The Real Thing: Historic Blues Musicians Still Extant in 2002
April 5, 2002 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Robert Jr. Lockwood is alive , well and still playing and recording. He learned guitar from Robert Johnson when the latter was hanging with Robert Jr’s mom—hence the Jr—and cut his first 78 in 1941. Yet he’s just 2nd generation. From the first, Henry Townsend is still alive and playing, but at 91, doesn't travel that much anymore. Then there is David "Honeyboy" Edwards —and he knew Robert Johnson as well--and Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway, too, which is way more impressive to me. He still plays and records, too, in very recent times in the company of Lockwood and Townsend. And in the third generation, you have Johnny Otis , still alive and kicking, complete with virtual mall. Ike Turner was Howlin’ Wolf’s A&R and piano player when the Wolf cut his first sides for Sam Phillips’ company before Sun, RPM. A helluva a piano player coughAudionotfarfromherecough—apart from the sordid details of his personal life, Ike Turner is, as the aforementioned, a giant in the history of that nearly dead style—the Blues. Alive, playing and recording. Hell, writing, autobiographies, too—Edwards and Turner, at least. (and whew, Turner’s is, well, explicit…) If this were Japan, these guys would be registered as cultural treasures. So why’s everybody wasting their money on some overproduced, overhyped mere johnnyonenote journeyman (if not hack) like R.L. Burnside? Not an obituary, by any means, but a heads up and props to the surviving masters—and you may have a chance to see the real thing someday soon. But note that, all in all, offer ends... sometime.
posted by y2karl (21 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If ever there was an FPP that needed a [more inside...], this is it.

Good content, though!
posted by andnbsp at 11:15 AM on April 5, 2002

Thanks for the great posting, y2karl. Here's a question for you: How come one never sees an African American in the audience at a blues show? Why is there so little African American support for traditional Black music?
posted by Faze at 12:02 PM on April 5, 2002

Faze: where do you live? There's fine African American support for the blues scene here in North Texas, at both the smaller clubs and at our annual outdoor blues fest. I have noticed that it tends to be a slightly older crowd, though. The kids are too busy with the "hip-hop" these days (which is also a "traditional Black music", if you wanna oversimplify it a bit :)
posted by andnbsp at 12:12 PM on April 5, 2002

For complex reasons--to oversimplify, the original audiences of these guys are mostly gone--unless the musician is or was someone like Johnny Guitar Watson, who kept up with the times and played funk, his audiences were 80-90% black each time I saw him (and he got no respect or coverage from the new blues, as in blooze critics and fans)--and because the white kids who are blues fans are like the jazz fans who were hep when Dizzy Gillespie was hip--there is a whole push me-pull you dynamic in our mixed culture wherein when the secondary white audience learns the secret handshake, the core black audience moves on...

And, looking from preview, andnbsp is right-- it does depend on where you live--the same is true for zydeco as for blues in Louisiana, Texas and Oakland, CA.
posted by y2karl at 12:22 PM on April 5, 2002

But look at the way generation after generation of middle-class white kids rediscover old-time country, bluegrass, honky-tonk, etc. The original audiences of those musics has moved on, too. Young white kids passionately learn to play bluegrass fiddle and mandolin. Do many young African Americans study blues guitar with the same passion, with the intention of reviving or continuing the tradition?
posted by Faze at 12:34 PM on April 5, 2002

middle-class white kids, yes, but working class,uderclass white kids are into the rap, too. And dore I say Young Country? Young middle class white kids learn varous vintage forms of rock 'r roll and you see the results on MTV. But do you see the originators very often? No--too old and gnarly. Also, from the beginning, the blues young white middle class kids think of as blues, new and old, was the music of the dregs, devil's music, scorned by the better elements, the black middle class then--such as it was--as now, unless it be someone universally big, like B.B. King, or Johnny Guitar Watson, when he was with us, for the reasons stated, or people like Little Milton or Syl Johson, who had second careers as soul singers. And even soul singers get short shrift today--playing state fairs, Reno and Tahoe and sometimes Las Vegas. Old=obsolete, unless it's picked up by college kids and college radio for all the wrong reasons--like R.L. Burnside or popularized by a movie--O Brother--or some music critic in a local urban weekly. Otherwise no one pays attention.
posted by y2karl at 1:03 PM on April 5, 2002

er, underclass, to be sure... heck, and middle class, too, percentage-wise for the rap fan white kids, when you think about it.
posted by y2karl at 1:05 PM on April 5, 2002

'Why is there so little African American support for traditional Black music?' not sure what you mean. johnson learned alot of his stuff outside the Delta. Take Skip James, in 64' he was 'rediscovered' by fahey, making his music accessable to more people.Leroy Carr learned all his stuff up north. him and 'scrapper' Blackwell were considered the best between 1928 and Carrs death in '35. (yeah im a bentonia school fan). Hendrix learned much and ...well i wont presume. We have a local blues guy.ahh. Shem mitchell(sic sp) had the honor to talk to him. he played a few sets with James and has met and learned from most the greats. (his dizzy story is great) I think there is a lot 'schoolin' goin on. great post y2Karl.
posted by clavdivs at 1:17 PM on April 5, 2002

sherm mitchell...sorry sherm.
posted by clavdivs at 1:18 PM on April 5, 2002

just as long as it's not Shemp. Or Curly Joe.
posted by y2karl at 1:26 PM on April 5, 2002

Thanks for the great posting, y2karl. Here's a question for you: How come one never sees an African American in the audience at a blues show?

Because you've never been to the South, or at the right show.
posted by raysmj at 1:39 PM on April 5, 2002

I guess not. Here in the north, blues seems to be a mostly white enthusiasm. Thanks for the illumination.
posted by Faze at 1:58 PM on April 5, 2002

I agree with you y2karl, that Burnside and the rest of the Fat Possum crew are overrated. But these things go in cycles. A whole new generation of kids is discovering stuff like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and just like I did, many of 'em will read the songwriting credits or check out biographies and learn about their influences and wanna hear stuff straight from the source. I predict we'll be seeing a revival any time now.
The "neo-soul" revival also gives me hope for the future of blues and R&B as well. I'd love to hear Angie Stone or Jill Scott take a whack at "Wang Dang Doodle" or "Gimme a Pigfoot." D'Angelo even got together with B.B. King and did a great cover of Howard Tate's "Ain't Nobody Home." These are all artist with predominantly African-American audiences but with big crossover appeal as well, so I wouldn't give up the ghost on the blues just yet.
posted by jonmc at 1:59 PM on April 5, 2002

Upon reflection, for you--cladvivs, Faze and jonmc--may I link the respected, certainly by me, blues scholar, David Evans, first in his own written words in DeMythologizing The Blues, and second, in this excellent, autobiographically revealing interview via Bluesnet here--and Cladvivs take notice re the Bentonia references: I mean, I hear you, man, on that wiggy wiggy E minor tuning, certainly an impetus to me to take up the guitar after hearing Skip James's Devil Got My Woman, the remake, for the first time--But, I think you all will agree that Evans offers over a year's supply of food for thought on the topic, and, an overwhelming resume at the same time, and, in these two links, well worth a front page post or two in their own right.
posted by y2karl at 10:28 PM on April 5, 2002

And for you sound bite lazybones, here's a pertinent quote from Evans:

Country blues as a living tradition tied to a rural black culture - there is something of that culture left - I think it's essentially over. It's a memory culture. There's a little bit of it left in some juke houses and house parties that I'm aware of, but the music has not developed in any significant way since probably about 1960. And in fact, urban blues as a black cultural expression also I don't think has developed significantly since about that same period of time. It's just stagnant, stylistically, although at a very high technical level of performance. Back in the '50s, there were a few dozen guitarists of the B.B. King quality. Now, there are thousands. So all of those techniques have been mastered and absorbed by black and white musicians, and internationally it has become part of the international musical vocabulary. So you have a lot of real hotshot players and singers, no doubt too. People are composing songs on themes very much outside the southern black culture that nurtured the blues for so many years. So blues may well have a future, but its future is as in the international popular musical style. And it may not - it may eventually break up and diffuse, and those influences will enter into other styles. It's hard to predict.

But I just can't see it becoming a specific black folk cultural expression once again. It may become at a kind of intellectual level the way jazz is. It may become a counterpart to jazz, where you need some verbal expression...

posted by y2karl at 10:49 PM on April 5, 2002

'played with' sometime dont mean ata club per say ala the three B's of the scence. horns is horns. my grandma played a saxaphone and really.
really could never figure out why.
i have to cover my tracks how awful anote that may sound on such a fine post. hell, i heard the dizzy story and i asked him if he ever met james...and its either met or played...ya know. said he played and that makes you wanna ask the particks but yu dont. dont wanna play a man up when its a tintsy te bit brash of me too (coughs) too assume to much about a mans rep. ya know, 'you can unerstanEand:)
now my uncle...told me every show me saw. getzty. mr. armstrong. dorseys. some vj-day chicago drunken jimmy durante story thats so cool. he was going to see glen(n) miller..ohit was aug...25 1944. ya know, bomb germany and go to see miller at some was liberated that day...he got shot down...the same horn...but worse.true story karl. i wouldntlie.(see, feed me and i grow like sponges, little sponges, red, shape of a bust)
posted by clavdivs at 11:10 PM on April 5, 2002

thats me first italaic...thingy:)
posted by clavdivs at 11:10 PM on April 5, 2002

Uh, yeah...

posted by y2karl at 8:09 AM on April 6, 2002

disregard sir, anything posted after midnight is....ah hem. carry on.
posted by clavdivs at 8:21 AM on April 6, 2002

y2karl: I think you're largely correct. BUT appearing at blues festivals throughout the South in recent years have been plenty of singers who would have been known as "soul" before. I'm thinking here, largely, of people in the Malaco vein, one of whose biggest records was the late Z.Z. Hill's "Down Home Blues" (written by George Jackson, of "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" fame, a native of Greenville, Miss. who just happens to be African-American). That one probably sparked the whole "soul becomes blues" thing, come to think of it. (Not quite as peppy as the old soul, I think - and the lyrics are vaguely earthier.) But is Bobby "Blue" Bland soul or blues, or '50s and early '60s R&B? Even B.B. King, if you ask him, will tell you that he still thinks of himself as more a rhythm and blues performer, and not a blues guy, exactly. He didn't exactly put the rhythm in a box somewhere, and have former Vegas next-door neighbor Col. Tom Parker take care of it.

The point is: What we think of as "blues" changes from year to year, and most certainly does with a certain clientele in the Deep South. It's an attitude or vibe, as well as technique. You can certainly categorize the music, but even the old masters don't always cooperate and most likely didn't off-record either.
posted by raysmj at 12:23 PM on April 6, 2002

I have to confess that I, too, think blues is a black music whose original black audience has either died off or abandoned it. The audience for blues now is overwhelmingly white, the performers, too. Even the few young black performers from Taj Mahal (he's young only in this context, I'll admit) to Robert Cray to Keb Mo' are former folkies or rockers who did not grow up in the tradition and learned it second hand. Oh, there's a handful like Jessie May Hemphill, say, who come from the roots but very few.

And this is true for bluegrass and even cajun and zydeco to an extent---all are becoming second hand musics performed by outsiders.

Blues, if not dead outright, is on life support, brain dead, organs failing. It's become like dixieland or Baroque music--people will always play from the repertoire but no one's creating anything new. I mean, heard any great new Baroque music lately? Lockwood, Edwards still play a bit and even Henry Townsend makes it to a few festivals, and it is worth it, very very worth it to hear them---because you'll never hear their likes again.
posted by y2karl at 5:22 PM on April 6, 2002

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