Freitag, 1. Juni 2018

Chicago - The Blues - Today! Vol. 1

In 1966, when the recordings in this set first came out, blues wasn’t quite as well understood or appreciated outside the black community as it is today. In fact, it’s safe to say that these recordings opened the door wide and helped change American music forever.

Although some jazz fans had been hip to blues since the first 78rpm records started coming out in the 1920s, all but a few of them saw the music as a sort of degenerate cousin of jazz, which was, to them, more important musically. Of course, any jazz musician with a brain would have told you that blues is one of the most important components of jazz, but that wasn’t understood by white fans at that point.

Then along came the folk revival, first in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and then the second one in the early 1960s. The first folk revival had some blues in it, especially from Lead Belly, who had been introduced to folk circles by John and Alan Lomax, and from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who had taken their East Coast blues to New York and were doing well in show business circles. Later, Big Bill Broonzy showed up and was fond of telling credulous young white folks how lucky they were to have met him, since he was the last living Bluesman. Josh White, too, was on the scene, although he had severely diluted the power of his early recordings and was now a fairly bland folk singer. The interest in these few bluesmen caused a resurgence in interest in the country blues performers, and record collectors began to seek out long-forgotten recordings, which they began to reissue on lps.

Seeking out these recordings drew collectors to the South, where they encountered a whole different way of life in black communities and, eventually, began to suspect that some of the men who’d made these recordings were still around. As the subsequent rediscovery of Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Son House, and Skip James, among others, proved, they were right. But what they didn’t do was consider that the country blues had grown, migrated to the cities, mutated, and flourished there. Because a large number of them were cultural snobs, they never bothered to look at the big picture, pieces of which were right underneath their noses. Chuck Berry, for instance, was considered a pompadour-wearing, teen culture-exploiting, showboating rock and roller. They not only didn’t flip his records over to find things like “Deep Deep Feeling” and his other blues recordings, they never listened to the A-sides. They ignored radio blues hits like Buster Brown’s 1960 “Fannie Mae” and Tommy Tucker’s 1964 “High Heel Sneakers,” because they were too pure to listen to the radio. What little they did know about contemporary blues they sought to re-shape into their own image: contemporary bluesmen did appear at the Newport Folk Festival, but only under compromised circumstances. There’s the famous story about Lightnin’ Hopkins arriving in a limousine wearing a sharkskin suit and changing into dungarees, saying “Gotta give the people what they want.” And when Muddy Waters, one of the greatest electric guitarists of all time, played Newport, he had to play acoustic guitar.What was really weird was that things were completely different in Europe. In England, Alexis Korner was a huge fan of these people’s work, and tried to play it in his act, while arranging for visits by the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, which subsequently gave birth to European tours by the American Folk Blues Festival, which combined old-time country and contemporary electric blues artists into one package. Korner also encouraged younger British players’ interest in the music, famously introducing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to Brian Jones and starting the Rolling Stones in the process. The Stones then turned around and recorded songs by these bluesmen and slapped them onto the albums which had their hits on them. Eventually, Americans caught on. They had help from their countrymen, too: in Chicago, where it was impossible to ignore the blues scene, since it was on the radio, on posters tacked to telephone poles, and all over the black clubs, fans like Michael Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, and Norman Dayron sought out the music and eventually wound up playing it as peers with the full support of the blues community there. Most of them coalesced into the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which was the even more authentic version of such British outfits as Korner’s Blues Incorporated and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The Butterfield Band’s appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival blew everything apart. They were white blues revivalists like Dave Van Ronk or John Hammond, Jr., but they had a rhythm section, Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay, who were veterans of Howlin’ Wolf’s band and didn’t see any contradiction between playing with Butterfield’s boys or their former employer, although, if the truth be known, what with Butterfield’s new Elektra Records contract, the pay was better. (The band then further confused the hard-core inflexible folkies by backing up Bob Dylan later in the day for his first-ever electric appearance.)

Before long, people were wondering what they’d missed. And they had missed something: by the time the impetus started by the Stones and Butterfield got things rolling, the heyday of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson in Chicago was behind them. Other great performers, most notably Elmore James and Little Walter, were dead. A new generation, just as was happening in rock and roll, was taking the stage in Chicago, and the blues was entering another era.
Enter Sam Charters. Now, here was a name that was hardly unknown to the knowledgeable folkie. Charters knew blues, and had done numerous reissues of 78s on lp which formed the backbone of many blues fans’ libraries, the songs themselves entering performers’ repertoires. In fact, Charters knew blues well enough to know that it was still a living, breathing, changing art-form. Like a very few other scholars, most notably Charles Keil, whose book Urban Blues, published in 1966, was researched at just the right time, he was right there with an open mind. He was in the clubs. He talked to the musicians. He kept track of the changes. Now, at the time these recordings were first issued, Vanguard Records was one of the preeminent folk labels in the country, but it, too, wasn’t overly rigid. Unlike some, it was ready to accept “commercial” folk music, and, as a result, actually placed some stuff on the pop charts. Further, it was documenting the Newport Folk Festival, and had a sense of what was in the air. So when the idea of recording actual, contemporary, not to mention popular blues music came to them from a respected personage like Charters, they gave him the green light.

It was a canny move: if this project succeeded, they could sign some of the artists to contracts and have a jump-start on the rest of the mainstream music industry. Some of the younger blues artists were having trouble finding record labels at that point, and in fact Vanguard’s strategy paid off with the signing of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, two of the biggest stars on the scene, as well as Charlie Musselwhite, who was a sideman on one of the tracks here. But that came later. First came the three lps which form this set, and they were a risk. Virtually nobody outside of Chicago had ever heard of these people with the possible exception of former Muddy Waters pianist Otis Spann, who had a reputation with jazz fans. The music would have to speak for itself. It did: Chicago/The Blues/Today! sent shockwaves through the young audience which was discovering the blues through the evangelism of the British performers. It was the third part of the title—Today!—which grabbed your attention, along with the grim picture of the train-tracks and tenements on the cover. In compiling this set, Charters had even trumped the Brits, going straight to the source and nailing it. It came at just the right time: soul music was sapping the popularity of blues at its base, and younger black listeners were turning off of it, the heavily soul-inflected work of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells notwithstanding. Suddenly these performers were in greater demand than ever before both at home and abroad, and they were flabbergasted at the response they got from an audience they’d never even known was interested.

The aftermath of Chicago/The Blues/Today! was astonishing. Journalists and scholars went to Chicago to check out the scene, many of them clutching Keil’s book, with its detailed map of clubs. Agents, at first timidly, then with mounting enthusiasm, booked the performers who were willing to leave Chicago into folk festivals, rock festivals, and, finally, blues festivals, where they could spread the news that the blues was alive and well. Some of these people toured the world, while others graciously played host to international visitors in Chicago. Virtually all of these artists got recording deals with labels which treated them better than they’d ever been treated, and saw their albums sell in quantities they’d never anticipated. It also served notice to the world that not only was the blues alive and vital, but that the older guys were still around, and made it possible for Muddy Waters to form his last great young band with black and white players, grab a major-label deal, and buy a home in Woodstock, New York. It caused young lawyers to help Willie Dixon regain control of his songs, and, even more importantly, the royalties they brought him. It took youngsters like Otis Rush and Magic Sam onto the stages of blues festivals where they played to tens of thousands of fans who applauded them riotously. And, at long last, it established contemporary blues, not as some degenerate offshoot or sub-section of another music, but as a vital part of the American cultural landscape. The music on these discs is no longer the blues Today!, but it is a vital documentation, recorded without thought of commercialism or marketing strategy, of a cusp in this essential American music. It will also, I bet, draw in new listeners, kick their asses and take names, and leave them astonished and happy. —Ed Ward

Chicago - The Blues - Today! Vol. 1
(192 kbps, ca. 63 MB)

0 Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen