The Blues Revisited
There were two reasons why I picked up an album a couple of weeks back and they had nothing to do with the music. The first, was the name of the band Dr. Fong & Friends. I liked that. The second, was the name of the album Beethoven of Da Blues. I liked that even more. Dr. Fong is the pseudonym of self-taught American blues musician, Jay Wilfong, and in reality he and his band play a brand of mean rock-infused blues, almost all of it original compositions.
I tried to find out more about Dr. Fong but besides learning that he’s a bit of a recluse who taught himself to play and sing the blues, didn’t get anything else. Dr. Fong’s music reminded me of guitar stars such as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton. And the music seemed to me ideally suited for such times when I like to take a break from listening to what keeps coming out from the hyperactive indie-rock scene.
Actually, my blues interlude had nothing to do with Dr. Fong but with a sudden craving one night to soak myself in the music of the late great Muddy Waters. I have a cache of five or six gigabytes of classic blues tracks, which includes a Muddy Waters album, a compilation really, called His Best, 1956 to 1964.
Waters (real name: McKinley Morganfield) died in 1983 at 70 but many consider the mid-1950s to be the time when the blues musician’s career reached its height. Songs like Got My Mojo Working or Good Morning Little School Girl are classics that brought out the best in Waters.
Many years ago, when I was first discovering the Chicago blues’ an electrified, amplified version of the trad stuff we used to have a perennial argument amongst friends. Who do you like better Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf? Some of my friends preferred Wolf; others liked Waters. The rivalry between the two contemporaries was legendary and for fans, it was like a ‘Do you like the Beatles or the Stones’ kind of an issue. Speaking for myself, I always preferred Wolf to Waters.
Wolf had a booming voice and brought more edge to the songs although Waters was great too. The two, along with Bo Diddley, came together to do 1968’s The Super Super Blues Band, which many people love but I think is an over-rated set of seven songs where each of the greats tries too hard to outdo the others. I’d rather listen to them separately.
My blues period carried on last week as I re-explored many blues musicians: Lightning Hopkins from Texas, whose two-disc Mojo Hand is an excellent collection of 40 of his songs; and, of course, Robert Johnson, who is considered the most accomplished of all the Mississippi Delta bluesmen.
Johnson died in 1938 at 27 (rumoured to be poisoned by a juke-joint owner who suspected the musician of having an affair with his wife) and his music was discovered and recognised posthumously. Johnson’s music has had tremendous influence—not only on other blues musicians but also on rock. From Johnson to John Lee Hooker; from Magic Sam to Little Walter; and a host of other greats, I spent a good part of the week turning on to the blues once again.
I also downloaded some episodes of the excellent weekly blues podcast, The Roadhouse, and one of its more recent ones had a feature on women blues musicians, such as Koko Taylor, who died in June this year aged 80. Taylor was the daughter of a Tennessee sharecropper and found fame after moving to Chicago in the 1950s. She was gifted with a rich and powerful voice and even in her last years was a prolific live performer, often more than two shows a week. Many of today’s women singers, such as Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi, have been influenced by Taylor.
I discovered some contemporary women blues singers too. Such as Candye Kane, whose spunky style and bold lyrics are quite infectious, and Janiva Magness, whose startlingly good voice I’d never heard before. The Roadhouse podcast, along with the Bandana Blues podcast, are two rich sources for blues music, especially so if you’re looking to discover unknown blues musicians. I’d never heard of Norwegian singer and guitarist, Bjorn Berge, for instance, before listening to his music on the Bandana podcast.
Or Ruthie Foster, who comes from a family of gospel singers in America and whose rendition of the classic Woke Up this Mornin was refreshingly different. Or even James Johnson, a guitarmaker and also a musician whose band believe me– is called Super Chikan and the Fighting Cocks.