FOLLOW UP NOTE:
a grievous error of omission in the way the story above on Jack
Hadley is presented. It has to do with his observation that
Blues music is not attracting enough attention from the Black
community to maintain the health of this musical form,
indigenous to the southern United States, and a true cultural
Wrote Jack - "I did
notice in the next-to-last paragraph '...It happens that Jack
observed this phenomenon in the course of his duties with the
Blues Society..' The reality is that I noticed this when I was
touring across the country with Otis Taylor (lead
guitarist in his band). Very few Black people at blues shows and
festivals, even in the South, the birthplace of the blues."
That is a
fascinating insight, a powerful first person observation, that
points to some things fundamental to human cultural development.
If the Blues is not being nourished by its lifeblood, what
future does it have? Is "Blackness" essential to the form? And
if it is, what the heck does that mean? Can White people - and
for the record, I am so white as to be translucent, just this
side of albino - not add anything that would vitalize this
music? And if not, what insight does this Petri dish experiment
in cultural expression offer that might be used to our advantage
in understanding...whatever there is to understand?
continues to be one of the most fascinating people in modern
music, a term twistingly appropriate in describing this
traditionalist who plays "Trance Blues" on a banjo with a
Jazz-Rock band accompaniment. He also performs on guitar,
mandolin and harmonica, and he is a growling singer.
Otis' music is truly transcendent in
the way it reaches back to basic repetitions germane to early
Blues to tell a simple story, often just a thought, presented in
a hypnotic Jazz-Rock that sometimes veers close to what Jimi
Hendrix used to accomplish with his mind-bending explorations.
Otis' tunes tend to add parts as they progress - piano, horn,
drums - to function as "performance pieces" more than commercial
radio songs. They feel like art statements, sometimes
unsettling, even scary, because Otis brings a personality that
is unique in its largeness and its elegance. He doesn't give you
a lot of information, and what he does tends to create, at least
in me, a tension and a rare response: I'm not sure who he is but
I want to hear more.
Otis, who will be 61 in July, is the
product of a Jazz-fan father who encouraged that form of music,
though young Otis' inclinations were to play the banjo, which he
only turned away from when he got the feeling that it was an
instrument that had been co-opted by White minstrel players.
There is another cultural artifact that shines further meaning
of the Jack Hadley observation above. I wonder if White people
have any analogous experience with that of the essential
relationship between Black cultural memory - at least up to and
including the Baby Boom generation - and the Blues? What would
it be, Oklahoma?
Otis Taylor dropped out of music
around the time he turned 30 and launched another career as an
antique salesman. By this time, he had already traveled the
world playing the Blues, having long before gotten over any
qualms he ever had about re-claiming the banjo as a blues
Then, with the Millennium, he
returned to music with a Fellowship awarded by the Sundance Film
Composers' Laboratory. He was back, a rediscovered darling of
the music press, awarded with Blues CD of the Year in 2002 by
Downbeat Magazine Critics' Poll for Truth is Not Fiction.
His song "Nasty Letter" was used in the soundtracks of two
films, Public Enemies and Shooter. He won the
honor from Downbeat again in 2005 for Double V, in 2007
for Definition of a Circle, and in 2008 for
Recapturing the Banjo. With that last honor, the editors at
Downbeat wrote "“There may not be a better roots album released
this year or decade than Recapturing the Banjo.”
You can learn more about
Otis Taylor by going to his website.
Otis Taylor's daughter Cassie plays bass
and sings in her father's band. She has a rich voice and a nice
attitude that finds a particularly good vehicle in the song
"Sunday Morning", which would certainly be right for every
"Acoustic Sunday" radio program across the country. Go to the
Otis Taylor Band
MySpace and check it out.
April 2009 Edition
San Francisco Blues Festival
Is the Blues A Dead Form?
The shot at right, by
Jon Sievert from the
San Francisco Blues Festival
web site, shows the crowds that the festival once drew to
Golden Gate Park.
In February of this year, Tom
Mazzolini, producer of the longest running blues festival in
the U.S. - the "San Francisco Blues
Festival" - announced that there would be no 2009
event. The reason: declining attendance attributed to the
dwindling number of "name artists" who could attract a crowd.
The festival, which premiered in 1973, has become a money loser.
In fact, it has never recovered from the "9-11" attacks of 2001,
which occurred only days before that year's SF Blues Festival -
a September event calibrated to the hot days of the Bay Area
summer - was scheduled to begin.
There is no getting around the
loss not having the SF Blues Festival is to Bay Area culture, at
least as it is perceived by those Baby Boomers who caught the
blues bug during the revival of the late '60s and early '70s and
never got over it. It was earth shaking when white kids, who had
been listening to rock bands cover classic blues tunes, began to
become aware of the real thing in the forms of B.B. King, Albert
King, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Bo Diddley and, of course,
Robert Johnson, who became the subject of attention with the
release of his seminal recordings that gave the musical genre a
big part of its repertoire. The blues, like jazz and, if you
wish to look at it this way, classical music, is canonized in
ways that pop music is not. A musician cannot call him or her
self a "blues player" unless he or she "owns" the songbook as it
is owned and shared by an army of largely aging devotees. In
fact, a bar band musician cannot get the respect of his or her
"peers" unless he or she can sit in on classic blues tunes and
know precisely what to play, whatever the key. The 6-note scale
Blues is a highly refined and closely held musical thing even
while being the most primitive of the "pop" music forms, on a
par with "folk" in the simple purities of its basic
infrastructure. There is a way to play it though, and one
doesn't gain respect for near approximation. The form, to blues
players, is owed more respect than that.
It is that basic truth about the
Blues that children of the Hippie era picked up on, probably
unconsciously through the recordings of The Rolling Stones, Mike
Bloomfield Band, John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, and others.
Then it was made concrete by the introduction to young whites of
real blues players like Buddy Guy, and the romance was on.
When I was a young dude in the
1970s, you couldn't go into a bar and hear live music that
wasn't the Blues. In fact, if you heard a cover band playing pop
rock tunes, you could pretty much bet that you weren't among the
hippest young folk in town. The Blues had caché that diminished
every other form, at least "live" where it had the added
advantage of selling the most alcohol. That was the thing that
really solidified Blues music as a part of the Baby Boomer
generation's sense of nightlife. Bar owners knew that Blues sold
booze, so they kept it coming.
The problems with the Blues in
2009 are that the torch never really passed from the Baby
Boomers to subsequent generations. There are, to be sure, bright
young lights in the Blues world, but there hasn't really been a
breakthrough artist in the genre since Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose
power was in his virtuosity, of course, but more than that it
was in his crossover appeal. He was distinctive, a "one off" who
had mastered the catalog. Beyond SRV, the Blues cadre is pretty
much a cast of characters whose sounds we have all heard before,
and there is the stake in the heart of the blues. It is old,
yesterday's sound, a historical cultural artifact.
RARWRITER.com buddy Arlic
Dromgoole, who is about as good a friend as the Blues could
have, has mounted quite a campaign to try to save the SF Blues
Festival. He has had backstage access to the event, been close
with the artists, and provided a photo library of the event's
high moments. He is one of those Boomers who still feels the
buzz at the sound of those authentic blues masters like last
surviving Delta Blues man Honeyboy Edwards, who played the 2008
Arlic encourages people to lobby
for the festival's continuance. It is so obviously an asset to
our "cultural lives", at least on the "low-culture" plane on
which most of us reside day to day.
I am not so sure that the Blues
was ever really right for the kind of big event mentality that
took hold of the Woodstock generation. The Blues really isn't
that "big" a sound. In fact, it dwells most comfortably in the
dank darkness of claustrophobic juke joints and dangerous road
houses, where people reveal soulful selves best hidden by low
light and the blurred vision of hard drinks.
My sense is that the generation
of which I am a part elevated something meant for the dark
recesses into something broad and, by extension, incredibly less
Blues, in the light of day, works
fine as plaza entertainment, where casual observers can
appreciate it in their quiet and sober ways, while a few
abandoned souls dance their little tributes to an arcane form.
One senses, however, that the form is withdrawing to the shadows
from which it came, and where it no doubt belongs.
The Blues, after all, is a deeply
internal and personal thing, probably best experienced in the