Eric Clapton was once “god,” the best rock and blues guitarist on the planet, adored by fans of his time with John Mayall, Cream, Derek and the Dominos and then his solo career.
Now, aside from the recent nonsense of joining in with Van Morrison in a petulant wail against pandemic restrictions, and touting unscientific and dangerous claims about fertility against vaccines, he is a figure who seems to divide blues fans.
This is clear whenever you see something about him posted on blues-related social media – the negative reaction can be visceral. There’ll be those who won’t even bother to read this article and will simply react to the mere suggestion that Clapton’s Unplugged could be a classic blues album.
Others will take a more considered approach to Clapton, understanding his lifelong obsession with the blues and the contribution he made to the genre during the 1960s when the genre was in steep decline in the United States because of the rise of pop, rock’n’roll, soul and R&B. That was B.B. King’s view, who said that he and Clapton had been friends since they met in the 60s and that Clapton “plays blues better than most of us.”
The album the two made in 2000, Riding with the King, which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album, shows two men in love with the blues, their music making flowing effortlessly off each other. And, of course, the admiration was not one way, Clapton thanking King “for all the inspiration and encouragement he gave to me as a player over the years,” and hailing Live at the Regal as the album which got him started with the blues.
Clapton was also very close with Muddy Waters, whom he described as “the father figure I never really had” and his greatest influence. His playing was also deeply influenced by Robert Johnson, who amazed him with his guitar chops and singing. “There were very few people on record who sounded like they were singing from the heart,” said Clapton, “there’s no comparison, this guy’s got finesse. His touch was extraordinary. Which is amazing in light of the fact that he was simultaneously singing with such intensity.” Clapton’s 2004 album, Me and Mr Johnson plays tribute to his lifelong fascination with Johnson.
So, given the association Clapton has had over the years with the greats in the blues Pantheon and their high opinion of his blues contribution, it’s hard to understand how he gets dismissed so readily by some blues fans. Clapton himself has said of his commitment to the blues, “I recognise that I have some responsibility to keep the music alive.”
All that said, on to Unplugged as one of our “Great Blues Albums.”
Playing his Martin 000-42 acoustic guitars, and accompanied by a small group of musicians, including Andy Fairweather Low and Chuck Leavell, Clapton performed the songs for a small audience in England in 1992 at a particularly emotional time for him. His four-year-old son Conor had died four months previously after falling from his 53rd floor apartment. Tears in Heaven – clearly not a blues song in form, but arguably in content – was one of the fourteen songs on the original album, which became 20 in the 2013 remastered version.
The album won three Grammys at the 1991 awards and became the bestselling live album of all time, and Clapton’s bestselling album, selling 26 million copies worldwide. It was released in August 1992 to wide critical acclaim and revitalized Clapton’s career.
The bulk of the setlist consists of traditional blues, including Big Bill Broonzy’s Hey Hey, Robert Johnson’s Malted Milk and Son House’s Walkin’ Blues. Songs from Jimmy Cos, Lead Belly, Muddy Water, Bo Didley, and Robert Cray, along with a couple of Clapton originals complete the set. One of these is an acoustic version of Layla which works surprisingly well.
Clapton breathes new life into these songs – his version of Jimmy Cox’s depression era song Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out has become something of a definitive version, his Walkin’ Blues with its cool slide guitar recalls Robert Johnson’s version, and Muddy Waters Rollin’ and Tumblin’ still rocks as an acoustic number.
Although the blues songs here are all cover versions of old blues songs, aside from the fact that the album just sounds so good, the significance of the album is the effect it has had on acoustic blues music. Subsequent to Unplugged, during the 1990s, you see artists like Keb’ Mo’, Kelly Joe Phelps, Eric Bibb, Rory Block and Guy Davis all seeming to come to prominence. For sure, these and other great artists whose music was based on acoustic guitar had been plying their trade for some time before that – some for a long time, reaching back to the 60s – and had a loyal following. But Clapton’s Unplugged brought blues music – and acoustic blues – to a much wider audience and got a new generation of fans interested in these other artists and then also beginning to listen to the original artists as well.
Testimony to that is conversations I’ve had recently with professional acoustic artists who hail Unplugged as being formative in their awakening to the blues.
Plus, Unplugged stands the test of time. It’s an album anyone can listen to and hear a modern interpretation of the blues that is not dated and is hugely enjoyable. Purists may prefer that everyone listens to Lead Belly or Bill Broonzy, but for everyone else, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged is their way into appreciating the blues.
Paul Cowley upends everything you might expect of an acoustic country bluesman. He’s never been to Mississippi and says he has no desire to go; he’s a white English guy living in the French countryside; he heard the blues for the first time when he was about 40; and he started playing the guitar late in life because an uncle had left him on in his will.
And yet…Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, has a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition and has become an outstanding exponent of that tradition, whether it’s re-interpreting songs from the past or writing his own.
He has five albums behind him and we thought his 2018 Just What I Know was outstanding. He has now released Long Time Comin‘, with twelve acoustic blues songs, five traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell and seven originals. This one’s even better.
I review a lot of albums, some of which I like, some not really so much, some of it very worthy, great musicianship, maybe important lyrically – but it’s always good to listen to something that is just…well…enjoyable. And that’s what you’ll find with Long Time Comin’.
I got talking to Paul in his home in Brittany about his music. I asked him first of all about the album’s title – in the title track he sings, “I’ve got my mojo, I’ve found my voice.”
“Yeah,” he replied, “For many years I’ve questioned what I do, how I sing, how I play. Should I do something different? But over more than a 20-year period I’ve now arrived at this point with age, wisdom and all the rest of it. And actually, it’s just me being me, and I can’t do any more than that really. I’ve always wanted to be authentically me. I don’t want to study John Lee Hooker for ten years and become a fantastic interpreter of John Lee Hooker. I’ve done what I do long enough that I have my own unique style and take on this music. So over a period of time, it’s become a sort of definite style. The songs I write, you can recognize it’s me.
“But I’m most pleased this time, because this time in the recording process I found a new level of certainty. So yeah, long time coming, I do feel I’ve got my mojo and my voice and I’m happy!”
Paul is the most refreshingly unassuming professional musician you could meet, but I put it to him that what he does in taking a traditional song that everybody knows, like Louis Collins, which appears on the album, and reinterpreting it, not playing note for note John Hurt’s version, say, seems to me, takes quite a bit of skill and ability.
“When I begin with a song, I almost always start trying to play the original, the “proper” way, but it’s never right. So, somehow it kind of gets massaged and changed and I think, well, it’s nothing like Mississippi John Hurt anymore, but it feels right for me. I’m not a technical musician, it’s all by feel and instinct. But over the years, there’s a bit of experience built up as to how one can flesh out a very simple arrangement. If you can move the chords up and down the neck, you get these different dynamics, I’m never stopped learning. I’m more interested now than ever in learning things that can just expand my options.”
In Cowley’s hands Louis Collins isn’t the rather jaunty version you often hear, which maybe doesn’t do justice to the song’s terrible story. He slows it down and adds some very cool slide guitar, and it becomes, fittingly, a bit more sombre, but at the same time, it never gets morbid. It’s a great version.
There are a half a dozen Paul Cowley originals on this album. As with all the songs, it’s mostly Paul singing and accompanying himself, picking acoustic guitar and adding some delicious and judicious slide here and there. I asked him about the song writing process.
“The first album I recorded here in France was a hundred percent original songs. I don’t have a problem coming up with original songs, and I love the album and I’m proud of the songs, but I think my audience likes a little bit of something they recognize as well.
“But the song writing process – I’ve got a studio across the yard in the barn upstairs. I never think I’ll go and write a song. I play guitar generally speaking, twice a day, couple of hours in the morning, a couple of hours in the evening. And almost without fail, I will find something on one of the guitars, just a simple phrase, two notes or two chords or some chords other people don’t tend to use, but there’ll be a feel or a timing to it. I do that frequently and often it goes no further than that. But sometimes I come up with that little phrase or whatever it might be, maybe three words that suggest the lyrical subject or topic, and that’s how they come. I can’t predict when that will happen, but when it does happen, very rapidly the song comes together.
“With the guitar part, that hook thing or whatever it was, there’ll be this period of embellishment, maybe I play it for two years and a few more bits and bobs come in, so songs are constantly changing and evolving. So – simple!”
One thing you’ll notice when you listen to the album, is the sound quality. It sounds like Paul is sitting right in your living room playing for you. It’s crystal clear and the instruments and vocals are perfectly balanced. On the album liner notes. Cowley says that, although he recorded the album in his barn/studio, he’s “low tech.” Yet the sound on the album is superb.
“Well, my background is I’m a builder, so there’s a little bit of understanding of buildings and shapes and materials. I’ve got this studio over in the barn upstairs with sloping ceilings, oak rafters, beams, chestnut flooring – all cobbled together from materials left over from renovating the house. Think of the Robert Johnson thing where he turned his back and played into a corner. and the sound was remarkable.
“I’m comfortable here at home, fleshing out these ideas on my own, nobody around me. If I was in a studio, however nice the engineer might be, I’d be wanting to play the song again and again because I’m not quite sure whether that was the right take. And he’s looking at the wall. I don’t like any of that.
“But the stroke of luck that I’ve had is called Pascal Ferrari. He’s a musician from Marseille, really high calibre. He’s a guitarist, a bass player, and he’ll pick a trumpet up. His musicality is quite remarkable. I met him five years ago, and we’ve done some gigs together and he’s fantastic in the studio. So I did the recording here straight, no effects whatsoever, into a fairly dated Korg mini recording machine. And then I physically carried that across Brittany to Pascal’s house. He then, transferred this into his computer and he’s a really very talented mixer. And then he sends that to his friend and they listen to it on some big, serious equipment, and tweak it from there. So I feel very fortunate that I’ve stumbled across Pascal!”
It’s pretty unusual to find a traditional blues picker living in the French countryside, instead of in a big city or somewhere in the Southern United States. I wondered how that worked for Paul in terms of performing his music – granted that the last year has been more than a bit unusual. He told me how he’d been building up his gigs across France and then popping back to the UK for small tours – and along the way discovering that French hospitality for the traveling musician is so much better than what he often gets in England.
I wondered also what attracts Paul to this traditional country blues music. Here he is, an English white guy based in the French countryside playing the blues of African-Americans from a hundred years ago – it all sounds a bit unlikely. But perhaps it says a lot about the universal appeal of the blues. Paul began to tell me about his own journey.
“I discovered this music relatively late in life. I’d had a few Spanish guitar lessons in my early teens and I love the sound of an acoustic guitar. But my teacher didn’t inspire me and I stopped playing music for 20 years. I became a self-employed builder, but I never stopped listening to music. But when I was 40 my wife Diana bought me for my father’s day present from the kids, Clapton’s Unplugged. And I remember, I was decorating the room and I put the CD on and Signe and Before You Accuse Me came on and it was instantly like, “What’s this?” And there was this lush interpretation of Walking Blues, just a beautiful sound and Clapton’s softer kind of vocal style and I thought, this is marvellous! And then I thought, well, I wonder who is that Big Bill Broonzy bloke that does the song. Hey, Hey? Well, I looked into that, and it was a delight.
“And then I was given a guitar. My uncle died. I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go out and buy one, but I got this steel string guitar. And I got a very basic blues tutorial book with the tab and I thought, I can play this – it wasn’t fantastic but it was delightful to me. And I’ve never looked back.
“The Clapton album made me want to get some proper old blues to listen to. So one Saturday I went into Cobb Records – an old-fashioned record shop – to the blues section, maybe 20 CDs in all, if that. And I leafed through and I didn’t know any of those names at all, but on the one towards the front, there was this picture of a very cool looking black guy, hat on, guitar in hand, looking exactly like what I expected a blues player to look like, and he was Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“Coffee House Blues was the album and we put this on in the car on the way home and played it for two years. He’s important to me because it was him that got me into this…fantastic voice, proper steel string, acoustic guitar. I just love that and still do to this day.”
Paul has worked hard at honing his guitar chops over the years and explained that one formative stage in his development as a guitarist came at a Woody Mann workshop he attended in Liverpool.
“Woody Mann gave us a general philosophy about how to go about getting better. He talked about keeping the repertoire relatively small but well played, and effective use of your time. And because I went home on the train alone, I made all these notes of the key points. You don’t get good at anything without applying yourself hard to it. And to this day, I’ll get up, I have breakfast and I go and play for maybe two hours. I try and pick the guitar up again during the day for a few minutes. And then I’ll play a couple of hours in the evening, But that’s nothing compared with some guys – we had Steve James staying here, and he plays six hours a day – for the past 50 years!”
To start with, Paul never thought he’d perform publicly, but from first steps playing in the round with friends at his local blues club back in Birmingham, he’s developed into a fine acoustic blues artist and song-writer with serious guitar chops. Ever self-deprecating, he told me, “I’m quite surprised that I do it, but I love it!”
As well as Paul’s own songs, Long Time Comin‘ has songs by Blind Boy Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell and Ray Charles. But I wondered if Paul has any artists that he’s particularly fond of?
“I love Lightnin Hopkins. I find Mississippi John Hurt songs come into your repertoire, whether you want them to or not. His music is so playable, they’re great songs and I love his music. I like Blind Willie McTell, I’d like to do more of his. A long time ago I heard his Love Changing Blues on the radio played by John Hammond and I never in my wildest dreams when I took my sandwich that lunchtime listening to that, thought that one day I’ll be able to play that kind of stuff! And I love Fred McDowell’s stuff – there’s just something about him.”
It’s fair to say that Paul Cowley’s been smitten with the blues. And if you get yourself a copy of his Long Time Comin’, you will be too. This album is one of the best acoustic blues albums you’ll hear this year – check it out www.paulcowleymusic.com or Bandcamp.
And if you’re in Southern Brittany sometime when this pandemic has passed us by, listen out for the sounds of the Delta where you least expect it.
Check out this episode of Meet the Music: A Capella to Zydeco.
If you happen to be new to the blues, then here’s your way in. Seven classic songs to get you started on what will be a life-ling appreciation!
“Dr. Burnett shares a little history of the Blues and his deep love for the Blues. In our conversation, we discussed the impact of women blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Memphis Minnie. Listen as Dr. Burnett lists his suggested artists and songs for new listeners.”
Click for podcast
And here are my seven recommendations for getting started in listening to the blues:
Robert Johnson: Kind Hearted Woman, recorded in 1936, just a couple of years before he died as a young man of 27, poisoned, it seems by a jealous husband. Johnson was a jaw-droppingly good guitarist and a fine singer. He only recorded 29 songs, but Johnson has probably been the most influential blues artist on the whole of rock and roll. Eric Clapton says Johnson was his most formative influence and he has a great version of Kind Hearted Woman on his Me and Mr Johnson album from 1996. Keb’ Mo’ who is one of today’s great blues artist also has a fine version on his 1994 Keb’ Mo’ album.
Blind Willie Johnson: The Soul of A Man recorded in 1930. Willie Johnson was an exponent of gospel blues, and his slide playing, which he did with a penknife, was just outstanding. He’s a remarkable singer, at times a sweet tenor, at other time utterly raw. His music is making its way around the universe on the Voyager space probe launched in 1977 on a golden disk containing a sample of earth’s music. Quite what aliens might make of Johnson’s eerie slide playing and moaning on his song Dark Was the Night, is anyone’s guess! (Check out Tom Waits’ version of Soul of a Man on the 2016 tribute album, God Don’t Never Change, with various artists including Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Lucinda Williams, and Luther Dickinson.)
Mississippi John Hurt: Louis Collins John Hurt was a sharecropper who recorded some songs in 1928, which were not terribly successful. He was then rediscovered in 1963 and recorded a number of albums and performed on the university and coffeehouse concert circuit before he passed away. By all accounts he was a lovely man, and his guitar playing is just delightful. (The version here is Lucinda Williams with Colin Linden on guitar on a tribute album called Avalon Blues. Check out also Rory Block’s tribute album – just her and her guitar, also Avalon Blues)
Memphis Minnie: In My Girlish Days. Before the men began playing the blues, it was the women who were the big stars – women like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey. Memphis Minnie was a performer, a guitar player and singer, mostly in the 1930s and 40s. The poet Langston Hughes described her electric guitar as “a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill” – but she was quite a talent. I’ve gone for her In My Girlish Days. You can hear a great version of this on Rory Block’s 2020 album, Prove it on Me, where she plays tribute to the women of the blues. Rory Block is an outstanding acoustic guitar player, and check out also her tribute to these women in her 2018 album, A woman’s Soul: a Tribute to Bessie Smith.
B.B. King: The Thrill Has Gone. This is B.B. King’s signature tune. King was a great singer, but an outstanding guitarist – one of those guitar players where you can tell who it is from just hearing a single note. The song is on a number of albums, but you can find it on a 2006 album of the same name, along with other great B.B. King numbers.
Muddy Waters: Hootchie Cootchie Man.Recorded in 1954. Muddy Waters is known as the father of Chicago blues. He was a Mississippi sharecropper who moved to Chicago in the 1940s and popularized electric blues. He has been a hugely influential figure on rock’n’roll, and the insistent riff that drives Hootchie Chootchi Man is one of the most famous in all blues music. Eric Clapton has a great version on his 1994 From the Cradle album.
Allman Brothers Band: Statesboro Blues on At Fillmore East from 1971 is an old Blind Willie McTell song. Bob Dylan has a famous song which says, nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell. The Allman Brothers’ version has become a classic version of the song and rightly so, featuring Duane Allman’s fabulous slide guitar playing.
Larkin Poe: God Moves on the Water, on 2020’s Self-Made Man. Larkin Poe are two exceptionally talented sisters, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, both amazing guitarists and wonderful singers. They really bring the blues up to date with their own compositions and the way they cover old blues songs. And they are one of the most exciting bands you’d see live. God Moves on the Water is an amended version of an old Blind Willie Johnson song.
There have been a lot of excellent tribute albums to blues artists over the past twenty years. We’ve chosen 16 excellent albums, some by just one artist covering the music of another artist from the past, and some with various artists covering the songs. In each case, the new artist has both re-interpreted the songs and kept the spirit of the originals intact, honouring the legacy of the original artist.
Billy Boy Arnold, Sings Big Bill Broonzy (2012)
Veteran blues harp player Arnold turns in a very fine acoustic guitar driven tribute album to the great Bill Broonzy. Broonzy had a very long and varied career as a musical artist, after life as a sharecropper, preacher and soldier. He copyrighted more than 300 songs along the way and had a wide range of songs in his performing repertoire including ragtime, country blues, urban blues, jazz, folk songs and spirituals. Arnold gives us 15 classic Broonzy country blues numbers.
Rory Block Avalon, A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt (2013)
Rory Block is one of the world’s greatest living acoustic blues artists, whose talent has been recognized many times by WC Handy and Blues Music Awards. She has lovingly recorded a number of tribute albums to some of the major country blues artists, including Skip James, Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Son House and Rev. Gary Davis. All of them are terrific, featuring Block’s outstanding guitar chops, but we’ve gone with her tribute to the wonderful John Hurt, whose guitar picking style underpins the technique of so many acoustic artists that have come after hum.
Rory Block, A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith (2018)
Block turns her attention to the Empress of the Blues, after her set of 6 tribute albums to the founding fathers of the blues. Everything on the album is played by Rory Block, and as ever, the guitar picking and slide work are masterful. The songs, clearly, are very differently treated to the originals, Block cleverly translating the big band arrangements into guitar accompaniment. It makes for a fine and hugely enjoyable tribute to Bessie Smith. [Check out our interview with Rory here]
Eric Clapton, Me and Mr Johnson (2004)
Hugely successful album, selling over 2m copies. Clapton said he’s been driven and influenced all his life by Robert Johnson’s work. It was, he said, “the keystone of my musical foundation…now, after all these years, his music is like my oldest friend. It is the finest music I have ever heard.” The album, consisting of 14 of Johnson’s songs, sees Clapton in fine form, and features, as you’d expect, top-notch lead and slide guitar. A companion album and video release entitled Sessions for Robert J was released also released, featuring different versions of each of the songs from the studio album.
Fabrizio Poggi and Guy Davis, Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train (2017)
As fine an acoustic blues album as you will hear. Two top modern-day artists, Davis on guitar and Poggi on harmonica, both at the top of their game and channelling two of history’s greatest acoustic bluesmen. There’s a warmth, feeling and joy in the way these songs are presented that draws you in and puts a big smile on your face. The album was nominated for a Grammy. [check out our review here]
Marie Knight, Let Us Get Together: A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis (2007)
Recorded by the late Marie Knight two years before she passed away, aged 89. Knight toured widely with Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the 1940s, but left to become a successful solo gospel and R&B singer. Davis was an incredible guitarist and Larry Campbell’s blues picking and guitar work more than does justice to the reverend’s genius. Knight’s soulful, gospel vocals in these 12 gospel blues songs pay a handsome tribute to the often overlooked artistry of Rev. Gary Davis. Superb. [check out our take on Rev Gary Davis here]
Mark Miller, Ain’t It Grand: The Gospel Songs of Blind Willie McTell (2010)
Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, sang Bob Dylan. True, but McTell also left us a fine collection of gospel blues songs, and Americana/Country artist Mark Miller’s gospel tribute has 10 songs which McTell regularly performed. Lovely old timey feel to the album, with some fine acoustic finger picked and slide guitar.
Various Artists, God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson (2016)
“Eleven stirring renditions which replicate the soul of the songs, not just the sounds.” Has earned plaudits from all quarters and Grammy Award nominations for Best Roots Gospel Album and Best American Roots Performance for the Blind Boys of Alabama’s recording of Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time. The album was produced by Jeffrey Gaskill of Burning Rose Productions. The album features a star-studded cast which includes Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek and Susan Trucks, Luther Dickinson and the Cowboy Junkies. [check out our conversation with album producer Jeffrey Gaskill here]
Various Artists, First Came Memphis Minnie (2012)
Maria Muldaur was the driving force behind this excellent set of Memphis Minnie’s songs, featuring Rory Block, Ruthie Foster, Bonnie Raitt, Koko Taylor and others. Dave Bromberg, Bob Margolin and Billy Branch all contribute to the music. Memphis Minnie was a towering blues figure and a gifted singer, songwriter, and guitarist whose recording career spanned more than 40-plus years, during which she recorded around 200 songs.
Various Artists, Muddy Waters: All Star Tribute to a Legend (2011)
A recording of a Kennedy Centre concert from October 1997 with an impressive all-star cast of blues musicians, including Muddy’s own son Bill Morganfield, Kok Taylor, Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, John Hiatt, Keb’ Mo’ and Robert Lockwood Jr. Songs include Muddy Waters favourites like Hoochi Coochie Man, Can’t Be Satisfied, Got My Mojo Working, Rollin’ and Tumblin’. A DVD is also available.
Various Artists, Shout Sister Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (2003)
18 Sister Rosetta songs by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Joan Osborne, Janis Ian, Marcia Ball, Maria Muldaur, the Holmes Brothers and others. Born in 1915, Rosetta Tharpe was a major star during the 1940s and 50s, sensationally filling arenas. Her trail-blazing rock ’n’ roll tinged gospel performances, driven by her exceptional electric guitar work, sent audiences wild and made her a major celebrity. She inspired the early generation of rock ‘n’ roll artists, and Johnny Cash called her his favourite singer and biggest inspiration. This stirring album has a contribution by Marie Knight, who toured and sang with Sister Rosetta. [check out our piece on Rosetta Tharpe here]
Various Artists, Things About Coming My Way: A Tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks (2009)
The Mississippi Sheiks were a popular and influential American guitar and fiddle group of the 1930s. They only lasted for about 5 years, but had a prodigious output and, while adept at many styles of popular music of the time, were notable mostly for playing country blues. Artists featured include North Mississippi Allstars, Bruce Cockburn, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Madeleine Peyroux. Kelly Joe Phelps and others. 17 classic 1930s songs in a sunny, feel good production.
Various Artists, ZZ Top: A Tribute from Friends (2011)
Eleven great ZZ Top tracks like Sharp Dressed Man, Gimme All Your Loving, and La Grange by artists from country to heavy metal, including Grace Potter, NickelBack, Jamey Johnson and Daughtry. It’s great rockin’, head banging fun all the way.
Various Artists, Avalon Blues: The Music of Mississippi John Hurt (2001)
John Hurt is the ideal entry point to introduce anyone to country blues. His guitar work is mesmerizing and has been the foundation for many of today’s acoustic guitar players. The story goes that Andres Segovia, after hearing John Hurt’s guitar playing for the first time, demanded to know who the second guitarist was. This loving tribute by a high-class cast covers 15 of Hurt’s best loved songs. There are contributions from Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Bruce Cockburn, John Hiatt, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and Lucinda Williams. A joy.
Walter Trout, Luther’s Blues: A Tribute to Luther Allison (2013)
Ace guitarist Walter Trout pays tribute to his great friend Luther Allison with 13 songs, including one written by Trout, When Luther Played The Blues. Allison was a wonderfully talented guitarist, who died in 1997 at the age of 57. He had been discovered by Howlin’ Wolf in 1957 and then mentored by Freddie King. His live performances were quite a thing, sometimes lasting four or more hours. In Trout’s song, he highlights a great quote by Allison “Leave your ego, play the music, love the people.” [check out our interview with Walter here]
Joe Bonamassa, Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks (2015)
A recording of Bonamassa’s concert from August 2014 at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Colorado. The show celebrates the music of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, featuring many of the two blues legends’ greatest songs as well as a few of Bonamassa’s own songs. It is probably one of the best live blues albums of recent years. As usual, Bonamassa’s guitar work in incendiary, but his singing in the show is exceptional. Available in either 2-CD or DVD formats.
Slide guitar – it’s sweet, it’s gritty, it’s sensual, it reaches right inside and grabs your innards. In the hands of an expert exponent, it’s a thing of wonder. And it’s got a long tradition in the history of the blues, reaching back to Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, when those glissando and vibrato notes were squeezed out by a penknife or a broken bottle neck caressing or, at times, attacking the guitar strings. It was the sound of the slide guitar that first alerted W.C. Handy to the blues when he heard the solitary guitar player on the station in Tutweiler, Mississippi in 1903 – “The effect,” he said, “was unforgettable.”
We’ve chosen 25 terrific blues songs that feature slide guitar, from Willie Johnson to Derek Trucks. They’re in chronological order so there’s no attempt here to judge these against each other. They’re just here for you to explore and enjoy – I hope they give you as much pleasure as I had in researching, choosing and listening to them. (actually 25 has become 26!!)
Blind Willie Johnson: Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (1927)
Willie Johnson’s slide playing is widely admired. Ry Cooder said, “Blind Willie Johnson had great dexterity, because he could play all of these sparking little melody lines. He had fabulous syncopation; he could keep his thumb going really strong. He’s so good – I mean, he’s just so good.” Eric Clapton’s view was that Johnson’s slide work on It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine was “probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear.” So there’s a number of songs we could have chosen. We’ve gone with Dark was the Night, where Johnson’s exquisite slide playing takes you right into the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane, negating the need for sung lyrics, and is just augmented by Johnson’s moaning. [Check out our post about Willie Johnson here.]
Blind Willie McTell: Mama ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day (1928)
Willie McTell was an accomplished slide player as well as being an adept Piedmont style and ragtime finger picker and had a significant recording career in the 1920s and 30s. His 1928 Mama ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day lets you appreciate the depth of his skill and musicality.
Charlie Patton: Mississippi Boweevil Blues (1929)
Along with Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton was arguably the most important and formative voice of the early sound of the blues in the Mississippi Delta. He recorded Boweevil Blues in 1929 as “The Masked Marvel.” It’s primal blues, with one chord accompaniment, three basic notes in the vocal melody, and a high-note bottleneck accent after the vocal phrase, with the slide often finishing the last word in the phrase. Patton bewails the devastation caused by the invasion of the Boweevil beetle which fed on cotton buds and caused huge problems for the cotton industry and in particular for African American tenants.
Robert Johnson: If I Had Possession (1936)
Robert Johnson was hailed as the “king of the Delta blues,” and described by Eric Clapton as “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” His short life ended in 1938 at the age of 27, but his songs have become standards of the blues canon, and he’s recognized as an outstanding guitarist and a songwriter who pushed the boundaries of the genre during his lifetime. Despite that crossroads myth, Johnson’s prodigious guitar chops likely came from finding a tutor and working hard as a student. Guitar players still marvel at Johnson’s dexterity, the complexity of his playing and the intensity of his songs. He was a skilled slide player, amply demonstrated here on this 1936 recording. [You’ll find our piece about another Johnson song here.]
Muddy Waters: I Can’t Be Satisfied (1948)
The “father of modern Chicago blues” moved to Chicago in 1943 and began recording for Aristocrat Records, a newly formed label run by the brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. He recorded, I Can’t Be Satisfied and I Feel Like Going Home in 1948, both of which became hits, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the recording session for the two songs, they were preparing to wrap up, and Muddy asked if they could do the song without the piano. Leonard obliged and Muddy did the songs on the electric guitar, giving the songs a completely new feel. The single, with its raw electric sound and Muddy’s slide playing sold out on its first weekend. Buddy Guy said Muddy was “one of the slidingest people I’ve ever heard in my life. He got it from the Mississippi players playing the Saturday night fish fries, and he took it home.” [We look at another Muddy Waters song here.]
Elmore James: Dust My Broom (1951)
Known as “King of the Slide Guitar” and noted for his use of loud, reverb-heavy amplification, Elmore James is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the influence behind many rock musicians. That full octave slide riff in the opening to his 1951 adaptation of Robert Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, has become a classic riff. The song became James’s signature song and has been re-recorded many, many times, usually with James’s riff intact.
Mississippi Fred McDowell: You Gotta Move (1965)
Originally recorded by The Gospel Keys in 1948, McDowell’s version is the most famous and was picked up by the Rolling Stones and included on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album. Fred McDowell’s version is raw and bluesy, never misses a beat and has a nice slide vibrato. It was from McDowell that Bonnie Raitt learned her slide guitar. [More on You Gotta Move here.]
Son House: Death Letter Blues (1965)
House’s 1965 performance was on a metal-bodied National resonator guitar using a copper slide. Death Letter Blues is a revision of House’s earlier recording My Black Mama, Part 2 from 1930. The guitar playing is raw, almost rough, but the passion of the performance and the subject matter make listening to it a dramatic experience.
Johnny Winter: Broke Down Engine (1968)
Winter was a Grammy winning inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame, the first non-African-American performer to be inducted, and one of the first blues rock guitar virtuosos. His version of this Blind Willie McTell song appears on his album The Progressive Blues Experiment from 1968. Winter is probably better known for his high energy electric blues rock guitar, but he played this song on a resonator, with an approach that has echoes of Robert Johnson.
Allman Brothers: Statesboro Blues (1971)
The Allman Brothers’ 1971 concert at New York’s Filmore East is legendary, and the album represented the band’s commercial breakthrough. This cover of Blind Willie McTell’s famous song opens the set and showcases Duane Allman’s fabulous open-E slide playing. His approach to the song is clearly modelled on Taj Mahal’s1968 version of the song.
Rory Gallagher: McAvoy Boogie (1972)
Rory Gallagher never attained star status in his short life (he died aged 47) but he is a cult figure in the blues-rock world because of his incredible guitar skills – he was, for example, voted Melody Maker’s 1971 International Top Guitarist of the Year, ahead of Eric Clapton. Gallagher’s McAvoy Boogie was in honour of Gerry McAvoy, a great Northern Irish blues rock bass guitarist. Recorded around 1972, the song appears on the DVD, Rory Gallagher, Ghost Blues: The Story of Rory Gallagher and the Beat Club Sessions. Gallagher was equally at home on electric, acoustic or resonator guitars, and on McAvoy Boogie he lets loose on his Fender Telecaster.
Ry Cooder: Feelin’ Bad Blues (1986)
Multi-Grammy award winner Ry Cooder has been making music and recording for the past 50 years. He’s a songwriter, film score composer, and record producer. A multi-instrumentalist, he is maybe best known for his slide guitar work. Rolling Stone magazine’s ranked him eighth on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Feelin’ Bad Blues is on his 1986 Crossroads album and is an instrumental slow blues, which demonstrates Cooder’s exquisite slide technique and emotive playing. [Check out our post on Ry Cooder here.]
Eric Clapton: Running on Faith (1992)
Clapton originally recorded this on his 1989 Journeyman album, but we’ve chosen the Unplugged version of 1992, where Clapton plays a wooden resonator. He’s played a lot of electric slide during his career, but this performance puts the musicality of his skill in the spotlight, as well as his excellent vocals. [Check out our appreciation of Eric Clapton here.]
(Sadly WMG has blocked the YouTube video of this 28 year-old song)
Bonnie Raitt: I’m In the Mood (with John Hooker) (1991)
Bonnie Raitt has won 10 Grammys and sold millions of albums. The same year as her big 1989 breakthrough with Nick of Time, she recorded this duet with Hooker, which was included on Hooker’s album The Healer. Playing her Stratocaster with the slide on her second finger, and picking with her fingers, Raitt gets the right amount of sass and moan into this reprise of Hooker’s 1951 hit.
Joanna Connor: Walkin’ Blues (1992)
Joanna Connor is so much more than her self-description as “that middle-aged lady with the scorching guitar.” She’s a tremendously talented and original guitar player, whose incredible slide guitar, complete with mushy guitar-player face from 2014 has been seen by around 1.5m people. She is a guitar-playing tour de force. Walkin’ Blues from her second album aptly illustrates her jaw-droppingly good slide guitar. [You’ll find a review of Connor’s Rise album here.]
Bryn Haworth: Will You Be Ready (1995)
Bryn Haworth is an outstanding slide guitarist and songwriter from the UK who has been making records and performing for the past 50 years. He’s appeared on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test and the John Peel show, was a major figure in the explosion of Jesus Rock in the 1970s and 80s, and been the guest guitarist on many albums by rock and folk artists. [Don’t miss this great interview with Bryn here.]
Kelly Joe Phelps: When the Roll is Called Up Yonder (1997)
There’s scarcely a better acoustic slide player on the planet than Kelly Joe Phelps, aptly demonstrated by this superb old hymn which appears on Roll Away the Stone. At this stage in his career Kelly was playing slide on a lap steel guitar. By 2012, he had moved to a more regular bottleneck slide style – and produced similarly outstanding playing on Brother Sinner and the Whale. Check out the interplay between the slide guitar and Kelly’s vocals in this song, particularly in the chorus. Quite remarkable. As for the beautiful solo… [More on Kelly Joe Phelps here.]
Rory Block: Cross Road Blues (2006)
Rory Block is one of the world’s greatest living acoustic blues artists. Her talent has been recognized many times by WC Handy and Blues Music Awards in the US, as well as gaining accolades and awards in Europe. She has won Acoustic Artist of the Year in the 2019 Blues Music Awards. She’s done a number of albums paying tribute to the great blues guitarists of the past, and her 2006 Lady and Mr Johnson sees her taking on Robert Johnson and delivering the songs such that they take on new life, and at the same time showcasing Johnson’s outstanding guitar expertise. Block plays Cross Road Blues on her Martin guitar with incredible attack, accuracy and groove – quite wondrous. [Check out our great interview with Rory here.]
Johnny Dickinson: Ocean Blues (2006)
Northumberland-born slide-guitarist/singer/songwriter, Johnny Dickinson sadly passed away in 2019. He was widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s finest exponents of acoustic slide guitar. And a thoroughly nice guy. Ocean Blues, from 2006’s Sketches from the Road is a fine example of Dickinson’s technique and musicality.
Brooks Williams: Amazing Grace (2010)
Brooks Williams is one incredible acoustic guitar player. He’s a gifted songwriter and singer too. His versatile guitar chops include some tasty slide playing. You’ll scarcely hear a better version of Amazing Grace than Brooks’s from his 2010 Baby O! album. Playing the strings on either side of the slide and moving masterfully all round the fretboard, Williams coaxes each ounce of bluesiness from this old tune. [Check out our interview with Brooks here.]
North Mississippi Allstars: Let It Roll (2011)
Luther Dickinson is a guitarist, songwriter, singer and record producer who grew up in the hills of North Mississippi. Influenced by R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, he and his brother formed the North Mississippi Allstars. Their 2011 album, Keys to the Kingdom, features Dickinson’s characteristic raw singing style and his style of electrified, fingerstyle slide guitar that he calls Modern Mississippi. It’s sounds traditional but bang up-to-date all at once. [Check out our interview with Luther here.]
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Midnight in Harlem (2011)
When you see Derek Trucks live, you’d be forgiven for calling him the world’s best living electric slide guitarist. His guitar and slide just seem to be part of the man. Trucks was something of a child prodigy, playing slide from a young age and by the age of 13, he had shared a stage with Buddy Guy. He was a guest musician for several years with the Allman Brothers and has toured as part of Eric Clapton’s band. The fabulous band formed with him and his wife, Susan Tedseschi, released Revelator in 2011 which features a cover of Mike Mattison’s Midnight in Harlem. It’s quite wonderful, as much for Tedeschi’s vocals as for Truck’s slide work. But his slide work is top drawer and we like the live version on Everybody’s Talkin’ from 2012.
Keb’Mo’ & Taj Mahal: Diving Duck Blues (2017)
There may be better examples of Keb’ Mo’s slide guitar style, but this duet with blues legend Taj Mahal from their excellent 2017 Tajmo album is one of the most enjoyable. Mo’s metal resonator slide playing accompanies Taj Mahal’s rhythmic acoustic picking, rather than taking centre stage. But, of course, it’s the combination of these two wonderful artists playing together that is best of all. [Check out our piece on Keb’ Mo’s Put a Woman in Charge here.]
Sonny Landreth: Key to the Highway (2017)
One of the world’s best, but most under-appreciated guitarists, said Eric Clapton of slide guitar specialist, Sonny Landreth. Landreth has incredible slide guitar technique, able to play notes, chords and chord fragments by fretting behind the slide while he plays. As with nearly all these artists, it’s hard to choose a song from Landreth’s considerable back catalogue, but his version of this blues standard normally credited to Big Bill Broonzy, on his 2017 Live in Lafayette, is a real treat.
Larkin Poe: Mississippi (2018)
Larkin Poe are the Lovell sisters from Atlanta, Georgia with a unique blues-based Americana rock. Adept at taking traditional blues and bringing them bang up-to-date at the same time, the pair are exceptional musicians, wonderful singers and high-powered performers. Both terrific guitarists, it is Megan who is the slide guitarist, trading licks with her sister. Standing up – and occasionally walking through the audience – she plays her lap steel guitar with incredible energy. Mississippi from 2018’s Grammy nominated Venom and Faith album evokes the spirit of the Delta while channelling a modern, fresh approach to the blues. Superb. [Be sure and check out our great interview with Larkin Poe here.]
Martin Harley: Roll With the Punches (2019)
When it comes to slide guitar, England’s Martin Harley really is the business. With eight albums to his credit, he delights audiences wherever he plays in the UK and US with his hugely enjoyable brand of Americana and blues. His Roll With the Punches from 2019 finds Harley with a new, more electric sound, now coaxing those trademark slide guitar licks from an electric guitar rather than simply the Weissenborn lap steel he is usually to be seen with. The title track showcases his great slide technique and is just a great song – so positive: “don’t let nobody drag you down, keep your head high, put your good foot on the ground.” [You’ll find our review of Martin Harley’s Roll with the Punches here.]
“The blues is the truth,” said Willie Dixon, famously. “The blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding.”
One the one hand, the blues have always been entertainment, music to dance to, but it’s essentially music that is rooted in hard times, trouble and suffering. Which Dixon understood well. Born in Vicksburg in 1915 in a household of 14 children, his family lived in what he described as a “raggedy” house. Even worse was where he ended up aged eleven after running away from home – “man, you’re talking about a shack… the house [I stayed] in had great big holes in the floor.” Trying to steal some fixtures from an old derelict house got him sent to a jail-farm when he was twelve where he said, “That’s when I really learned about the blues. I had heard ’em with the music and took ’em to be an enjoyable thing but after I heard these guys down there moaning and groaning these really down-to-earth blues…I really began to find out what the blues meant to black people.”
On another occasion, for a petty charge, Dixon served thirty days at the Harvey Allen County Farm, near the infamous Parchman Farm prison, where the treatment of prisoners was inhumane – “this was the first time I saw a man beat to death,” he said. Dixon himself was brutalized, receiving a blow to his head that made him deaf for about four years. Dixon, in short, knew all about the truth of the blues.
Early blues songs covered the whole gamut of real-life problems and hardships faced by black communities – ill-health, poverty, homelessness, discrimination, police brutality, as well as the vagaries of romantic love. Here’s Victoria Spivey with TB Blues, tuberculosis being a disease particularly associated with poverty:
There’s no hiding from the realities of life with the blues. As slide guitarist Bryn Haworth told me recently, “Blues music to me is honest music. It’s people expressing their sorrow, their pain, their loneliness, their disconnectedness, their questions or anger about things we all feel…It’s honest…honest to God music, really.”
The blues face life head on, honestly, and somehow, often seem to enable a way through, because of that honesty. Honesty, however, seems to be a quality in short supply these days.
Tell the Truth, written by Bobby Whitlock and Eric Clapton, was recorded by Derek and the Dominos in August 1970, and appeared on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Whitlock has described it as a kind of coming of age song, a reminiscence about getting older, but as you listen to the lyrics today, it sounds like a social commentary on the descent of today’s world into double-speak and deceit:
Tell the truth.
Tell me who’s been fooling you?
Tell the truth.
Who’s been fooling who?
It doesn’t matter just who you are,
Or where you’re going or been…
The whole world is shaking now. Can’t you feel it?
Back in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 was published under the shadow of Hitler and Stalin, and portrays a nightmare vision of a future in which truth has been eclipsed. Orwell said he was worried that the “very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” Would he have been surprised at where we have reached in today’s world, where the bare-faced lie has become perfectly acceptable and truth in the public sphere scarcely seems to matter?
Robert Musil, the author of the classic The Man Without Qualities in the mid-1930s, wrote, “No culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.” And yet here we are. Donald Trump is in the White House, telling more lies each day than you wash your hands (according to CNN, June 2019) – as of June 7 2019, his 869th day in office, the president had made 10,796 false or misleading claims, according to Washington Post’s the Fact Checker’s database. And UK Tories have just installed Boris Johnson as the country’s Prime Minister, a man with a long and well-documented history of playing fast and loose with the truth (as reported by the Independent) – from his days as a journalist with the Times and the Daily Telegraph to backing the infamous claim on the side of the bus that the UK was sending £350m a week to the EU, followed by “let’s fund our NHS instead” during the Brexit referendum campaign.
As Roger Cohen put it recently, “The triumph of indecency is rampant. Choose your facts. The only blow Trump knows is the low one. As the gutter is to the stars, so is this president to dignity. Johnson does a grotesque Churchill number. Nobody cares. The wolves have it; the sheep, transfixed, shrug.”
Of all the disturbing aspects of the rise of petty nationalism and populism which has given rise to racism, xenophobia and increasing polarisation, it is the assault on truth which is perhaps the most undermining of life as we know it. I watched a clip on an US TV programme recently where a woman was asked about Trump’s recorded statement that he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone without losing any voters, and she dismissed it out of hand as “fake news” from the dishonest media. Up is down; black is white; I only believe what fits my viewpoint.
But, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Harvard professor and four-term United States senator, famously observed, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” That has become almost quaint, so far down the road have we come. Johnson and Trump do not exist in a vacuum; the dishonesty which pervades public life at the highest levels seeps out through elements of the media into the public square and into the lives of individuals. Truth has become devalued and our societies imperilled because of it. As the ancient prophets of Israel said, “Truth has stumbled in the street” (Isaiah 59.14) and “lies and not truth prevail in the land” (Jeremiah 9.3).
We’re grateful for courageous reporters, broadcasters, church leaders and others who speak truth to power, expose lying and call out dishonest leadership. And with a continuous stream of properly fake news, we need to take care what we are prepared to believe. As psychologist Jordan Peterson says, “The small sins of the individual culminate into the great sins of the state.”
Dishonesty is a temptation for us all. Fyodor Dostoevsky warns us in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, that not to tell the truth risks us losing our sense of reality. To lose the truth is to lose your soul. “Above all,” says Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, “don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”
Lies and deceit eat away at the fabric of our being. They are truly destructive, each lie causing a little more damage to our characters, until we can scarcely tell truth from untruth.
On the other hand, when you tell the truth, “Everything begins to come together…when you’re around someone who tells the truth everything comes together and that’s the potential destiny of the world…you can bring forth something again to paradise by speaking the truth and you can start in your own life, and in the lives of your own family…It’s the proper way of wending your way through the terrible world without making it worse than it already is and with the possibility perhaps of making it better.”
Someone famously said, “Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth – to see it as it is, and tell it like it is – to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth.” Words to live by – despite the salutary fact that this came from Richard Nixon on the occasion of his acceptance of the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1968. The danger of ignoring the advice writ large.
More importantly, two thousand years ago, someone said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” As we discover in the authenticity of the blues, there is something about truth telling that does indeed set us free. Something about facing the realities of the world and our troubles face-on that is the first step to freedom. There’s a deeper freedom than that, though – as a provincial governor found out a long time ago when he faced his prisoner and asked, “What is truth?” There was no answer because the living embodiment of that was standing in front of him.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Gospel of St. John)
The blues world and far beyond is trying to come to terms with the death of B B King, one of the last remaining links with the early days of the blues in Mississippi. King was a towering figure in blues throughout his lifetime and, as we look back on his life, we can see that the contribution he made to not only the blues, but to rock music more generally was enormous. Not bad for a skinny kid from a dirt-poor background in Indianola, Mississippi, raised by his maternal grandmother Elnora Farr, because his father had run off and his was too poor to raise her son.
The honours and awards he garnered were numerous and impressive:
inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
awarded the National Medal of Arts.
awarded the Kennedy Center Honors, given to recognize “the lifelong accomplishments and extraordinary talents of our nation’s most prestigious artists.”
awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
He was ranked by TIME magazine No.3 on its list of the 10 best electric guitarists of all time; and no. 6 by Rolling Stone. Any guitarist or blues fan could recognize B B King if they heard just him play just one note, so distinctive was his vibrato, string bending and tone. “BB, anyone could play a thousand notes and never say what you said in one,” tweeted Lenny Kravitz recently. He won numerous Grammys, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
His collaborations with and mentoring of other blues artists were legion: Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Billy Gibbons, Mark Knopfler, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keith Richards and Joe Bonnamassa, all of whom rated him highly as a player and influence. But his musical influence extended far beyond the blues family – we could mention Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Mavis Staples, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman to name but a few he mentored or played with.
His duet with U2 on When Love Comes to Town is a classic and introduced him to a whole new set of rock fans. His music has been sample by the likes of 50 Cent and Tony Yayo, Ice Cube, Action Bronson, and rapper O.S.T.R.
B B King’s achievements were more than any one person could reasonably expect in their lifetime – a testimony to his talent, hard work, and positive outlook on life. King contradicted the popular notion that blues music is sad and depressing. Even though he’s singing the blues and the subject matter may be that his baby’s done left him, or the thrill has gone, or his grave needs to be kept clean, in King’s hands the blues work their way through the present troubles with hope that things can get better. As he says in one of his songs, “There must be a better world somewhere.” “Instead of tears,” he sings, “I’ll learn all about laughter.”
There’s a joy that breaks through B B King’s music – as he said, “It’s good for me when I’m feeling bad, and good for me when I’m feeling good.” All the more remarkable, when you consider the trials of King’s life – the poverty of his early background, his failed marriages, difficulties with some of his children, the racial discrimination he had to bear along the way.
As we continue to mourn his passing, we can be grateful for the legacy of music he has left behind in both his recordings and the many musicians he has influenced. He will continue to influence many more.
Last month, Eric Clapton suggested that his days of touring are over. “The road has become unbearable,” he said. “It’s become unapproachable, because it takes so long to get anywhere. It’s hostile – everywhere: getting in and out of airports, traveling on planes and in cars.”
Understandable, when you’re nearly 70, I guess, but the good news is that it sounds like he doesn’t intend to stop doing studio work or one-off performances. Clapton has been entertaining us and enthralling us with his blues-based guitar work for nearly 50 years. Ranked by Rolling Stone magazine number 2 in their “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (surpassed only by Jimi Hendrix – fair enough!), Clapton was once hailed “god” by an adoring fanbase. He’s had 17 Grammys, was awarded the CBE by the Queen, and songs like Layla or Tears in Heaven will be enjoyed and played long after Clapton is gone.
But Clapton is essentially a blues artist who has hailed Robert Johnson as the biggest influence on his guitar playing. He said of Johnson, “His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.” Clapton’s tribute to Johnson, on his 2004 album, Me and Mr. Johnson, is one terrific blues album, with excellent arrangements which really showcase Johnson’s genius and some outstanding playing and singing from Clapton. Clapton had previously said that Robert Johnson’s best songs had “never been covered by anyone else, at least not very successfully — because how are you going to do them?” This album and the follow-up Sessions for Robert really do Johnson’s songs justice.
B B King has said of Clapton, “I admire the man. I think he’s No. 1 in rock ‘n’ roll as a guitarist and No. 1 as a great person.” He credited Clapton, with other British artists, with breathing new life into the blues in the late 1960s. The collaborative album between King and Clapton,Riding with the King, won the 2000 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, and although some felt it was just too polished for a blues album, it is a thoroughly enjoyable record that shows off both men at their very best.
Clapton’s struggles with drugs are well documented, not least in his autobiography, making for painful reading. “In the lowest moments of my life, the only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink any more if I was dead. It was the only thing I thought was worth living for…they had to practically carry me into the clinic.” In 1987, he checked into Hazeldene Treatment Center in Minnesota for the second and last time, and recounts how, after a month there, just going through the motions, he had a quite profound experience.
He says, “At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion of who I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether…I knew that on my own, I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.”
He goes on to say, “From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray…If you were to ask why I do all this, I will tell you…because it works, as simple as that.”
Clapton’s been sober for nearly thirty years, and worked with a number of addiction treatment organizations before establishing the Crossroads Centre in Antigua in 1998 which helps people recover from the devastating effects of addictions to drugs and alcohol. Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, which has featured a who’s who of top guitar talent in on four occasions since 2004, raises funds for this centre.
I saw Clapton play on a couple of occasions, most notably in the tour which supported the Robert Johnson album. He didn’t engage with the audience much, but it was enough to be treated to a lengthy set of blues songs and classic Clapton numbers and to admire his fret-work on the big screen – the video-team clearly knew their audience, spending the majority of time on Eric’s guitar playing as opposed to shots of the band as a whole. It was a great night’s entertainment. If he’s decided to retire at this stage, then – thanks for your massive contribution to music and the blues and thanks for the memories.
But for the immediate future, we all can look forward to The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale, in tribute to JJ Cale who died last year, which will be released at the end of 29 July 2014. It features 16 Cale songs performed by Clapton, Christine Lakeland, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Derek Trucks.
Key to the Highway is a Big Bill Broonzy song which has been covered by everybody from Sonny Terry to the Band to B B King to Eric Clapton. It’s a classic, “I’m outta here!” song:
I got the key to the highway,
Billed out and bound to go
I’m gonna leave here running
Because walking’s much too slow
It’s typical of a lot of the early blues songs – the ramblin’ bluesman who can’t stay in one place too long, needs to be on the road again and can’t commit to any relationships.”You ain’t done nothing babe, Except drive a good man from home,” says the singer, putting all the blame on his woman. When in reality, it’s his own itchy feet that are making him want to pack up and hit the road again – “I’m gonna roam this old highway, Until the day I die.”
There were lots of reasons for blues artist moving around – it may have been the threat of lynching in the Jim Crow South; it may have been the need to make a little money – then as now, the professional musician can’t just keep playing his material to the same group of people over and over again; it may have been failed romances; or just a restlessness, a need to get up and go, see a few different places. Whatever the reason, many of these guys didn’t have much of a home, not one they could feel contented in anyway.
Robert Johnson said he had “ramblin’ on my mind,” again, blaming his “baby,” because she treated him so “unkind.” Muddy Waters sang “I’m a rambling kid, I’ve been rambling all my days,” but his baby, “she want me to stop rambling.” Johnny Shines’ version goes, “Woke up this morning, reached down for my shoes, Reason was, baby, I got them old ramblin’ blues.”
But, hey, we love listening to these songs, don’t we, because there’s something just a bit rebellious in them, something that makes us feel alive in our soft, comfortable lifestyles. Problem is, though, home comforts are pretty good, and we don’t really want to change anything, because change can be unsettling, and, quite frankly, “leavin’ here runnin” is way too much effort. We get settled pretty easily these days, don’t we?
Interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus might be termed a “ramblin’ man?” Once his ministry got going, he never stayed in one place too long. He moved about the countryside with a bunch of followers, men and women, had little in the way of possessions, and said at one point that animals like foxes and birds had dens and nests, but he had no place to call home. He was, and is, an unsettling character – even though the Christian church tames and domesticates him.
Jesus never really fitted in with his contemporaries. The people to whom he preached got excited and saw in him a new political leader who might take on the occupying Romans (John 6.15); many of the Jewish leaders were deeply troubled about his version of God’s coming kingdom; his disciples seriously misunderstood the nature of his leadership, bickering about who would be top dog beside him. He made people who came to him terribly uncomfortable about his attitude to wealth (he told a “rich, young ruler” to give away his money to the poor) and he was prepared to symbolically attack the very centre of Jewish political, economic and religious life, the Temple in Jerusalem. And, of course, so upsetting and threatening was his vision for all things new, for changing the status quo, he ended up being tortured and executed.
Would be Jesus-followers can’t expect a life of quiet comfort and ease. He promised his followers harassment for pursuing justice and reviling by people who misunderstood them. Problem is, by making this word that Jesus used – justice (Matt 5.10) – into a nice-sounding religious word “righteousness,” we’ve taken the heat from Jesus’s life and message. We’ve probably never heard of people being persecuted for “righteousness” sake; but we’ve certainly heard of people being persecuted for pursuing justice. And there’s where things start to get uncomfortable for us – how far are we prepared to go, as Jesus-followers, to pursue justice? Some of us can’t even be bothered finding out what’s going on the world, or signing that petition against modern day slavery or whatever, never mind taking to the streets to make our voice hear on behalf of the voiceless and the oppressed. Our Christianity has become too domesticated, too calm, too cosy. We need to find ways to get radically connected to the poor, the weak, the oppressed of the word, or else we’re just playing at it.
The followers need to start to look a bit more like the one we’re following. Walkin’s much to slow – we need to shake ourselves down and be prepared to do a bit of running. Only when we’re prepared to change ourselves can we hope to change the world.
Blind Willie Johnson is one of the most influential of the early bluesmen, with his songs , covered down through the years by Rev Gary Davis and Fred McDowell, but also by more recent rock bands like the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and the White Stripes.
Johnson has the distinction of having one of his songs feature on a special recording sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 to head beyond the outer solar system into deep space – the Voyager Golden Record also contains music by Beethoven Mozart and Stravinsky. What any other intelligent life in the universe might make of Willie Johnson’sDark was the Night is anybody’s guess.
Born in 1897 in Texas, he was blinded at an early age, supposedly caught in a fight between his father and step-mother, who threw a handful of lye, a strong alkali used for cleaning, into his eyes. His life was one of poverty and he died before he was fifty in the most pitiful way imaginable, contracting malaria after sleeping rough in the ruins of his Texas home which had burned to the ground. Reports vary but it seems he was refused admission at hospital either because he was blind or because he was black.
Willie Johnson recorded 30 studio songs for Columbia Records during 1927–1930 and outsold the likes of Bessie Smith with his first 78, I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole / Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. The Great Depression, however, just about killed Johnson’s recording career and he spent his life mostly busking and preaching on street corners. He was an accomplished guitarist, playing with a rhythmic picking style or sometimes slide with a brass ring or a knife. Eric Clapton called Johnson’s playing on Nobody’s Fault But Mine probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear.”
He is best remembered for his gospel blues songs. Well known gospel blues from Johnson include Nobody’s Fault But Mine, John the Revelator, Soul of a Man, God Don’t Never Change and Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning. His song If I had My Way I’d Tear The Building Down landed him in jail – apparently he was busking in from of a Customs House and it was thought he was using the song lyrics to try and provoke a riot. The song, of course, is a spirited retelling of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. It later became a popular in the civil rights movement.
Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning became a standard of Mississippi Fred McDowell but has been covered recently by Ashley Cleveland, Luther Dickinson and Luke Winslow King.
The song refers to the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 25. 1-12, of ten young women – bridesmaids – five of whom ran out of oil for their lamps. The scene here is the Jewish Palestinian wedding of the first century. Wedding processions from the bride’s to the groom’s home, accompanied by singing and dancing, normally happened at night and hence required light. The lampsin these weddings were probably torches, perhaps sticks wrapped with oiled rags. Women torchbearers led the bride to the bridegroom’s home, joined by the groom and his male friends. In the story that Jesus tells, the bridesmaids are waiting outside the bride’s home for his coming, to escort her to his home. In these traditional weddings the bridegroom’s arrival could often be delayed for hours while the bride’s relatives haggled over the value of presents given them, as they emphasized the bride’s great value. The torches, meantime, typically needed more oil every 15 minutes or so. Half the bridesmaids in the story had made sure that they had enough oil with them and so are ready when at last the groom arrives. The other half end up having to go off to buy oil at the last minute and miss the arrival of he groom, the wedding parade and the wedding.
The Titus Arch in Rome, destruction of the Temple in 70 AD
The crux of the parable comes in Jesus’s warning to his disciples, “Therefore keep alert because you don’t know the day or the hour.” Christians have interpreted this in a number of ways – as a reference to the final judgement, our own deaths or Jesus’s prediction of God’s judgement on Israel because of her rejection of him, which Matthew saw as the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of Israel in A.D. 70. In a sense, it does not matter how we take it, the imperative is to be ready for the day of crisis. Jesus specifically says that the story is about the now-arriving rule of God, so we can take the story to be illustrative of how Jesus followers are to act, against the backdrop of God’s rule, whenever crisis hits.
Skipping down a bit in Matthew 25, we get the story of the Great Assize, where Jesus talks about how God will judge on the last day – and, perhaps to our surprise, it’s on the basis of how justly we lived. How did we treat the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the homeless? Here we get to understand what “being on the alert means” – it means not just drifting along, comfortable in our own little worlds – “amusing ourselves to death,” as Neil Postman has starkly put it. Rather, we are actively to involve ourselves in working for justice – making sure, in the first instance that the hungry are fed, that people have clean water available to them, that the homeless are looked after and the sick are tended to, and then seeking to address the conditions that cause these things – the injustice, the war, the vengeance, the corporate vested interests. Jesus’s “kingdom of God,” was not confined to the private, the inner, the personal. It is nothing less than justice, peace and wholeness for the world. And it’s to this that Jesus followers are called.
After evoking the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, Willie Johnson’s song tells us not to “get worried,” but rather to “see what the Lord has done.” In a world desperately in need of justice, it’s understanding that what God has done through Jesus has begun God’s world-transformation project, and that we can be involved in that, which will enable us to face the “worry” of the hour of crisis and instead to live in a way that demonstrates the peace and justice of God’s kingdom,.
“Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,” growls out Willie Johnson – the imperative is not to just drift along, hoping that somehow the oil won’t run out, or that the day of crisis will somehow pass us by. Rather we’ve got to keep alert, keep ready, demonstrate God’s new, just way of being human and, as we do so, trust in “what the Lord has done.”