Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock and Roll Fan on a Blues Binge

I am a rock and roll fan, and, at times a jazz fan. For me, an important difference between jazz and rock is that to really enjoy most jazz I have to listen to it carefully. It demands attention. Good rock supports attention--it rewards thoughtful listening--but is designed for the nonesthetic moment. It provides me with pleasure while I'm driving or talking or reading the paper.

Blues, the source of both, demands more attention than rock and less than jazz. Amplified Chicago dance-bar blues and boogie-woogie piano are as lively and out-front as most rock, but those who complain that the music is monotonous aren't Philistines--they're simply not accustomed to concentrating on their music.

The genre is remarkably uniform, and it is never embellished with the kind of studio magic that makes most rock sound unique. A great blues artist like Robert Johnson invests the most primitive country form--A-A-B line structure, acoustic guitar accompaniment--with startling twists and turns, but in rock terms his variety is so subtle as to be almost inaudible.

I am not an expert on blues, or even a real blues fan. But I get a lot of blues records in the mail, and over the years I have invested some time in the music, literally learning how to like it. A lot of experience is there. This year, five different labels have released reissue series--Chess and Fantasy with series of specially priced two-record sets, Blue Horizon, King and Atlantic with single-album series--and I've gone on one of my binges. What follows is a brief recap of what I've picked up this time.

The best blues for rock fans is on Chess, which controlled Chicago blues recording in the late '40s and '50s. After complaining as always about Chess's reprocessed stereo, which makes strong men sound as if they're singing through flannel, I'll begin with the three greatest Chicago bluesmen. Muddy Waters is simple, sane and assertive. The new set contains all the material he's famous for--"Rollin' Stone," "Hoochie Koochie Man," "I'm Ready,"--although a one-record collection, Sail On, contains his best songs and is available in mono.

In any case, I personally prefer Howlin' Wolf, who is ruder, more ferocious. He did an excellent session with some famous English musicians in London in 1969, but the new set, called Chester Burnett A.K.A. Howlin' Wolf, captures his voice in all its weird, brutal power and is the one to buy. Sonny Boy is simply my discovery of this binge: a singer, composer and harmonica player of wonderful nuance.

An even greater harmonica player is Little Walter, but because Walter, like so many bluesman who made their names as instrumental virtuosos, is an uninteresting vocalist, his set on Chess, Boss Blues Harmonica, is valuable only to specialists. The same goes for three pianists--Professor Longhair (Atlantic), Sunnyland Slim (Blue Horizon) and the ubiquitous Memphis Slim (single albums on King and Warner Bros., doubles on Prestige and Barnaby).

Longhair, a source of New Orleans rock and roll, is recommended to Fats Domino fans, but the Sunnyland Slim, recorded when he was past 60, doesn't hold up vocally.

The same is true of most of Memphis Slim's recordings, but I do endorse the Barnaby set, which, like the Barnaby Otis Spann releases, spells the featured performer with secondary vocalists to anyone curious about this semimythic blues pro. The best of the Kong King blues catalog is something of an R&B hybrid, but fans of that music ought to know that King has released albums on Roy Brown (excellent), Lonnie Johnson (good) and Wynonie Harris (haven't heard it yet).

Much more attractive than any of these records, however, is yet another Chess collection, Chicago Blues Anthology, a consistently viable showcase for various minor artists. Most of the remaining non-Chess urban blues sound slicker, but the jazz and rhythm-and-blues influences don't necessarily weaken the music.

An example is the last sessions of Elmore James, a prime influence on B.B. King and inventor of the most famous guitar riff in electric blues. The intensity of these performances, recorded in 1963 and now released on Blue Horizon, more than compensates for the aging voice. In fact, the record would be the best James I know if Blue Horizon hadn't included four takes of one song, apparently to stretch the available material onto a second LP.

Fortunately, the label didn't do the same with second-generation bluesman Otis Rush and Magic Sam, both mellifluous singer-guitarists influenced by B.B. King. Their rare '50s recordings for the long-gone Cobra label are included on somewhat uneven but recommended Blue Horizon LPs--all of which sell at two for $5.98, by the way.

The rest of the new reissues feature basically acoustic rural performers, although because they were made since 1960 or so, most feature perfunctory bass-and-drums accompaniment. Only a mad purist can get much pleasure out of a Mississippi Joe Callicott, whose major virtue seems to be that he is dead, or Furry Lewis, whose chief strength is that he is still alive. He may set a record for septuagenarian blues recordings if he manages to survive all of his more talented cohorts. Other acoustic blues performers, however, more than repay repeated listenings.

Fantasy, which purchased the Prestige catalog several years ago, has a corner on the best new rural blues recordings. Its catalog includes some of the best work of the much-recorded Lightnin' Hopkins, a clean, acerbic performer who is to Texas blues what Robert Johnson was to Mississippi Blues.

Also recommended is the high-spirited Rev. Gary Davis, a blues singer who managed to infuse sacred songs and themes with the old feeling when he was converted in the '30s. Less to my own tastes, although worth knowing about, are the folk blues masters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Finally, Fantasy has released a light-hearted set by Jess Fuller, the Oakland-based one-man band who has influenced many San Francisco Bay-area musicians.

A final dividend of my binge has been my discovery of five new--to me--acoustic blues artists. Foremost among them is Bukka White, whose Blue Horizon LP, recorded when he was 60, is ample proof that good blues singers aren't always young men. In fact, it inspired me to dig out his standard Parchman Farm collection, on Columbia, which proves that youth doesn't hurt blues, any more than primitive recording techniques--a great record.

Blind Willie McTell is an Atlanta musician who sounds like Josh White, only much more real. I like his new Atlantic record a lot. I've never heard of Paul Howard and Ralph Willis, who share a King LP that has some good songs on it.

And then there is Johnny Shines, a somewhat self-conscious inheritor of the tradition of Robert Johnson, with whom he played as a boy in the '30s. A precise lyricist, whose vocal resemblance to the master is uncanny, Shines clearly should be recorded a lot more before he gets much older, and his Blue Horizon LP is the best of a very creditable series.

Finally, there is Mississippi John Hurt. Something about his sweet music has always appealed to me, and I've played his most recent Vanguard LP, Last Sessions, more than any other record in this article. What more can I say?

N'day, Dec. 26, 1972