Category Archive 'Blues'

07 Apr 2023

Long-Delayed Robert Johnson Bio Published This Tuesday

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Ted Gioia has big news for Blues fans.

A scandal is taking place in American music this week. And it’s all about a book written 50 years ago—and finally published on Tuesday.

The release of this work has set off arguments that, I suspect, will continue for decades to come.

The book is the long awaited biography of blues legend Robert Johnson by the late Robert ‘Mack’ McCormick (1930-2015). Ever since it was announced a half century ago, this work has been eagerly anticipated by blues fans and music scholars—who hoped it would solve all the mysteries surrounding the most enigmatic figure in twentieth century American music.

Robert Johnson (1911-1938) profoundly influenced later generations of blues, rock, and folk performers—impacting everybody from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones. But what little we knew about his own life was more legend than reality. We heard crazy stories about him selling his soul to the devil, or showing up in unlikely cities under assumed names, or finally getting poisoned by a jealous husband who literally got away with murder in the racist South.

But it was hard to know what was true and what merely rumor or conjecture—until McCormick started making lengthy field trips into Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and elsewhere, going anywhere or everywhere even a speck of information might be found. While others speculated about Robert Johnson, McCormick was determined to uncover the truth—at whatever the cost.

He did most of this work in the 1960s and early 1970s—starting at a time when professors and career musicologists had little interest in undertaking this kind of laborious research into the origins of the Delta blues. The people doing the work were mostly blues fans like McCormick, and there weren’t many of them. But he was on a mission—almost like those ludicrous Blues Brothers in the movie of the same name—and through sheer bloody persistence eventually tracked down numerous people who knew the legendary musician back in the 1920s and 1930s.

By the time Mack was done, he had collected a whole archive of information from musicians, family, friends, and more than a dozen people who had witnessed or known of that fateful night when the famous guitarist stood up at his last gig, and announced “I’ve been poisoned”—and then fell to the ground.

McCormick began work on his definitive book, which he called Biography of a Phantom. It was a suitable name—because Robert Johnson was a phantom to almost everybody except McCormick himself, who had finally put together all the pieces of an amazing life story.

But the book didn’t appear in the 1970s, despite the author’s grand claims. Nor did it get published in the 1980s or 1990s or at any point in McCormick’s lifetime.
I never thought this book was show up my shelf—but here it is.

Finally, after the author’s death, his huge personal archive—known as “The Monster” because of its massive size—got acquired by the Smithsonian. This stash, which had previously filled the nooks and crannies of McCormick’s Houston home, included recordings, photographs, field notes, and various manuscripts, including different versions of the unpublished Robert Johnson bio.

In the aftermath, the decision was made to publish an early draft of the manuscript. And when it came out on Tuesday, all hell broke loose—at least in the world of blues research and American music history.



27 Aug 2022

Nina Simone — “Gin House Blues”

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Stay away from me
‘Cause I’m in my sin
Stay away from me everybody
‘Cause I’m in my sin

If this joint is raided
Somebody give me my gin
Don’t try me nobody
‘Cause you will never win

Mm, yeah, don’t try me nobody
‘Cause you will never win
I’ll fight the army and navy
Somebody gives me my gin

When I’m feeling high
I don’t have nothing to do
Oh, when I’m feeling high
I don’t have nothing to do
Just fill me full of good liquor
I’ll sure be nice to you

Any bootlegger show him
A pal of mine any old time
Any bootlegger show him
A pal of mine
‘Cause a good bottle of gin
Will get it every time

Lord, I don’t want no clothes
I don’t even want no bed
To lay my head
I don’t want no clothes
I don’t even want no bed
To lay my head
I don’t want no pork chops and green
Just give me gin instead

Oh, oh, stay away from me
‘Cause I’m in my sin
Oh, oh, stay away from me yeah
Everybody ‘cos I’m in my sin
If this joint is raided
Somebody give me my gin
Somebody give me my gin

08 Jun 2022

The Greatest Collector of Old 78s

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The Washington Post interviews the greatest collector of American roots music on 78 rpm recordings: Blues, Jazz, Country.

FREDERICK, Md. — Joe Bussard stood on the driveway of his home here near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and glared at a noisy crow perched atop a nearby pine tree. Tall and gaunt with white hair, he wore black sweatpants held up by suspenders, a blue flannel shirt, brown slippers and white socks. He looked all of his 85 years.

“Damn bird,” he muttered. Then he craned his head and hollered.


The startled crow flew away, and Bussard cackled.

“He don’t know what to think of me,” Bussard said, laughing again.

Join the crowd, crow. People have been not knowing what to think about Bussard for decades. His singular obsession has entranced some and baffled others. If you weren’t interested in his passion, Bussard probably wasn’t much interested in you.

He turned and shuffled back inside, through his cluttered garage, past his bedroom that he heats in winter with a wood-fired stove and down the creaky steps to the basement where the treasure is stored.

Since the early 1950s, Bussard (“Everybody thinks it’s pronounced ‘buzzard,’ but it’s Boosard,” he says) has been acquiring 78 rpm recordings of the earliest and rarest examples of blues, bluegrass, jazz, country and gospel music. The collection of discs he has amassed is considered by many fellow collectors as one of the finest and most eclectic of early American roots music in the country. In the basement of his unassuming home, some 15,000 records fill the shelves.

In the world that pays attention to these things, Bussard’s treasure is legendary. Filmmakers have made documentaries about him. Writers have paid homage. Fans and musicians from all over the country have journeyed here just to see the records and listen to Bussard tell how he traveled the back roads of Appalachia and the South to find them. And they come to hear the songs.

But in recent years, as Bussard has gotten older, the fans and musicologists have had questions. Is there a plan for the collection? Has he even thought about it?

Looking for a record on the shelves in his lair, Bussard doesn’t want to hear that kind of talk right now. “Aw hell, I don’t know,” he says, waving his hand dismissively. He’d rather play some music for a visitor.

“Oh my gawd, listen to this,” he says in his thick rural Maryland accent as he gently lowers the needle on a 1929 recording “Wolves Howling” by the Stripling Brothers. “This is the most beautiful sound of a fiddle I ever heard in my life.”

In his basement, time has stopped. There are no computers, no flat-screen televisions. Other than two newer turntables, there’s almost nothing that looks like it was made in the past 50 years. There’s a 300-pound speaker cabinet he bought in 1960, photos on the wall from the ’50s, and rows and rows of records from the ’40s, ’30s and ’20s.

Bussard’s collection “is almost mystical,” says Ken Brooks, a fellow 78 collector who first learned about Bussard when he watched “Desperate Man Blues” a 2003 BBC documentary about him. “It’s so deep and wide. He has blues records that nobody else has. Country records that no one else has. Jazz records that no one else has.”

In the book of Bussard, the spirit and soul and depth of American music can only be heard on the oldest 78s.

Modern music, he’ll tell you often, is ‘awwful, just awwful.” And by modern, he means anything since Elvis Presley and the Beatles and “all that crap” destroyed music altogether. For Bussard, real jazz ended in 1933. And the last good country song was Jimmy Murphy’s “I’m Looking for a Mustard Patch” in 1955.

Before being overwhelmed by vinyl records in the 1950s, 78s were the way most people listened to recorded music in their homes other than on the radio. Typically 10 inches in diameter, three and a half minutes a side and made of shellac, the records are called 78s because of the number of revolutions per minute the disc makes.

In his basement redoubt, Bussard walks over to his wall of records to make another selection. The records are all in identical faded green sleeves with no marking to differentiate them. They are not ordered alphabetically or by year or by label. Only he knows the system.

“If I get Alzheimer’s, I’m really in trouble,” Bussard says.

He pulls another record from the shelf — “Death May Be Your Paycheck,” by F.W. McGee, recorded in 1928 on Victor — and flashes a wicked smile. “Wait till you hear this.”
In the basement of his Frederick, Md. home, Joe Bussard, 85, plays a 78 rpm recording from 1936 of “Everybody Ought To Pray Some Time.” (Video: Joe Heim/The Washington Post)

Wait till you hear this. It’s Bussard’s mantra.

What he wants, more than anything, is for people to listen to the far-flung, wild, beautiful music found in America before recordings became commonplace and swallowed up regional idiosyncrasies. He wants people to hear the music created before vinyl, before 8-tracks, before cassettes, before CDs, before one-stop shopping on Spotify.

“Wait till you hear this,” he says and puts on Jesse Stone’s “Starvation Blues” from 1927. And then it’s “Florida Rhythm” by the Ross De Luxe Syncopaters. And “It’s a Good Thing” by the Beale Street Sheiks. And “Original Stack O’ Lee Blues” by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull.

And on and on and on.


HT: John W. Brewer.

24 Apr 2018

Blues from Timbuktu?

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Ali Farka Tour̩ with Ry Cooder РAi Du

Martin Scorsese included Ali Farka Touré in the first episode of his Blues: A Musical Journey documentary, Feel Like Going Home, identifying Touré’s music as the “DNA of the blues.” And Dan Melnik blows a gasket:

[Y]ou wouldn’t refer to Robert Johnson’s music as southern rock and roll, Touré’s music is not desert blues. It’s Malian music with deep roots in the musical culture of his home country.

The music that Touré drew from predates the modern blues by over a thousand years. To equate it with a more familiar, more American style of music is to marginalize it. That comparison robs us of any chance to explore the older musical traditions less familiar to people outside of Africa. …

Touré’s collaborations with Malian griot Toumani Diabaté are more instructive around where his music comes from. Diabaté plays the 21-stringed kora, providing a historical lineage of stringed instrument music in Mali.

So much of Touré’s guitar music is there: the drones, the hypnotic repeating patterns, all of it accented by grandiose flourishes. …

Niafunké, the town in Mali that Touré called home, is in the middle of the landlocked country. The capital Bamako is in the southwest, and farther north and east you get into Saharan Africa. It is a cultural crossroads, something reflected in the many languages of Touré’s music: Songhay, Fulfulde, Tamasheq, and most commonly, Bambara.

In Touré’s electric music you can hear pieces of the Tuareg style that came into popular US consciousness with the rise of the band Tinariwen.


02 Sep 2016

Johnny Cash: Delia’s Gone

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Hat tip to Fred Lapides.

02 Jul 2013

Subterranean Snowden Blues

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WilliamBanzai7 at Zero Hedge:



Snowden’s in the basement
Surfing on the Internet
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the gubmint
The spook in the trench coat
Kicked out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants his mortgage paid off
Ya better look out kid
It was somethin you did
God knows when
But they’ll Google you again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend
A man in a coolie cap
In a pawn pen
Wants eleven eleven dollar bills
you only got ten.
Greenie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in his bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Guardian says that many say
They wanna break it late May
Orders from the NSA are in
You better look out kid
Don’t matter what you say they did
You gonna get hit
You walkin on your tip toes
Don’t try, ‘No Doz’
Stay away from the
suckers with the fiber optic fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.

Hat tip to Jim Harberson.

01 Jan 2013

“St. James Infirmary Blues” in Betty Boop Cartoon

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Cab Calloway provided Koko the Clown’s performance in this early 1930s Betty Boop version of Snow White.

Hat tip to Tessa Helm.

18 Sep 2012

“Why Do You Like Obama?”

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Oscar E. forwarded this excellent Blues song.

21 May 2012

Misissippi Fife and Drum Blues

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The New York Times attends a very special event in rural Mississippi.

Tamke and I are at the annual Otha Turner Family Picnic, a legendary jam session that takes place every summer behind a tumbledown sharecropper’s shack deep in Mississippi’s hill country. The interracial crowd is a few hundred strong and drawn from nearly every stratum of local life — bikers, college kids, workingmen, toughs, gentlemen farmers. And then there are a couple dozen like me: urban cosmopolites eager to hear the deepest roots of the blues. Tamke calls himself “a redneck,” and he’s attacked me because I’m from The New York Times. Shouting into my ear over the music, Tamke makes me his megaphone for what he wants the outside world to know: “Our races have melded together, we share everything,” he says, voice trembling. “We love each other.” He’s squeezing my skull so hard it feels like it might pop, and it’s clear that he’s under the influence of something very powerful. The moonshine or the music, I don’t know. Finally, when it seems something is about to crack — my neck, or Tamke’s tenuous hold on sanity, or both — he lets me go. “It’s sacred,” he says, choking up. “It’s ancient, man.”

“It” is fife and drum, an African take on colonial English marching songs, and one of the oldest forms of distinctly American music, played by the slaves of Jefferson’s Monticello and still played today — by one family, once a year, at this, one of the last of the traditional farm picnics celebrating the end of the growing season.

Hat tip to Tom Weil.

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