Blues At The Crossroads What form will America's indigenous music take in the 21st century?

Blues At The Crossroads What form will America's indigenous music take in the 21st century?
On a frigid night late last December, the familiar howl of Mississippi Delta blues was heard within the upscale confines of Toronto’s premier acoustic music venue, Hugh’s Room. At a casual glance, the performer seemed to perfectly fit the image of what most people would call a bluesman — a stereotype that has been a part of popular culture since young middle-class white audiences "discovered” the blues in the 1950s. But at age 92, popular culture is a concept that David "Honeyboy” Edwards never fully grasped. True, his smart, Navajo-print shirt and matching flat-brim hat suggested he recently took wardrobe advice from someone, but as he barrelled through his set of simple, common blues variations, it was soon evident that the packed house consisting of mostly middle-aged white men (picture a roomful of Steve Buscemis from Ghost World) was there to connect to a small piece of modern mythology more than anything else.

The fact is that Honeyboy Edwards is among the last of a dying breed, and surely the most well-known, having been a contemporary of Robert Johnson’s, and allegedly present on the night in 1938 when Johnson drank the poison whiskey that would forever cement his status as the bridge between the blues’ primitive origins and its modern evolution. Like others who have had their careers essentially built upon the foundation of Johnson’s legend, Edwards has been served well over the years by the undiminished loyalty of blues aficionados. Yet, the unstoppable march of time means that a major chapter in the story of the blues has been reaching its conclusion this decade as artists such as Edwards pass on, taking with them techniques conjured through an unimaginable (by today’s standards) absence of outside influences.

Of course, the blues could not have survived this long without adapting to change — its seamless transition into rock’n’roll being the most obvious example. Still, as blues eventually became as personalised a musical form as modern jazz, the battles over what was "pure” or "authentic,” and what was considered little more than outright thievery, raged among fans and critics. While some of these arguments may never be resolved, the fact that the White Stripes and other young blues-based bands can trace their lineage back to Son House via Led Zeppelin speaks volumes about how the music of Honeyboy Edwards’ time has continually transcended notions of authenticity. Fortunately, having him around for the time being provides an important reference point, but the question remains as to whether his music will remain a reference point in the future, or will the blues ultimately retain its popularity in another guise?

This guise has begun to reveal itself not only through bands like the White Stripes, but more prominently in their fellow two-piece rivals the Black Keys and others that have consciously shed the "guitar hero” approach epitomised by Stevie Ray Vaughan during the last great mainstream blues resurgence of the 1980s, remnants of which still exist in countless bars around the world where tortuous versions of "Red House” and "Sweet Home Chicago” are mandatory during any given weekend jam session.

Instead, many members of this new blues school were drawn in by the heavy beat and groove-driven sound that was introduced to most ears for the first time by Fat Possum Records of Oxford, Mississippi, beginning with its first release in 1992. From there, the label quickly made unlikely international stars out of a roster consisting of aging artists from the immediate surrounding area, most of whom had rarely, if ever, recorded their music before. Chief among them were R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough who, despite having markedly different styles, exemplified for many the essence of Mississippi blues culture in a contemporary context. And as has been the case throughout blues history, these recordings inevitably had a crossover impact with white musicians, becoming a major touchstone for bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the North Mississippi Allstars.

That exchange was not lost on Fat Possum’s young, white founder Matthew Johnson who, with Burnside in particular, attempted to branch out by adding samples and other hip-hop elements to his records, raising the ire of blues purists in the process. Yet for Johnson, such a decision seemed as crucial to the survival of both the label and its individual artists, as much as it was a musical statement. "I think the stereotypical image of a record guy, especially a white guy, running a blues label is, ‘oh, he’s ripping them off,’” Johnson stated in the 2003 Fat Possum documentary You See Me Laughin’. "In all fairness, the record industry, like any other part of capitalism, is somewhat based on the exploitation of others. There hasn’t ever been a lot of money, except with R.L. Burnside. A successful record for us would be a horrible failure for anyone else in the music business.” He added presciently, "There are not enough purists around to support a company that just makes records that all sound like they were done in 1931. We’ve got to somehow take what we think is the spirit and integrity of blues and bring it into this century.”

This approach did ultimately keep Fat Possum afloat, although Johnson intrinsically knew it was a race against time to make all the records he hoped to. Kimbrough’s death in 1998 was the first clear sign of how fragile the label’s roster was, and Burnside’s passing in 2005 seemed in many ways the end of the last great push to bring traditional blues artists to the mainstream. Although Fat Possum continues to work with a handful of blues and soul artists, it has been steadily shifting its focus to rock by working with the likes of Paul Westerberg and the reunited Dinosaur Jr., as well as obtaining American rights this year to Hayden’s latest album, In Field & Town. Perhaps more significantly, the label has begun attempting to break new bands, among them the Fiery Furnaces, the Heartless Bastards, and Thee Shams. One of the first bands to cross the age barrier at Fat Possum was the Black Keys, who signed in 2003 for their sophomore effort Thickfreakness. However, they had already made a mark the year before with their debut album, The Big Come Up, released on L.A.-based label Alive Records. Although largely an offshoot of the late garage rock guru Greg Shaw’s Bomp! label, the success of the Black Keys quickly opened Alive founder Patrick Boissel’s ears to other young bands from the Midwest playing their own version of blues. Alive’s roster now includes other guitar/drum duos such as Black Diamond Heavies and Left Lane Cruiser, along with Detroit raw soul singer Nathaniel Mayer, who jumped ship from Fat Possum last year for Why Don’t You Give It To Me, which prominently featured the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.

Boissel had been navigating his way through the treacherous indie music waters before he started Alive shortly after Fat Possum came on the scene, but freely admits that the label didn’t find a real identity until The Big Come Up. "I’d say that my approach was probably more philosophical than musical,” he says. "I like roots-based rock’n’roll, but I also like punk rock, psychedelia, pop, and new wave too. It’s all part of the dysfunctional rock’n’roll family as far as I’m concerned. I thought the Black Keys were brilliant as soon as I heard their demo. You immediately felt that you were listening to something special although I didn’t know they were going to do as well as they have done. It didn’t take long after that to realize that many of the bands that started approaching us had bought The Big Come Up and were also fans of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.”

If there is one rallying point for these bands, Boissel suggests it’s superfan Rick Saunders, whose second annual Deep Blues Festival takes place the weekend of July 18 in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, and features 96 acts ranging from Fat Possum mainstay T-Model Ford, to well-known one-man-bands Bob Log III and Scott H. Biram. Boissel says Saunders has done more than probably anyone in terms of trying to establish a kind of "new blues” movement, mostly by extolling a wide range of blues-based artists on his various online outlets, all the while avoiding any cultural or racial distinctions that have tended to define blues in the past. In Saunders’ words, all that’s required for inclusion is a sound that’s "greasy hot, shaved dry, and crazier than your methed-up ex-girlfriend.” Boissel concurs that these traits are all he himself primarily looks for in new bands to work with, although he elaborates by saying, "I’m not a fan of the ‘white boy blues’ term. White boys don’t have much to be blue about, if you know what I mean. In my view, fans today only seem interested in it on purely musical terms. Mainstream blues is mostly boring; it’s music for Hollywood movie stars to massacre. Son House and Charley Patton sound real; their music is born out of life experiences. You can’t sell beer with it and you shouldn’t.”

Such an attitude seems perfectly suited to Canada, where our blues musicians — while often praised for their "authenticity” — have never received the same respect as their American counterparts, largely due to their heritage. However, one band that has become perfectly at home within this new blues scene is Winnipeg’s the Perpetrators. After several years of playing their hometown circuit, where they would often back up visiting luminaries like Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin and Fat Possum artist Paul "Wine” Jones, the trio finally hit the national touring scene in a big way in 2007 with their excellent third album, Tow Truck, promoted quite correctly as "blues for people who hate blues.” Guitarist/singer Jay Nowicki says that the band’s vision has always been clear; that playing blues in their own style — and more importantly, writing their own material — is the best way to pay tribute to their heroes. "The first music I listened to as a teenager was metal, and that led to Zeppelin and AC/DC, which I didn’t realise at the time was just amped-up blues,” Nowicki says. "Then my older brother played me the first Johnny Winter album, and that led back to Muddy Waters. But I’d say what really hooked me were Hound Dog Taylor’s albums on Alligator. They were just so raw and nasty, that almost right away the band I was in ditched all of our songs and started to try to play blues in that style.”

He adds, "It took a long time after that to feel confident performing my own songs, probably right up until we formed the Perpetrators. But we just decided right off the bat that we didn’t want to completely shut out any of our other influences, whether it’s Public Enemy or Hank Williams. I mean, I can say that Tow Truck was pretty all over the map, but we can’t pretend to be something we’re not. We were more concerned about having blues fans get what we were doing when we made our first album. But then the Fat Possum thing really blew up around that time and attracted a whole new audience that couldn’t give a shit about some blues legend’s latest release with ten special guests on it. It made us feel good to know there were still people like us who believed that the heart and soul of blues is dirty, nasty and raw, as opposed to just showing off your skill.”

While it is fair to say that most of the current generation of blues musicians like Nowicki came to the music through what is now labelled classic rock, a few did bypass it completely and went straight to the source. Case in point is multi-talented Toronto pianist/guitarist/singer Julian Fauth, whose devotion to the rough-edged barrelhouse styles of the 1920s and ‘30s has kept him largely under the radar in terms of mainstream acceptance, yet with each release he is fast becoming one of the most compelling voices within the Canadian blues scene. Fauth’s new album, Ramblin’ Son, is yet another shining example of his effortless ability to mix the past and present in his songwriting, a trait he has been perfecting ever since becoming entranced at age six by a compilation album featuring Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, and Lightning Hopkins. Not long after, Fauth gravitated to the piano and started imitating Memphis Slim. Yet, once becoming proficient under the wing of mentors such as Mel Brown, Fauth immediately shifted to putting his own stamp on the music. He admits it’s an ongoing challenge, but one he has unflinchingly embraced.

"Part of the dilemma of doing blues is that it comes from a particular historical context, and that context now is no longer early 20th century black America,” he says. "So, in a way, the era of classic blues is over. But to me, the quality of singers at that time has never been surpassed, and I think that’s what’s kept me hooked on blues for so long. With my own songs, I try to build on that tradition without repeating it. Sometimes I play around with the standard musical structures, but most of the time I try to write lyrics that talk about contemporary situations.”

Still, most of Fauth’s best songs, like "Winter Of ’99,” and "You Can’t Choose The World You Live In” from his previous album Songs Of Vice And Sorrow, sound utterly timeless, much like the songs that inspired him. He agrees that the simplicity and directness of that era’s music is partly responsible for its rediscovery by so many in recent years. "In a way there was more variety back then, mainly because blues became relatively more commercialised in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Fauth says. "That variety tends to make some of that music more adaptable to today’s sensibilities, but it also seems to appeal to current audiences who probably don’t want to just keep hearing the same stuff over and over again.

"The other aspect may be that the 1930s was the time of the Great Depression, and now we might be heading into another one. Along with that economic uncertainty comes a lot of other anxieties, so people might be subconsciously relating to the music on that level. Pre-war blues didn’t always address those issues literally, but the tone always suggested it, whereas post-war blues was made during a time of prosperity and often was lacking some of those qualities.” Of course, in some areas of the U.S., the effects of the Great Depression were never fully overcome, especially in the cradle of the blues — Mississippi and Louisiana — struggles that were recently compounded by the impact of Hurricane Katrina. While that disaster shed some long overdue light on the struggles of musicians in that region, at least one organisation was already aware of the plight that aging rural blues artists faced, and in the process of providing them some much-needed financial assistance, was bent on bringing their music to wider audiences for the first time, although in a much different way than Fat Possum.

Tim Duffy started the non-profit Music Maker Relief Foundation in the early ’90s after befriending many little-known blues artists living in the vicinity of his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A list of high-profile donors that included Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Taj Mahal put the foundation on solid ground after several years, allowing Duffy to embark on his true mission, to have his artists make records and support themselves. Although this egalitarian approach hasn’t given Music Maker the same profile as Fat Possum, Duffy (who sold Matthew Johnson the collection of 1960s field recordings by archivist George Mitchell that Fat Possum subsequently released) says he is more concerned about preserving a musical culture that he believes still has much to offer.

"The white bourgeois critics of the ‘60s were proclaiming that country blues was dead when guys like Mississippi John Hurt and Son House passed away, so there weren’t many people out there looking for these artists after that,” Duffy says. "But when I was introduced to this unseen world of about 30 musicians just near where I lived in North Carolina, it made me realize that even though musicians die, the music never does. These were guys who played these often really archaic and personal styles, and I immediately saw that my task was to make sure that this stuff was passed on.”

Once word started circulating of Duffy’s field recordings, he began receiving scores of tips from outside his region until he says he had much more than he could handle. Still, he remained committed to follow up on as many of them as he could. "I can count on two hands the number of people like me in the last hundred years that have taken this stuff seriously,” he says. "It takes a lot of time and expertise to find these artists. Most of them live in places and parts of cities where people don’t care or don’t understand the importance of this music, and I just feel that at the very least these musicians deserve to live with a little dignity. We’ve tried to instil a new model of developing lifelong relationships with our artists, not just record them, pay them a little money for it, and go away. Whenever our artists make a record or play a show, they keep all the money.”

Although Duffy has indeed helped give musicians like Birmingham, Alabama native Adolphus Bell more exposure (and money) than they have ever dreamed of by touring the world, the other side benefit of Music Maker has been the interest it has generated in younger musicians to explore their roots. In fact, the act associated with the foundation currently getting the most attention is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, comprised of three 20-somethings who assembled under the tutelage of Joe Thompson, said to be one of the last practitioners of the string band sound specific to the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The group’s 2007 album, Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind, was an instant hit among both blues and folk fans, and led to them having several songs included on the soundtrack for Denzel Washington’s film The Great Debaters.

With an audience for this music still out there, it begs for the possibility of Duffy organising a kind of Buena Vista Social Club-style show with his artists. He’s says it’s already happening on a small scale through the foundation’s annual tours of Europe, Australia, and South America, but it’s the kind of thing he’s doubtful would ever take off at home. "The difference with Buena Vista Social Club was that it was about music basically cut off from the rest of the world, and that was a big part of its appeal,” Duffy says. "The problem with country blues is that there’s never really been a big audience for it. Most of the time it takes a brilliant idea like getting Jon Spencer to record with R.L. Burnside to get people interested, so we just keep pushing ahead and try to make the most of all the opportunities that are presented to us.” While Duffy is realistic in knowing that, as with Fat Possum, running Music Maker will inevitably have to change in accordance with the different artists the foundation will come to represent in the future, he is sure that others will also continue the spirit of discovering and reinvigorating music that most people have long forgotten about, unbelievable as it may seem today.

"It’s like, in 1960, Sam Cooke was pop music, and now that’s considered folk music,” Duffy says. "It’s just a matter of perspective. I can totally conceive of someone writing 50 years from now asking why Music Maker put out a hundred records and none of them were by the unknown rap artists living in North Carolina. Believe me, someday there are going to be people searching out all the great undiscovered rappers from today and wanting to make records with them, and by then it’s going to be considered folk music. It all comes full circle eventually.”