Rebirth of the Blues 

Martin Scorsese's PBS series has pushed the blues back into the spotlight. Can it stay there?

Psst. Don't tell anyone, but the blues is back.

Some would undoubtedly say it ain't never left. But the current resurgence of the blues as a pop culture fad first began last year, when Congress got its mojo working and officially mandated 2003 as the "Year of the Blues." (Given our political and economic climate just now, looks like they picked a winner.)

Heading into the YOTB's final months, the biggest attempt to tap into the zeitgeist's bloodstream with twelve-bar progressions has arrived: PBS' new series The Blues, in wh ich executive producer Martin Scorsese and six other directors attempt to do for blues what Ken Burns did for jazz. In addition to the official series box set, there's also a thirteen-part comprehensive radio series airing nationally, and at least 35 individual blues albums and compilations bursting forth from major labels to slake America's expected thirst for the seminal genre, which devout disciples continue to call the true father of rock, soul, jazz, and rap, shouting from the mountaintop until they're blue in the face.

Moreover, if the just-concluded SF Blues Festival (headlined by Taj Mahal) wasn't enough, YOTB celebrations still rage on at Eli's Mile High Club in Oakland, the Bistro in Hayward, and Biscuits & Blues and the Boom Boom Room in SF, among other fine local establishments. Now don't that just make you want to wang dang doodle all night long?

But this makeshift blues renaissance has provoked discussion as well as celebration, as evidenced by a recent panel discussion and preview of The Blues sponsored by KQED. The event drew an enthusiastic crowd of dyed-in-the-denim devotees to SF's staid Herbst Theatre, where Charlie Musselwhite jammed with two students from Berkeley's Jazzschool, and Ronnie Stewart of the Bay Area Blues Society waxed poetic about West Coast blues and announced plans for a Blues Walk of Fame.

The predominantly white audience also got an unexpected reality check from Zakiya Hooker, John Lee's daughter and an artist in her own right. In the midst of what was announced as a spoken-word poem, she launched into a not-so-subtle diatribe against racism and co-optation of the blues. For Hooker, it remains a touchy -- and undeniably political -- subject. In a separate interview, she suggests the blues began the day African slaves first arrived in America.

"When they brought us across the middle passage," she says, "they offered us this wonderful opportunity. The opportunity was to pick cotton. We didn't bring anything. All we had to draw upon was what we brought with us. So this is what we used when we were put in those fields."

The tribal chants of the motherland, Hooker says, segued into the field hollers, which in turn laid the foundation for the down-home blues of the Mississippi Delta. Because the juke joints and roadhouses of the South were often not equipped with electricity, the music was usually acoustic -- the electric blues developed later, in Chicago and other northern cities. Once the blues took recorded form -- initially promoted by a host of black-owned independent labels -- early pioneers such as Robert Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins found a tremendous following among African-American listeners.

Hopkins' "Katie Mae" -- featured on the new Blues Kingpins set (see sidebar) -- tells listeners just about everything they need to know about the blues in one fell swoop, delivered in a shrill voice trembling with vibrato:

Yeah, you know Katie Mae's a good girl

Folks say she done run around at night

You know you can bet your last dollar

Katie Mae will treat you right

His devotion, desire, and frustration all tangled up in blue, Hopkins' testimonial aches with longing and regret, painting a provocative picture while leaving much to the imagination.

Yeah, you know I tried to give that woman everything in the world she needs

That's why she don't do nothing but lay in the bed and read

You know she walks like she got all the wealth in her backyard

Yes, you'll never hear that woman hooting hollering and crying

And talking about the times being hard

As for those hard times, Hopkins lets his guitar speak for him. The solo that follows is a staccato needlepoint of rapid-fire atonal "blue" notes, which somehow soothe even the most worried mind.

Apparently a real stickler for aesthetics, Hopkins didn't go for much excess instrumentation on his tunes. He generally played bass, rhythm, and lead guitar on most of the songs; a few were embellished with ragtime-y piano runs. Even without drums or percussion, however, there's plenty of rhythm there.

John Lee Hooker began his career in a similar mode: On his early sides, the singer is typically accompanied only by his own guitar, tapping the beat with his feet. He could get away with such minimalism because of his unforgettable voice, a rich instrument of remarkable tonality and subtle inflection. As his daughter -- a spitting image were it not for her dyed-blond hair -- reminisces, that voice holds warm memories for her. "I have never in my life heard anyone who sings like my father. His voice is so unique," she said, using the present tense to describe her departed dad. "I picked up a lot of his riffs, the way he says things."

So did practically everyone else. John Lee's lyrics, phrasing, and cadences influenced such white rock artists as 10cc, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, George Thorogood, and ZZ Top, to name a few. Yet it wasn't until his later years, after he moved to the Bay Area, that he began to collect richly deserved royalties.

Evolved, but not too evolved

If the blues don't just represent a museum piece -- and indeed comprise a still-vibrant art form -- we need more compelling new releases like James Blood Ulmer's No Escape from the Blues.

Ulmer's 2001 album, Memphis Blood, traced the blues back to its rural Southern roots. Appropriately, No Escape from the Blues represents a progression, paying tribute to the music's migration to big urban cities and Jimi Hendrix' psychedelic voodoo style. No Escape consists entirely of covers, with a few songs from Ulmer himself -- including his underappreciated mid-'80s tune "Are You Glad to Be in America?," whose bittersweet observations seem just as relevant under the second Bush administration as they were during the Reagan years. Ulmer's gravelly vocals shred like a rusty nail through a stained-glass window, while producer Vernon Reid adds blistering lead guitar and banjo riffs to the proceedings.

No Escape's crown jewel is Ulmer's reading of "Who's Been Talking." He doesn't outdo Howlin' Wolf's version -- that's just not possible -- but the fact that he's able to put his own spin on a tune so identified with such an iconic artist pegs Ulmer as a master of the blues, too, dropping his voice down to a faint, guttural, strikingly poignant whisper as he sings the tale of loss and regret.


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