The Conventional History of The Blues, as recorded by a British music scholar or American folklorist in the mid nineteen-sixties, states that blues music was born in the Mississippi Delta in the twenties and thirties where men like Robert Johnson played blues in Juke Joints or farm shacks, drank bad whisky and picked fights. As mechanisation made large numbers of agricultural workers obsolete The Blues moved north to Chicago, where men like Muddy Waters plugged in their guitars and invented the electric blues. Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top were only a step away.
This, it's probably unnecessary to say, is a bit of a simplification.
Which brings me to my own epiphany. Having loved blues from an early age, by about seventeen I'd grown tired of widdly guitar solos and the hunt for the next SRV. I'd got into the uber-sophisticated world of jazz, where music isn't loved on a gut level, but appreciated for it's cleverness. Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, although clearly brilliant musicians, have never produced music you can dance to. I'd downloaded a song by this chap called R.L. Burnside, I'm not sure exactly where from, but it was in the glorious free-for-all of the first rush of Napster, so that would be a likely contender. Having quite enjoyed it I picked up an album, I think during my travels in Australia, and I was totally blown away.
What the usual version of blues-history skims over is the fact that the exodus north was by no means universal. Plenty of people stayed behind in Mississippi. Some, like Burnside himself, moved north but didn't like it and so went home to drive tractors. These people didn't give up their culture and traditions, but neither did they preserve them in stone. They bought electric guitars, and John Lee Hooker records and listened to the radio and learnt off their neighbours and went largely unnoticed by everyone in the outside world who were too busy listening to Stevie Ray and Buddy Guy as the people of North Mississippi created the trance-like dirty, wonderful blues music that I first discovered as I listened to that R.L. Burnside CD.
So Miles Davis was just a fad for me. In the next couple of years I'd resumed playing the harmonica, taken up guitar and started learning Son House slide licks. Almost ten years on and I've been working steadily as a musician for a little over three years, and I'm desperate to give up the day job. I've done my share of drifting, but I like to think that moment, when I first fell back into love with blues music was the first step on the road to where I am now.
I wrote this last month, after watching C.W. Stoneking's gig in Birmingham. I'd submitted it to a blues publication, but since it doesn't appear to have gone in, I thought I'd share it here. Hope this is of interest to some of you :-)
C.W. Stoneking & the Primitive Horn Orchestra, at the O2 academy, Birmingham 1/9/10
It’s Birmingham on a Wednesday evening and the yellow sun casts an autumnal glow over the locked up industrial units that line the Queensway dual carriageway. With the hum of traffic, and wafting smells of Indian takeaways and kebab houses this really couldn’t feel more like the English Midlands in the twenty-first century. An hour later. Searing horns, scratchy banjo and it’s New Orleans in nineteen ten. Mr C.W. Stoneking, renowned composer of blues, hokum and jungle music is in town.
To say that seeing this branch of music revived looked unlikely would be an understatement. An Australian in his mid-thirties Stoneking offers a broad pastiche of various pre-war second world war genres, drawing on the cartoonish hokum blues of the American deep south medicine shows and the Calypso of Trinidad along with the more widely known music of the Mississippi delta and New Orleans. Blending these influences with his own somewhat offbeat humour, and his semi-fictional back story he produces a music that’s very much his own and yet never sounds a day younger than the Marshall Plan. Touring with his backing band The Primitive Horn Orchestra to promote the official European release of his second album ‘Jungle Blues’ (although those of us in the know have had the Australian import for months) he’s drawn around forty people to the tiny 3rd venue at the O2 academy. There’s no support act, so at around five minutes past nine the man himself takes to the stage. Dressed strikingly in white linen, with a red bowtie and brylcreem hair, CW himself looks very much the part, while the Primitive Horns in jeans and crumpled shirts, look much more like the kind of musicians one imagines more often grace this stage.
The front-man swaps between a steel resonator guitar and an open backed four-string banjo, and sings in a graceful, gravely mumble that sounds forced, until you hear his identical speaking voice. He plays for a little over an hour, interspersing band numbers with solo material. Well thought out arrangements make excellent use of the band, with the trombone (played by Kynan Robinson) and cornet (Stephen Grant) playing in unison, or weaving in and out of each other as appropriate. The rhythm section comprises a tuba (James Clark), sometimes swapped for a double bass and a mismatched battered looking drum kit, which looks as if it has been rescued from a variety of skips over a number of years and is expertly worked by Ollie Brown, mostly with felt mallets rather than sticks and sounding more like orchestral percussion than the simple timekeeping device of the modern rock band. With a touch of theatre clearly borrowed from the medicine show, songs begin with faked crowd noise, conversations recounted by C.W. in barely-differing voices, or even a ship’s fog-horn.
The evening ambles along at a gentle mid-paced tempo. Although most of the carefully crafted material has an upbeat, cheery edge to it, there’s no easy-to-dance-to barnstormers thrown in. You almost feel they wouldn’t be authentic enough.
The highlight of the evening is the dark & atmospheric, ‘Don’t Go Dancing Down the Darktown Strutter’s Ball’ which is introduced with a rambling humorous anecdote about Stoneking’s time living in New Orleans, working as an assistant to a Hoodoo witchdoctor (strangely omitted from his official biography, almost as if he was making it up). He starts the tune alone accompanying himself with a delicate banjo line, and around the second chorus the band emerge on stage and fill the sound with some beautiful haunting brass lines.
An encore of a Big Bill Broonzy number sees the band pick up the pace and then C.W. is out in the crowd, signing records and shaking hands next to the digital mixing desk and blue neon bar, like some Mississippi paddleboat band-leader thrown forward in time a hundred years and suddenly seeming totally out of place. To see a new act taking inspiration from such unusual and largely forgotten branches of music was a surprise, but to see it executed so well is remarkable.