The story of the blues

 NZ Listener

As bluesman Otis Spann once sang, "the blues never die". He might have added "they just go into advertising".

A century or so after the first blues were sung, the blues are everywhere. The old black bluesman in the dusty Mississippi delta landscape has become a stock commercial image, used to sell everything from Levi's to Pink Batts. As for the soundtrack, a few bars of bottleneck guitar or a wailing harmonica will quickly summon up those feelings frequently associated with the music and its practitioners: authenticity, rawness, survival, with just a slight edge of danger. Today this superficially simple musical form - twelve bars, three chords, with the third and seventh notes in the scale flattened or slurred - is inescapable. Blues licks make up the rock guitarist's basic vocabulary. The blues have been so thoroughly assimilated into pop music that today's singers bend notes and blend blues phrases without thinking about it.

The appropriation of the blues and its symbols began in the '60s with what has been termed 'the blues revival'. White middle-class youths from the university towns in the northern United States developed cultish fixations with recordings made by Mississippi bluesmen some 30 to 40 years earlier. A few headed south in the hunt for rare 78s, and in the process stumbled upon some of the actual men who had made the music. Bemused 'rediscoveries' with such exotic names as Son House and Sleepy John Estes were retrieved from impoverished rural circumstances to find late-life celebrity on the stages of folk festivals and coffee houses.

Bluesmania spread to Europe and even New Zealand, where distance made the music seem even more romantic. One bluesman seemed to hold a particular fascination for blues followers worldwide: Robert Johnson. One of the last pre-war delta players to record, he was a monster musician with a myth to match. He had died young - poisoned, they said, by a jealous girlfriend. His songs were filled with terrifying, semi-Biblical images of hellhounds and hailstorms, evil and retribution. His guitar playing was incomparable; delta people said he only got that good by selling his soul to the Devil. English blues aficionados Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones consolidated his legend by turning his songs "Crossroads" and "Love In Vain" into rock anthems. After his complete recordings were reissued on CD in 1990, he became a bona fide rock star with a platinum album, despite being dead for fifty years.

Young blacks didn't appear to want any part of the blues revival. The standard explanation, as offered by white musicologists, was that it reminded them too much of hard times, poverty and the past. Upward mobility meant turning ones back on the blues. Taj Mahal was that rare individual: a young black American playing the music of his delta forebears. (Ironically, after 35 years of singing the blues he is best known in New Zealand as the star of television's Just Juice commercials.) Five years ago I asked him if he was disappointed that the blues today was a largely white domain. He said: "Well I don't know if that's really true or not. I think there may be more younger white guys getting the big money and the promotion because of the inherent racism in the business. It's all about social status in terms of what they allow people to do." He then proceeded to list a dozen "wonderful young black musicians", including one Kevin Moore, who would release his debut album that year, giving his name the funkier phonetic spelling, Keb' Mo'. He has now made three albums, the second of which won a 1996 Grammy award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

Keb' Mo' doesn't come from the delta. He grew up in the poor Los Angeles suburb of Compton, better known for B-boys than bluesmen. (It was home to notorious gangsta-rappers Niggers With Attitiude.) Neither did he start out playing the blues. His early musical diet was '60s Motown and soul - Wilson Pickett, the Temptations, the Supremes, whatever he could find on the radio. "I very rarely bought a record. I had no money, no allowance. Any records that ended up in the house, that's what I listened to."

A decade ago he was running a small demo studio, writing his own songs with drum machines and programmed keyboards, yet still hadn't found a style that satisfied him. Then one day he heard a record by Big Bill Broonzy "and that did it. Just him playing a guitar. That blew my mind. I'd just done a big stint of working on a computer for about three years, doing midi tracks, and I was really ready to hear something that wasn't done on a computer. When I heard something really real, the blues, just a guy playing a guitar and no computer, I was like, 'Yeah!' I looked to just learn that style of music. And I started making my own records, selling cassettes. I really didn't want to sit around hoping and dreaming for a record deal, I didn't want to be motivated by that. I wanted to be motivated by the music. I'd be lying if I told you I didn't like making money. Everyone likes making money. But first things first."

Keb' Mo''s music isn't what the great bluesman Muddy Waters called "the deep blues". In many ways his mellow groove is a bluesier version of the singer-songwriter as defined by the likes of James Taylor and Jackson Browne. Though each of his albums has included at least one Robert Johnson song in which he can show off his muscular fretwork, he has none of Johnson's torment or hauntedness. As he sings in his own "Muddy Water": "I been down to the crossroads/And there ain't no Devil down there".

In the wake of Keb' Mo''s success, several other youngish black bluesmen have inked major label deals. There is Alvin Youngblood Hart, born in Oakland, California but relocated to the Arkansas hill country, whose Rastafarian appearance belies a stunning command of the arcane guitar styles of Leadbelly and Charley Patton. There is Corey Harris from Denver, Colorado, who traded in his teaching job for the hand-to-mouth life of a New Orleans street musician. And there is Eric Bibb, born in New York but longtime resident of Sweden, who resembles an old-time songster in his wide-ranging repertoire of blues, spirituals, folk songs and originals.

Does this mean there has been a change since Taj Mahal's pronouncement on the racism of the industry? Not necessarily. It's typical music biz practice that when one label strikes gold, the others go prospecting; witness the slew of white female singer-songwriters signed downstream of Alanis Morrisette. And when it comes to marketing, the Pink Batts principle is applied: if the image of an old-time southern bluesman helps shift units, then use it. In the case of Keb' Mo', his physical resemblance to Robert Johnson is exploited in moody, sepia-toned publicity shots and packaging.

Which is not to suggest there is necessarily anything fake about the music itself. Keb' Mo' and his peers have all produced fine and distinctive variations on the rural blues. They have been drawn by the power of the music, arranged and updated it to suit their individual needs and touched base with a part of their black heritage into the bargain. But like any white bluesman, the principle source of their knowledge is recordings. In the end, the only measure of authenticity must be the feeling and conviction in the performances.

Bill Lake, a local singer and guitarist who fell in love with and began playing the blues in the '60s, remembers: "The image promulgated was one of poverty and realness. It's now an undangerous image, rather like the image of old New Zealand that you see in ads - old blokes sitting on verandahs and running general stores. It's an unreal image. The only thing that's real is the music, which is where all the advertising falls over. All of us white kids fell in love with the music because it's so good. It had an image, but who knows? Maybe if it had been produced by, say, upper class Austrian Jews maybe we would have liked it just as much."

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