Down In The Delta
By Chris Herrington
MAY 10, 1999: The country blues has fallen into disrepair in recent years. Outside of comfortable legends like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, today's most visible symbols of the blues are rather dubious: You can choose between the Blues Brothers-bred Chicago stomp of a thousand casino dreams or the Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired pyrotechnics of great white hopes like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. And the "you" in these discussions of the blues increasingly refers to an audience far whiter and wealthier than that from which the roots of the music spring.
In the liner notes to their new album Things Fall Apart, the Philadelphia-based hip-hop group the Roots are highly critical of the state of black audiences for black forms, including blues and jazz. "We create it, nurture it, elevate it, and abandon it," they claim.
From a more positive perspective, the flight of young black listeners away from traditional black forms probably has a lot to do with the proven desire in African-American music to push forward, to concentrate more on the present and future than the past. For many young black listeners, raised on hip-hop and R&B, the blues, and especially the country blues, understandably seem corny, distant, and irrelevant.
So it's significant that, over the last half-decade, a loose movement of young, black, blues players has emerged to counteract those notions. Surprisingly bypassing the flash of more popular urban styles for the subtle treasures of country blues, artists like Keb' Mo', Corey Harris, Guy Davis, and Alvin Youngblood Hart are a brand-new bag, even if immersed in an ancient (by pop-culture standards) form. Which is not to imply that these performers are equal -- frankly, Keb' Mo' is too, well, polite, and Davis (the son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee) tends to come off as a folkie, his politics too willful and his music too earnest. But Harris and Hart, who are both playing at the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival this weekend, are the real deal -- men with both the chops and vision to re-establish the country blues as the basic language of American and Pan-African music.
On their debut albums, Harris' Between Midnight and Day (1995) and Hart's Big Mama's Door (1996), both men established their country blues credentials, specifically their expertise with the acoustic blues canon. But their subsequent work, Hart's Territory (1998) and Harris' Fish Ain't Bitin' (1997) and the brand-new Greens From The Garden, has taken things much further.
The expansive vision of the blues that both men embrace seems to have an obvious antecedent in the perhaps underappreciated Taj Mahal. Emerging in the late '60s as what was already an anomaly -- a young, black performer who embraced country blues -- Mahal proffered an eclectic, all-embracing approach to the blues that finds a new voice in the recent work of Hart and Harris. Mahal extended his idea of "blues-based music" to include the whole of the African diaspora -- employing Caribbean shadings and New Orleans rhythms, with Africa itself as deep background. His music illustrated multiculturalism and world music years before those notions came into vogue.
For Harris in particular, whose Greens From The Garden comes off as a masterpiece of Pan-African "blues-based music," Mahal would seem to be a talisman, though Harris himself downplays the comparison. Instead Harris, an anthropology graduate from Bates College in Maine, points to his own experiences learning pidgin in West Africa and teaching French and English to middle-school kids in Louisiana as sources for his own expansive version of the blues. Indeed, Harris sees himself less as a blues musician than a "musician who has a foundation in the blues."
"Musically speaking, blues is a foundational element within music," Harris says. "Within American music in particular, especially with North American black folks and in the Caribbean. What most people think of as blues is formed by stereotypes."
On Greens From The Garden, Harris uses his blues base to explore almost the entirety of Pan-African musical expression. The Caribbean and New Orleans influences are paramount -- the New Orleans party music of "Eh La Bas" and the instrumental "Congo Square Rag," both of which deploy horn sections, and the reggae of "Wild West." But Harris also takes country blues in more novel directions: The extraordinary "Basehead" asserts a continuum that branches from Delta blues to James Brown to hip-hop, and then dances madly up and down it. Pulling country blues into the present, the anti-crack song combines piercing guitar leads, gut-bucket rhythms, James Brown-style background vocals ("You know you step on that crack, Black, you gonna break your back!") and shout-outs to Public Enemy ("Like Chuck D. said, 'Bass, how low can you go? Death row, what a brother know?'"). It's extraordinary, and he nearly tops it 15 tracks later with a sublime reggae version of the gospel standard "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
Barely a month old, Greens from the Garden feels like a breakthrough album, one that has a chance to be the first record since Robert Cray's Strong Persuader more than a decade ago to popularize a fresh, personal take on blues traditions. But if Cray's country-soul-based masterpiece was two steps from the blues in the finest Bobby Bland tradition, then Harris' homegrown goodies embrace the very roots of Delta blues, and explode them. For suspicious or uncomprehending young, black listeners, Harris has a message: Country blues is no musty document of oppressions past but a lifeline from which modern African-American music springs, precious greens from the garden of living history.
Though Alvin Youngblood Hart's Territory isn't quite as ambitious as Greens From The Garden, it may take Harris' notion of blues as a foundation even further. Hart, who now calls Memphis home, goes beyond even the Pan-African ideal espoused by Mahal and Harris, claiming that, with Delta blues as a starting point, the whole of American popular music is your territory. Hart's opus opens audaciously with "Tallacatcha," a letter-perfect Western Swing original. Then it really branches out -- a Captain Beefheart instrumental, a ska tune, some folk-blues chestnuts ("John Hardy" and "Mama Don't Allow"), and blues originals that more than hold their own.
Hart and Harris couldn't have picked a better time to reassert the importance and malleability of country blues. If urban blues is too often now music for yuppies and casino dwellers, then country blues is in danger of becoming something far worse: Art music, a sacred preserve whose subtlety and historicity mark it as music for aesthetes and scholars. Both men are duly respectful of Delta blues but love it enough to make it playful. And with their emphasis on the compositional and interactive elements of the blues tradition, they're thankfully expanding modern conceptions of blues beyond the guitar, eschewing the macho fantasy of competitive axe-manship that may be as much something that rock and metal fans have ascribed to blues (see the Ralph Macchio film vehicle Crossroads) as part of its own heritage.
Territory and Greens From The Garden seem to comfortably fit within what has become a common late-'90s strategy: Roots reconfigurations that modernize traditional music in order to rescue them from just the sort of museum mentality that encroaches upon country blues. In this manner, Harris' and Hart's records are cousins to the likes of Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, Billy Bragg's and Wilco's Woody Guthrie project Mermaid Avenue (which Harris played on) and most of the recent Los Lobos-related projects. And, with black listeners' demonstrated preference for emerging over residual forms of musical culture, it's significant that Territory and Greens From The Garden are the first (or, at least, finest) records to take this approach to African-American roots music, even if Harris himself shies away from this notion:
"I make music as a member of the African diaspora and of the human race," says Harris. "But I don't want to reinvent anything.That's an obstacle to just doing it, and it sounds arrogant, because the music is so much bigger than us."
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