Blue Dog News

Why do I listen to the blues?

B.B King once declared why he sang the blues. But why do I listen to Blues? What is there in blues music that turns the simple act of listening to music to an act of obsession? I don´t have the answers, but I can tell you of which songs have made me close my eyes, lay down and fall in a trance lately.

I´ll start with the inevitable Jimmy Dawkins. I recently bought the CD reissue of Blisterstring (Delmark DE-641) and I found myself listening to the same tune again and again. And it was a tune which I never paid any attention to when I played the LP! If you are ready is the tune (In Marty Spaulding´s Real Audio show Sunday Blues , June 13'99 show 2h 50 min, Marty plays this very song). It´s not a straight blues. Dawkins and the tight band churns a relentless soul/funk beat in a Chicago soul mode. Dawkins starts the song with fat ugly chords and then the band lurks in. First a little bit laid-back, but when Jimmy Johnson's perfect driving Chicago soul backup guitar comes in the band really swings. Dawkins singing is hard, grunting and ugly, almost as ugly as his guitar tone. Listen carefully to his solo guitar. Often just a single note, a note which Dawkins hits hard and then holds. Incredibly aggressive. Dawkins in the seventies have always made me nervous. His guitar playing is irregular. First he seems totally uninterested, playing some random notes and, suddenly. Wham! Rapid-fire licks and an almost insane attack. You can never be sure of what Dawkins is going to do. And this is especially true on Blisterstring. Dawkins have never ever made a whole album which have this gritty, I say it again, ugly feeling. I feel bad when Dawkins sings Feels so bad. Dawkins version of Blues with a feeling bears little resemblance with Little Walters melancholy original. This is music filled of hate and rage and uncertainty. I don´t know if I like it. This is an album which I have played when drinking and sitting home all alone. This statement may sound pathetic, and it is pathetic. But blues is, sometimes, music for pathetic people. Music for people feeling sorry of themselves. People afraid of other people. The blues is a myth, but myths are sometimes for real.
But Dawkins is not the only one in the 70´s who gives the listener this uncertainty feeling. In fact I think this is just what makes much of the blues recorded between 1969 and 1979 so great and so tragic. The performers don´t just act, they themselves get caught up in the blues. They are at the same time both in control and out of control. Ironically enough the generally sloppy production of many blues recordings in this period contributes to the result. The performers never got the chance to rehearse or to spend weeks in a studio and perfect the result. Often it was an in-out deal. Five hours studio time and play the ten songs all in the band could play. This is probably why there are zillions of Stormy Mondays and Rock me baby and so on. But sometimes, between the mediocre, magic is present! Otis Rush, the icon of "primal blues". Listen to Cold Day in Hell. Otis Rush is drunk, sometimes barely able to play a solo, and yet. There are some unforgettable moments on the album. As I said above, I´m not sure I like it. Otis Rush is obviously not feeling well, to say the least, and who am I to use his agony to get a kick? Why am I listening to the blues? Is it a freak show or genuine feelings? Sometimes I´m not sure. Sometimes I don´t care which. I just feel the hair raise on my arms and I´m drifting away. Maybe that´s as close to an answer I come.

The other blues man who have made me lay down and growl the past few days is Sonny Boy Williamson I. I must admit I used to think he was boring, especially when compared to the second Sonny Boy, Rice Miller. I only have one LP with SBWI, Arhoolie Blues Classic 3 (I have seven SBW 2). OK, Sloppy drunk blues is fun, but Jimmy Rogers version is even better. And yes, Check up on my baby recorded in 1944 shows the first trembling signs of the fifties Chicago blues. I´ll put it straight. I used to think Sonny Boy I was interesting and it was necessary to own a LP with him, but listening to it regularly? That was stretching it too far. You probably already guessed it. Something made me to change my mind. The reason is almost embarrassing. I was away from my record collection... and wanted to listen to some blues. I went to the local supermarket and they had a CD-sale. The blues part was the usual Chess collections, but deep down in the box I found a country blues collection, Born under a bad sign (Penny PYCD166). I had heard most of the songs before, Blind Willie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell etc. Song 15 was Sonny Boy Williamson and Blue Bird blues. I don´t know why. The wailing harmonica intro, the heavy lowdown guitar and Sonny Boys singing started that familiar feeling that Double Trouble, Albert Kings string bending or Eddie Boyd´s emotional singing on Five long years gives. I lost track of time and sense! Why on earth hadn´t I been wise enough before to buy this! This is were Muddy Waters and Little Walter got their sound from. Listen to Muddy´s Louisiana Blues and compare with Blue Bird blues. Sonny Boy is as good or even better! I have never before realized what great influence Sonny Boy I had on Little Walter. Walter´s early playing is a note by note imitation of a master. Buy a Sonny Boy Williamson collection, make sure Blue Bird Blues is on it and enjoy! If you want a nice and very cheap collection of prewar blues buy the Penny album. I found it for 3,50$ (25:- in Swedish crowns). The sound is good and the songs are fantastic.


Tommy Jansson