Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chasin' That Devil Music

I've just recently finished reading a book entitled "Chasin' That Devil Music" by Gayle Dean Wardlow. Anyone who has ever read a book on the subject of blues history, at some point, has heard his name pop up.

Gayle Dean Wardlow was born on August 31st in Freer, Texas. At the age of 6 he moved to Meridian, Mississippi where he grew up and became interested in collecting old records. He originally sought out rare blues recordings to trade and acquire country and hillbilly discs.

Fortunately for blues fans the world over, Wardlow began to focus on blues recordings and investigating the lives of Mississippi blues musicians. He has since become one if not the most important blues researchers in the world. His investigations into the lives of blues legends like Charlie Patton and H.C. Speir have cemented his place as one of the world's leading authorities on country blues. One of his most illustrious discoveries is the uncovering of Robert Johnson's death certificate. Simply put, if not for his meticulous research and countless interviews with people like Ishmon Bracey, a great deal of the knowledge we have about the pioneers of blues music would likely have been lost forever.

"Chasin' That Devil Music" is a collection of articles Wardlow has written since the sixties for magazines such as Blues Unlimited, Living Blues, 78 Quarterly and Guitar Player.

If you're looking to read a blues history with a comprehensive narrative, this might not be the book for you. For that I recommend "Delta Blues" by Ted Gioia, or the blues lover's bible, "Deep Blues" by Robert Palmer. This book is about blues research and it reads as such. Wardlow's writing style is nothing close to approaching lyrical, it's plain and to the point. Many of the articles are about obscure musicians that might not be of interest to the casual blues fan. This stuff is 100% proof rotgut. The real deal.

Although some of the articles seem esoteric, many are enormously entertaining and informative. For me the highlights of this book are the pieces on Patton(actually written by Benard Klatzko with GDW), H.C Speir, Tommy Johnson, Blind Joe Reynolds and last but not least, Robert Johnson.

Also included in this book is an audio CD of over 20 great delta blues performances, as well as clips from interviews Wardlow conducted as part of his research. Most of the tracks are from Wardlow's very own collection and serve as a great companion to the reading materials. Well worth the price of the book itself.

I recommend this book to anyone who is seriously seeking to learn about the history of this great music. The importance of Wardlow's research in this field cannot be overstated. In fact, in 2006, "Chasin' That Devil Music" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall Of Fame as a classic of blues literature. Good enough for me...I'm sold.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Tale Both Old and New

The blues genre is filled with fantastical and colourful characters. Some are so fantastical they enter the realm of myth.

Most people- blues fans and non blues fans alike- are familiar with the mythology that surrounds Robert Johnson and his famous midnight rendezvous at the crossroads with the devil himself. His subsequent rise to blues legend and the circumstances surrounding his mysterious death are still debated today. Was he poisoned –down on all fours and barking like a dog? Had the devil come to collect his due? It’s the stuff of Hollywood movies.

As it turns out Robert Johnson wasn’t the only name scratched on the Satan’s calendar. Long before Robert Johnson’s nefarious meeting, blues pioneer Tommy Johnson (no relation) claimed to have gone to a crossroads a little before midnight. He'd been playing for a short time when a large black man walked and took his guitar, tuned it, then gave it back. For the mastery of the guitar Tommy had given up his everlasting soul.

Beyond the mythology however is a very real and human story of self destruction. Johnson’s story wouldn’t seem out of place in modern entertainment tabloids. Everyday we hear of talented musician’s hell bent on self destruction. One only need point to Amy Winehouse and her current struggles or the tragic lives of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain or Shannon Hoon. The list goes on.

One of my favorite Delta blues songs has always been “Canned Heat Blues” by Tommy Johnson. I really had no idea what it was about or what the title refers to. I just dug the quirky groove. Other than in reference to the sixties blues/rock band -I had never even heard the term used before.

As my interest in Blues music grew over the years I began to read more about it. I eventually learned that “Canned Heat“ was the end result of a process of straining the alcohol out of the popular portable cooking fuel Sterno. This was a common and potentially lethal practice amongst the harder-living men of Prohibition times.

If the Devil came to collect his due from Johnson- he did it in a slow and torturous fashion. The songs “Canned Heat Blues” and “Alcohol and Jake Blues” are testaments to that. They are agonizing howls from a man in the cast-iron grip of alcohol addiction. Johnson’s alcoholism was so absolute he was also known to drink Bay Rum(aftershave), shoe polish and Solo(paint thinners). Ledell Johnson, in an interview with Gayle Dean Wardlow, said this of his brother
"Tom, he was already embalmed before he died.

Ishmon Bracey a former blues musician turned minister and contemporary of Johnson, tells a heart-wrenching story of the last time he saw Johnson alive (audio clip below). Bracey’s story of redemption would not to be Tommy’s to share unfortunately. Tommy Johnson died on November 1st, 1956.

(Audio clip from companion CD/"Chasin'That Devil Music" by Gayle Dean Wardlow)

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