Monday, 9 May 2011

Hugh Laurie Sings the Blues

I went into Nottingham today and treated myself. I didn't get an Indian Head Massage or a Pedicure. I bought a CD. An everyday occurrence, I know for many, but for me it was a treat. I can't remember the last time I went out and paid full price for a CD. It was so worth it though, as I'd been waiting a couple of months for Hugh Laurie's debut album, "Let Them Talk". I've just finished listening to it while tapping away on the computer, and WOW.

CD Cover
In the album notes, Hugh Laurie writes about why he's playing the Blues. "I was not born in Alabama in the 1890's. You may as well know this now. I've never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman attended my birth and there's no hellhound on my trail, as far as I'm aware. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south.

One day a song came on the radio - I'm pretty sure it was 'I can't quit you baby' by Willie Dixon - and my whole life changed. A wormhole opened between the minor and major third, and I stepped through into Wonderland".

You'll have to read the rest of the album notes for yourself.

Blues and Jazz have been my favourite genre's for as long as I can remember, and in this album, Hugh Laurie brings some of the older Blues songs back to life, backed by a brilliant set of musicians. There are 15 songs, and I particularly like; St James Infirmary; Buddy Bolden's Blues; Swanee River; Tipitina and Six Cold Feet.

From the album notes
How did the Blues begin? So much has been written about this, and there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer. However, I do like the story of W.C.Handy. The following account is taken from a PBS Teaching Programme in America on the subject of the Blues.

"On a lonely night in 1903, W.C. Handy, the African American leader of a dance orchestra, got stuck waiting for a train in the hamlet of Tutwiler, Mississippi. With hours to kill and nowhere else to go, Handy fell asleep on a hard wooden bench at the empty depot. When he awoke, a ragged black man was sitting next to him, singing about "goin' where the Southern cross the Dog" and sliding a knife against the strings of a guitar. The musician repeated the line three times and answered with his instrument.
Intrigued, Handy asked what the line meant. It turned out that the tracks of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, which locals called the Yellow Dog, crossed the tracks of the Southern Railroad in the town of Moorehead, where the musician was headed, and he'd put it into a song.
It was, Handy later said, "the weirdest music I had ever heard."
That strange music was the blues, although few people knew it by that name. At the turn of the century, the blues was still slowly emerging from Texas, Louisiana, the Piedmont region, and the Mississippi Delta; its roots were in various forms of African American slave songs such as field hollers, work songs, spirituals, and country string ballads. Rural music that captured the suffering, anguish-and hopes-of 300 years of slavery and tenant farming, the blues was typically played by roaming solo musicians on acoustic guitar, piano, or harmonica at weekend parties, picnics, and juke joints. Their audience was primarily made up of agricultural laborers, who danced to the propulsive rhythms, moans, and slide guitar.
In 1912, Handy helped raise the public profile of the blues when he became one of the first people to transcribe and publish sheet music for a blues song—"Memphis Blues." Eight years later, listeners snapped up more than a million copies of "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith, the first black female to record a blues vocal. This unexpected success alerted record labels to the potential profit of "race records," and singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith began to introduce the blues to an even wider audience through their recordings.
As the African American community that created the blues began moving away from the South to escape its hardscrabble existence and Jim Crow laws, blues music evolved to reflect new circumstances. After thousands of African American farm workers migrated north to cities like Chicago and Detroit during both World Wars, many began to view traditional blues as an unwanted reminder of their humble days toiling in the fields; they wanted to hear music that reflected their new urban surroundings. In response, transplanted blues artists such as Muddy Waters, who had lived and worked on a Mississippi plantation before riding the rails to Chicago in 1943, swapped acoustic guitars for electric ones and filled out their sound with drums, harmonica, and standup bass. This gave rise to an electrified blues sound with a stirring beat that drove people onto the dance floor and pointed the way to rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, the electrified blues reached its zenith on the radio, but began to falter as listeners turned to the fresh sounds of rock and roll and soul. In the early 1960s, however, as bands like The Rolling Stones began to perform covers of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, aspiring white blues musicians in the United Kingdom helped resuscitate the genre. In the process, they created gritty rock and roll that openly displayed its blues influences and promoted the work of their idols, who soon toured England to wide acclaim. Although happy to be in demand as performers again, many veteran blues musicians were bitterly disappointed by seeing musicians such as Led Zeppelin get rich by copping the sound of African American blues artists, many of whom were struggling to survive.
Today, 100 years after WC Handy first heard it, the blues no longer commands the attention it once did; to many young listeners, traditional blues—if not contemporary blues—may sound as strange as it did to Handy. But if they listen closely, they'll discover a rich, powerful history of people who helped build America and created one of the most influential genres of popular music".
From the album notes

In the album notes, Hugh Laurie lists his Blues guitar heroes, as well as piano players. He says, "I think I tended to favour the piano over the guitar because it stays in one place, which is what I like to do. Guitars appeal to the footloose, the restless. I like sitting a lot".

As for singers, Hugh's list only had two names on it: Ray Charles and Bessie Smith. And I couldn't agree more. Bessie Smith I think is my favourite female singer of all time, though her period of prominence was as far back as the 1920's and 1930's. She was born in 1894 and died as a result of a car accident in 1937. Her influence and popularity became immense. She once said that she never sang a Blues song twice in the same way. Her mood influenced her singing.

Ray Charles was from a later era; born in 1930, he died in 2004. He lost his sight completely at the age of 7, but this seemed to enhance his senses, and the range of his compositions and playing styles was truly stupendous. His life was immortalised in the film 'Ray'. Though Blues could not be said to be the dominant genre in his life, I have a number of his Blues albums which I play time and again. My adoration for the man can be seen by the fact that I use him as my Blogger name.

100 Greatest Blues Songs

Another list to tickle the fancy, and to get the debating juices flowing. In 2004, the website compiled a list of the 100 Greatest Blues Songs. Writing about the criteria they used, they said,

"These songs are vital for a basic knowledge of the history of the Blues genre, historical significance, defining an era, influence and to a lesser degree lasting popularity were taken into consideration".

1. Memphis Blues - W.C. Handy
  2. Crazy Blues - Mamie Smith
  3. Pine Top Boogie - Pine Top Smith
  4. Dust My Broom - Elmore James
  5. Boogie Chillun - John Lee Hooker
  6. Mannish Boy - Muddy Waters
  7. Stormy Monday - T-Bone Walker
  8. Hellhound On My Trail - Robert Johnson
  9. Spoonful - Willie Dixon
10. The Thrill Is Gone - B.B. King
11. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl - Sonny Boy Williamson I
12. Born Under A Bad Sign - Albert King
13. Forty Four Blues - Roosevelt Sykes
14. Smokestack Lightnin' - Howlin' Wolf
15. Statesboro Blues - Taj Mahal
16. Hoochie Coochie Man - Muddy Waters
17. Juke - Little Walter
18. The Little Red Rooster - Willie Dixon
19. Come In My Kitchen - Robert Johnson
20. I'm a King Bee - Slim Harpo
21. The Things That I Used To Do - Guitar Slim
22. Back Door Man - Willie Dixon
23. It's My Own Fault - B.B. King
24. I'm Tore Down - Freddie King
25. T-Bone Blues - T-Bone Walker
26. Sweet Home Chicago - Robert Johnson
27. Preaching The Blues - Son House
28. Nobody Knows You When You're Down & Out - Bessie Smith
29. I Can't Be Satisfied - Muddy Waters
30. Shake Your Moneymaker - Elmore James
31. Matchbox Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson
32. Hideaway - Freddie King
33. How Long, How Long Blues - Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell
34. Five Long Years - B.B. King
35. Red House - Jimi Hendrix
36. Cross Road Blues - Robert Johnson
37. All Your Love - Magic Sam
38. Give Me Back My Wig - Hound Dog Taylor
39. Reconsider Baby - Lowell Fulson
40. Worried Life Blues - Sleepy John Estes
41. If Trouble Was Money - Albert Collins
42. I Ain't Superstitious - Willie Dixon
43. Sweet Black Angel - Robert Nighthawk
44. I Know What You're Putting Down - Louis Jordan
45. Black Snake Moan - Blind Lemon Jefferson
46. Ball and Chain - Big Mama Thornton
47. Further On Up The Road - Bobby 'Blue' Bland
48. I Can't Quit You Baby - Otis Rush
49. Boom Boom - John Lee Hooker
50. Born In Chicago - Paul Butterfield Blues Band
51. Let The Good Times Roll - Louis Jordan
52. Pride and Joy - Stevie Ray Vaughan
53. Pony Blues - Charley Patton
54. The Sky Is Crying - Elmore James
55. Catfish Blues - Robert Petway
56. Highway 49 - Big Joe Williams
57. See That My Grave Is Kept Clean - Blind Lemon Jefferson
58. Blues Before Sunrise - Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell
59. Baby Please Don't Go - Big Joe Williams
60. Bumble Bee - Memphis Minnie
61. I'm Ready - Muddy Waters
62. It Hurts Me Too - Elmore James
63. Stop Breakin' Down - Robert Johnson
64. Texas Flood - Stevie Ray Vaughan
65. I'm In The Mood - John Lee Hooker
66. Me and The Devil Blues - Robert Johnson
67. The Walkin' Blues - Taj Mahal
68. 'Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do - Bessie Smith
69. It's Tight Like That - Tampa Red
70. Love In Vain - Robert Johnson
71. Evil - Willie Dixon
72. Baby Scratch My Back - Slim Harpo
73. Wang Dang Doodle - Koko Taylor
74. On The Road Again - Canned Heat
75. Rock Me Mama - Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup
76. Three O'Clock Blues - B.B. King
77. Tomorrow Night - Lonnie Johnson
78. Boom Boom Out Go The Lights - Little Walter
79. The Same Thing - Willie Dixon
80. West Coast Blues - Blind Blake
81. How Many More Years - Howlin' Wolf
82. Cryin' Shame - Lightnin' Hopkins
83. Rollin & Tumblin - Elmore James
84. Everyday I Have The Blues - B.B. King
85. Messin Around - Memphis Slim
86. Blues After Hours - Pee Wee Crayton
87. Eyesight To The Blind - Sonny Boy Williamson II
88. CC Rider - Ma Rainey
89. I'm Tired - Savoy Brown
90. Graveyard Dream Blues - Ida Cox
91. Beaver Slide Rag - Peg Leg Howell
92. Key To The Highway - Big Bill Broonzy
93. Messin' With The Kid - Junior Wells
94. The Seventh Son - Willie Dixon
95. As The Years Go Passing By - Gary Moore
96. We're Gonna Make It - Little Milton
97. Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee - Stick McGhee
98. Hard Luck Blues - Roy Brown
99. Black Magic Woman - Fleetwood Mac
100. Stone Crazy - Buddy Guy
 Mahalia Jackson said, "Anybody that sings the Blues is in a deep pit, yelling for help". If that's what it means to sing and love the Blues, then all I can say from within the pit is HELP! HELP!

1 comment:

  1. One of the joys of blogging is reading the blogs of others - and discovering their enthusiasms or opinions. And the added bonus is that you learn so much - especially so since the person writing is obviously 'turned on' by what they are writing about and usually talks about it in everyday terms without the 'baggage' of the specialist or journalist! They say that we should try to learn something new everyday - and I've certainly done that this morning - perhaps a trip to the record store is in order! Thanks John.