Fourteen traditional blues songs performed with passion, rawness and fine guitar picking. The spirit of the blues breathes in every song.
For nearly thirty years, Corey Harris has been at the forefront of blues interpretation, fusing jazz, reggae, gospel and Caribbean influences to traditional blues. Along the way he has recorded and played with artists like B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, R.L. Burnside, Ali Farka Toure, and others, performing throughout North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Australasia.
Harris is a W.C. Handy Blues Award winner, has an honorary doctorate in music and was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Award for Genius.
He said of Insurrection Blues that it “is an unflinching look at desire and destruction in 21st century America…as an African American living in America, as a descendant of slaves that built this country, I am looking at the survival mechanisms that have existed for people to persevere in difficult times. And when we think about that, the blues always comes to mind.”
He was deeply disturbed by events in Washington DC on January 6, 2021 and the album reflects that, although it doesn’t explicitly mention these.
The album kicks off with Twelve Gates to the City, with some fine guitar picking. Harris’s voice put me in mind of Rev Gary Davis, who, of course, regularly played this traditional gospel song. We then get songs by some of the great acoustic guitar bluesmen: Charley Patton’s 1929 Some of These Days, which sounds more a country song than the blues; Skip James’s mournful Special Rider Blues and a couple of songs from that exceptional blues picker, Blind Blake.
It’s hard to pick the guitar better than Blind Blake himself, but Harris is more than able for it on You Gonna Quit Me Baby and That Will Never Happen No More, both performed with some aplomb.
Almost all the songs are live performances by Harris, just voice and guitar, but he’s joined by Italian blues artist Lino Muoio who adds some tasteful mandolin on the delightful When Did You Leave Heaven, originally sung by crooner Tony Martin in a big orchestral arrangement in 1936. Harris’s arrangement keeps the old timey vibe, but transforms the song, bringing out more of the amusement in it.
Phil Wiggins joins him on harmonica on Corey Harris’s own Afton Mountain Blues, adding some train whistle textures to the Mississippi John Hurt feel of a fine instrumental.
The title track, Insurrection Blues (Chickens Come Home to Roost), a minor key blues, is quite powerful. The lyrics are not explicit, but the repeated, ominous minor key riffs on the guitar and the repeatedly intoned, “it’s time to get wise” and “chickens come home to roost” make the point well enough.
The album finishes on a light note with another instrumental, this time the jazzy Scottsville Breakdown. Harris’s guitar playing throughout is compelling and his rich, baritone voice is a joy to listen to.
This is a rich feast of acoustic blues, all the more satisfying for presenting the tradition with freshness and originality, and for showing its relevance to current times.
Twelve gates to the city (Traditional arr. by C. Harris)
Some of these days (Charley Patton, arr. by C. Harris)
When did you leave heaven (Whiting / Bullock) (with Lino Muoio on Mandolin)
Toubaka (Traditional arr. by C. Harris)
Mama Africa (C. Harris)
Special rider Blues (Skip James, arr. by C. Harris)
Sunjata (Traditional arr. by C. Harris)
IInsurrection Blues ( Chickens come home to roost ) (C. Harris)
Boats Up River (John Jackson)
By and By (Traditional arr. by C. Harris)
You gonna quit me baby (Blind Blake, arr. by C. Harris)
Afton Mountain Blues (C. Harris) (con Phil Wiggins on Harmonica)
That will never happen no more (Blind Blake, arr. by C. Harris)
Scottsville breakdown (C. Harris)