Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Writing The Lowdown Blues

To me the best blues songs are those that really tell a story; sorta flash fiction if you will-or autobiographically related. Of course, most of the time it's hard to tell whether the tale spinner lived it, rubbed up against it, or imagined the whole thing. My favorite blues-smiths write such convincing slice of life moments that leaves me with the impression that they come from personal experience. Well, anyway, here's some guys that I feel conjure up the blues lyrics best and blow a mean blues harp while they're at it.

Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller)--Hands down, he's the best at the game. Whether he's lamenting having two fine chicks that live too close together, being caught by a woman's husband, being put out in nine below temperatures by his baby, or feeling the need to warn his woman to keep her hands out of his pockets; the rascal knew how to frame a blues song around those moments with loads of humor on display.

Rick Estrin--The first time I heard Little Charlie and the Nightcats, I thought of them as a novelty act, or a band that worked in modern day "hokum" blues, like Tampa Red did back in the day. Then, I really listened to them and realized the genius of Estrin's lyrical talent. His highly original songs instigate, investigate, and conjoles us to appreciate big women, to dump that chump, to understand that his money's green too, to accept that he ain't lyin', or to quit bragging. It doesn't matter if he's talking about poor Tarzan, his next ex-wife, or being twisted; he paints a vivid picture of life as he knows it and most of the time with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Who else would possibly describe being worn out and beat down as feeling like they were circling the drain.

James Harman--Runs neck and neck with Estrin in the department of originality and cleverness. Harman's songs probably come as close to a short story as one will get in the blues, and many of his albums are collections of those tales with a thematic element--life of a motel king, gambler, fine bbq aficionado, dangerous gentleman, and all-'round raconteur.
Juke Boy Bonner--No one captured Houston street life during the turbulent '60s like Weldon "Juke Boy" Bonner did while playing guitar, racked harmonica, and drums. He sang about struggles in Houston, about life being a nightmare, staying the hell off of Lyons avenue, and going back to the country (perhaps to his birthplace in Bellville).

Lightnin' Hopkins--I ran a bit of a review of Alan Grovenar's bio of Po' Lighntin' a few posts back and mentioned just how much it pointed out how influential he was, and is. Juke Boy certainly learned a trick or two from the Bard of The Third Ward. Ol' Sam spun topical tales at the drop of a hat, singing about hurricanes, twisters blowing his house away, every woman he courted, any man who done him wrong, mojo hands, good whiskey, bad whiskey, etc...Few human beings have yet to match the sheer output of his blues poetry.

Jimmy Reed--Gotta include the high and lonesome troubadour on any list mentioning blues songs. His songs were simple tales, but he got to the point with his stories of running, hiding, peeping, carrying insurance for a broken heart, dealing with the Big Bossman, while lamenting that bright lights took his baby away. His music found its way into a crossover market and represented some of the first blues many of us white boys heard back then.

Slim Harpo--Ditto for Slim Harpo. He had love if you wanted, was a self-professed King Bee, and quite the back scratcher. Those English fellows, led by Mick & Keef, gave his songs worldwide exposure. His grooves were filled with swamp gas. Lots of belt buckles were polished when he rained in his heart.

Charley Patton--He didn't blow harp, but certainly influenced Howlin' Wolf, who did. Patton was the banty rooster that he sang about and put a show for his audience, who could relate to him recalling high water everywhere, dry wells, running from the law, moon shining, saddling up his mare, and talking 'bout a spoonful. Patton had seeped deep into Howlin' Wolf's soul by the time he hit Chicago and started churning out hits based on songs by the "Father of the Delta Blues".

Willie Dixon--Had to include the big man. Can't begin to add up the number of songs that Dixon wrote for a stable full of harp players at Chess records. Everybody and their sisters, uncles, cousins or friends who play the blues play something written by Willie Dixon; most likely at every gig.  I don't believe he wrote what he lived or live what he wrote, but just wrote for the "hook" and he always seemed to come up with one. He wrote a few sappy songs, but most of what he fed Chess became instant blues classics.

Howlin' Wolf--Might as well throw in Big Foot Chester, because when he was doing Patton and before Dixon began pushing songs on him, he was already moanin' at midnight and wanting off the killing floor with some of the deepest blues ever put to record.

Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson)--I can't think of any harmonica player who hasn't covered a song by SBW I singing about a little school girl, coming to see him early in the morning, or getting sloppy drunk. He had quite the prolific blues pen and set the tone for harmonica players to follow.

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