Essays

Listen to this special Mississippi Blues Project session with David Bromberg here.

David Bromberg dropped by the studios at WXPN in Philadelphia in April to talk about, and play, Mississippi Blues. Bromberg cited the influences of players such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, though he noted that Big Bill Broonzy had been an initial influence. Broonzy used to say that he had come from Scott, Mississippi, but actually he was from Arkansas. Bromberg describes discovering Muddy Waters from his tribute album to Broonzy, which surprised Bromberg because the songs were performed so differently from the Broonzy originals by Muddy Waters.

We talked about Robert Johnson, with Bromberg noting that in his time Johnson was not well known. Producer John Hammond had sought Johnson for the famous “From Spirituals To Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and 1939, but when looking for him in 1938, Hammond found that he had died (and Big Bill Broonzy was ultimately selected in his stead). Bromberg performed the Robert Johnson song “Kindhearted Woman Blues.”

We also talked about how he takes songs like “Kindhearted Woman Blues” and does them his own way, not trying to copy the originals. Bromberg remembered hearing a performer singing “Big Bill’s Blues,” and referring to himself in the song as “Bill.” Bromberg wondered why the performer didn’t use his own name in the places where Broonzy had used his name in the original. After all, the performer’s name wasn’t Bill Broonzy. For Bromberg, the trick is to own the song yourself, at least while you are playing it.

We reminisced about another influence, someone who was actually around in the New York City area from whom Bromberg learned a lot, Reverend Gary Davis. Davis was from South Carolina and is usually classified as an “Piedmont style” artist, but his influence on the folk and blues revival artists such as Bromberg, as well as Rory Block and many others, was tremendous.

I asked Bromberg who his favorite Mississippi artist was, expecting it would be Robert Johnson, but he named Skip James instead. We talked about Skip, how unusual it was for a Mississippi artist to be very talented on both guitar and piano, and how eerie and distinct Skip James’s sound was on both instruments. When I asked Bromberg if he could play a song by Skip James, he essentially said that it is still on the “to do” list for him to learn a Skip James song! We briefly mentioned another favorite artist of his, and mine, King Solomon Hill, who only made a few recordings, haunting blues pieces on slide guitar, often employing falsetto singing. Bromberg says he cannot play any of those pieces at this time. While King Solomon Hill is a fairly obscure figure at this point, he must have enjoyed some popularity with blues audiences during his life, because years later Big Joe Williams was telling interviewers that he was actually King Solomon Hill (not at all true! King Solomon Hill’s actual name was Joe Holmes.)

While Robert Johnson wasn’t actually popular during his lifetime, Leroy Carr, a pianist and singer who often recorded with Scrapper Blackwell on guitar, definitely was. Bromberg performed one of their songs, the “Midnight Hour Blues,” and in the middle embedded the well-loved guitar part from a piece called “Mississippi Blues” which was originally performed by William Brown in a field recording in 1942.

The mixing of songs works perfectly for David Bromberg. He likes to mix different styles and is not slavishly devoted to doing the exact-copy renditions of old recordings, as some blues players have been. The subject of blues singer Johnny Shines came up. Shines traveled with Robert Johnson for many years. He shared some memories of Johnson with Bromberg back in the day, noting that Johnson could pick up songs very quickly from the radio. Shines and Johnson might be talking, with a song on in the background, and subsequently Johnson would pick up his guitar and could play the song – - somehow he had learned it while having a conversation at the same time!

Johnny Shines was a truly powerful blues singer, and in 1974 Bromberg produced one of his albums. It was important to Bromberg not to try to cast Shines as someone straight out of the 1930s. “I didn’t put him on a bale of hay, in dungarees with a straw hat on,” notes Bromberg. The album has a fully contemporary feel to it, and we decided to play one song directly from it in this session, a song called “Mr. Cover Shaker.”

We talked about the old 78 RPM records, many of which were not yet reissued when Bromberg started listening to the blues. Fortunately, the father of one of his friends had a big 78 collection, and Bromberg got to listen to them. Another topic was Clarksdale, Mississippi and the surrounding area, from which so many great blues artists came from. Bromberg wondered if there was something in the water around there! Among the artists from the area was John Lee Hooker whose hypnotic one-chord pieces were very different from the sound of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and such. Bromberg met Hooker in New York at folk clubs in Greenwich Village and used to perform some of the songs, though he said it is been a while and declined to do one at this point.

Instead, he decided to play a song by Big Bill Broonzy. The song he played is known by several titles. I have known it as the “Mule Ridin’ Blues,” though Bromberg remembers it being called the “Hey Bub Blues” on one album. It’s an example of Broonzy’s sense of humor.

We discussed the folk revival and how exciting it was to meet some of the original blues musicians in and around New York in the 1960s and 70s, as well as some of the other blues players in the revival. Artists such as Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson, and Skip James, as well as Mississippi Fred McDowell, frequently played at The Gaslight, a fabled club in Greenwich Village where Bromberg spent time as the regular opening act. Bromberg notes the influence of Lonnie Johnson to B. B. King. Johnson’s distinct tone was the model for King’s sound, even though he played electric guitar and Johnson’s classic recordings had been on acoustic guitar.

Rory Block has told me how grateful she was, after being turned down by the Philadelphia Folk Festival one year, that Bromberg had invited her play on stage with him as a guest at the festival. When I mentioned that, Bromberg said he doesn’t actually remember it! Block, of course, will never forget it.

We also talked about the “hill country” blues styles for Mississippi, exemplified in recent years by R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough among others. Bromberg dug a little deeper into that tradition, talking about the fife and drum traditions found in the hill country, and remembering players such as Sid Hemphill, noting that some of these traditions seem to come right from Africa.

Bromberg played the “Big Road Blues,” a song he learned from the recording by Tommy Johnson, who also gave us the “Canned Heat Blues.” The walking bass line on it is very engaging – and those strong bass lines have always appealed to Bromberg.

We ended our visit with some conversation about strumming (as opposed to picking) exemplified by Charley Patton, though Bromberg feels he isn’t really up to speed on the technique at this point. We also talked about the ups and downs of his own performing career. Bromberg stopped playing for two decades. He had suffered from burnout following relentless traveling and years on the road, and started studying the making, appraising, and selling of violins. He talked about the quality of instruments and whether the incredibly high-priced instruments we sometimes read about are really worth that much. He noted that the value is often more a result of how the player experiences the instrument than the listener. Today he has a store where he repairs and sells violins, and is one of the world’s leading expert on violins made in America, which have often been overlooked by violin aficionados. He plays gigs when he wants to, but will never again be a burned-out “road warrior” performer, choosing to make the experience of playing music as much fun as the music itself.

Listen to the session
brombergperforms

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Jimmy Dawkins, a prominent Chicago blues figure for over four decades, passed away April 10, 2013, at age seventy-six. Dawkins was born in Tchula, MS, but spent much of his childhood in the gulf coast area of the state, in Pascagoula, where his father was employed in shipbuilding through the years of World War II. The music of New Orleans was prominent throughout the gulf coast, and Dawkins grew up as much with that music as with traditional Mississippi blues.

Dawkins taught himself guitar, starting with a guitar that belonged to an uncle who lived with the family for a while, and in the mid 1950s moved to Chicago, playing in clubs while working a day job in a box factory. After a few years he was able to support himself with performing, and he was mentored by the great Magic Sam (Sam Maghett), who brought him to the attention of Delmark Records.

Dawkins’ 1969 debut album, recorded for Delmark, is called “Fast Fingers.” The album’s title became his nickname thereafter, though Dawkins disliked it. For one thing, although he could play fast, there were others who were faster. More importantly, his view of guitar-playing was more balanced and nuanced, and simple speed, in his thinking, was only one component of guitar mastery. He became known as an exponent of the “West Side style” of Chicago blues, more modern and urban (perhaps reflecting his New Orleans influences) than the rougher sound closely based on traditional Mississippi blues, the “South Side style.”

The “Fast Fingers” album won an award, years before the Blues Foundation was in existence with its awards, or the Grammy awards for the blues category had been created; Dawkins received a Grand Prix du Disque de Jazz from the Hot Club of France. Dawkins was not a great blues singer, and he sometimes chose to perform and record with stronger singers such as Andrew “Big Voice” Odom, who sings on his “All For Business” album on Delmark Records. His popularity in Europe was very beneficial for him when the blues scene in America went into eclipse in the 1970s and 80s and club work and recording opportunities diminished here. He played extensively in Europe, and recorded for European labels, including an album of recordings in Iceland. In the 1990s, he started recording for domestic labels again, including Ichiban, Fedora, and Earwig.

Dawkins had a fondness for unorthodox spelling; he had albums called “B Phur Real” and “Kant Sheck Dees Bluze” and spelled “guitar” in song titles variously as “gitar” and “gittar.” He felt that the spellings called attention to the songs, though some record companies “corrected” them. Dawkins liked blues to be improvisational and spontaneous, and he typically eschewed rehearsal, even in the songwriting process, which often was simply a matter of making up a title and then building the song to match it while actually recording it. To be sure, this did not result in his being one of the great songwriters of the blues, but his performances in the studio do have a fresh and uncontrived feel to them.

Dawkins put many of his songs in the names of his grandchildren so that royalties would go directly to them. He helped artists and their heirs collect unpaid royalties through his Leric Music company, and his Leric label was an avenue for him to record artists he felt deserved to be heard, including Queen Sylvia Embry, Little Johnny Christian, and Tail Dragger. In fact, one of Dawkins’ better songs, “So Ezee” (another creative spelling), has been a staple for Tail Dragger, appearing on two of his albums following his recording for the Leric label.

Dawkins wrote articles for several of the blues magazines, talking up artists he thought were deserving, and served with the planning group for the annual Chicago Blues Festival. The windy city, and the rest of the blues world, have been lucky to have his talent, energy, and love for the blues in play for all these years.

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Adam Gussow is one of the world’s finest blues harmonica players. He became known, and celebrated, in the 1990s as part of a duo that was one of that decade’s most exciting and intriguing acts, Satan & Adam. “Mr. Satan” sang and played guitar and drums simultaneously with the energy of an Olympic athlete, and a distinct guitar chord style based very creatively on the use of open strings while fretting the instrument on its higher frets. Mr. Satan lived in Harlem, and Satan & Adam emerged as a street act in Harlem at the end of the 1980′s, eventually appearing at other New York City locations and finally at clubs and festivals around the world. They appear briefly in U2′s “rockumentary” Rattle And Hum.

In the early days Adam had to prove himself to the Harlem audience, which he did, as one of the few players who were playing a lot of “overblow” notes on the harmonica – that is, producing pitch changes by strong and very precisely controlled changes in the air blown into the instrument. Coming from different racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds, Mr. Satan and Adam Gussow became friends and partners in blues, making three albums in the 1990s through several years of frenetic playing and traveling that eventually led to major scares for both: a mild heart attack for the young and physically active Gussow, and a nervous breakdown for the older and preternaturally-inspired Mr. Satan.

Gussow still occasionally plays with Mr. Satan, who these days will respond to his given name Sterling Magee. He also plays solo and with other musicians, but the Princeton-educated harp player (who obtained both an undergraduate and PhD degree there) is also a perceptive commentator on the scene and the culture of the blues, a celebrated author, and a professor in the English Department, at – of all schools – Ole Miss, The University Of Mississippi.

The position of professor at Ole Miss with an appointment in the Center For Southern Culture and the English Department was a dream job for Gussow. “I was looking for a tenure-track job, and I got the job at The University of Mississippi,” says Gussow. “Who wouldn’t want that? What blues harmonica player in his right mind doing what I was doing academically wouldn’t want that posting, right?” Surprisingly, none of the full-time English professors at Ole Miss are Mississippi natives (William Faulkner and Eudora Welty may be rolling over in their graves).

Mississippi is famous for all of the blues players who left the place, often for Chicago, but Gussow, a New York native and blues player, reversed the pattern by moving TO Mississippi. In his books and articles, Gussow has proved to be an astute observer of the blues phenomenon and its many contradictions. Contradictions and unexpected outcomes did not end for Gussow with his appointment as a professor. Expecting that he would be playing lots of music, he found that he actually wasn’t, for several years, because the “hill country” blues in the area around the university wasn’t his sound or his experience. He laughingly says the style is summarized by a Junior Kimbrough album title, “Most Things Haven’t Worked Out.” “My wife and I used to joke,” says Gussow. “We’d call it ‘shoot-me now music.’” Gussow has since gotten into it more.

I spoke with Adam Gussow by telephone on April 11, 2013, and, as always, enjoyed the unique insights and stories from his singular history as a player and a scholar of the blues. The wide-ranging discussion of Mississippi music, politics, economics, history, and culture is presented here; it runs just under twenty-five minutes, and I think you’ll like it! [Listen to my conversation with Adam Gussow]

Books by Adam Gussow:

Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition by Adam Gussow (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2002)

Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007)

Mister Satan’s Apprentice: The story of an Unlikely Musical Partnership, The Blues, and Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

Check out Adam Gussow’s Modern Blues Harmonica site, the ultimate resource for people who want to hear, learn about, or learn to play blues harmonica.

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In 2008, it was “M For Mississippi: A Roadtrip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues.” Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle visited clubs and homes in Mississippi to bring us the music, and the stories, of a number of modern rural Mississippi blues artists. In 2011, they made another trip around the state, this time surveying the state of juke joints and blues clubs. The film “We Juke Up In Here” revealed a sharp decline in the number of these places and a change-over, in some that were still in operation, from live bands to dee-jays.

Now Konkel and Stolle are returning with a new concept, and a more upbeat message, a “reality show” about modern Mississippi blues! “Moonshine & Mojo Hands” is planned as a weekly web-TV series about present-day Mississippi blues. Konkel and Stolle will do it again – namely, travel around the Magnolia state and introduce us to blues artists playing at various venues and house parties. They promise to tell the story as it is, without embellishment or cosmetic editing. The music, the food, the places, and of course the people that make up the exciting and often quirky blues scene in Mississippi will be the subjects of this weekly series. Each online episode will run twelve minutes, and there won’t be any “filler.” The first season will have ten episodes, streaming online for free.

Konkel and Stolle still need some financial backing, and they are seeking it in a totally modern way, with a Kickstarter campaign.

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Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup Recordings Issued After More Than Four Decades     by Jonny Meister

April 13, 2013
Arthur

Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup shares with Robert Johnson and some other blues greats the unfortunate fact (from a blues-centric perspective anyway) of being known today primarily because of their influence to rock stars. Johnson is known for his influence to [...]

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Cleotha Staples of The Staple Singers Dies at Age 78 by Jonny Meister

February 22, 2013
Cleotha Staples of The Staple Singers Dies at Age 78 by Jonny Meister

Cleotha Staples, elder sister of Mavis Staples, died February 20th at age 78 in Chicago. “Cleedi” was the first child of Roebuck “Pops” Staples and wife Oceola, and their only child actually born in Mississippi. The family moved to Chicago [...]

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Magic Slim 1937-2013 by Jonny Meister

February 22, 2013
Magic Slim 1937-2013 by Jonny Meister

Few Philadelphia blues fans were aware that Magic Slim was in Philadelphia in February, in the intensive care unit at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he died on February 20. The great bluesman had been hospitalized in January when he [...]

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Possible New Photo Of Robert Johnson? by Jonny Meister

February 4, 2013
Possible New Photo Of Robert Johnson? by Jonny Meister

The British newspaper The Guardian is reporting that a new photograph of Robert Johnson has been authenticated. The photo shows him with longtime traveling companion Johnny Shines. The two known photos of Johnson, one which showed him with a cigarette [...]

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B. B. King “The Life Of Riley” – by Jonny Meister

January 22, 2013
B. B. King “The Life Of Riley” – by Jonny Meister

“The Life Of Riley” is an expression of uncertain origin, referring to a life of wealth, ease, and luxury. It’s been the title of several old radio and TV comedies and a movie starring William Bendix – and now, “The [...]

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Muddy Waters and The Rolling Stones Checkerboard Lounge by Jonny Meister

January 11, 2013
Muddy and Mick 1981 at The Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago

The release late in 2012 of the DVD “Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones Checkerboard Lounge 1981″ once again brings to my mind the strange relationship between blues and rock ‘n’ roll. The great Muddy Waters is in his last [...]

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Blues Beyond The Blues: An Essay by Tom Moon

December 16, 2012
Blues Beyond The Blues:  An Essay by Tom Moon

Listen to a companion Spotify playlist to the article below here. The blues is a long echo, rattling across decades and vast distances. Returning like a ricochet to tell each generation a slightly different story about what it means to [...]

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Cedric Burnside interviewed by Jonny Meister

November 19, 2012
Cedric Burnside Project

Jonny Meister interviews Cedric Burnside, August 19, 2012, at the Philadelphia Fok Festival. Note: Cedric Burnside’s brother Cody Burnside, mentioned in this conversation, died at age 29 in October two months after this interview was recorded. Jonny Meister: Cedric, it’s [...]

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