Sunday, November 28, 2010

Would You Know A Blues Legend If You Saw One? I Didn't

Robert JohnsonCover of Robert JohnsonBy Les Brampton

Anyone passionate about the original blues, either guitar or piano, know the names of the original bluesmen by heart. They were the guys that started it all. None of them had to try to understand the blues, they were the blues! Names like Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy come to mind.

It's easy to see how the legend surrounding Robert Johnson grew over the years. Two photographs exist, both very similar, and his bluesmen friends that survived into the 70s would talk about his famous rendezvous with Satan at the crossroads. I didn't meet Broonzy, although there are several pieces of film left for us to relish, all posted on YouTube.

Some years ago, I was contacted by a musician who worked in a band that supported Bill during his UK tour in the late 50s. He told me about a big man who drank too much, laughed most of the time and told colorful stories a lot of the time. His masterful guitar style was impossible to copy, and to this day, hardly anyone has managed to emulate Big Bill's swinging style.

In 1998, I lived in Indiana and was often thirsty for the sound of old-style blues. I heard that there was a bar where people played called 'Buck's Working Man's Pub' in a town about 40 miles away in the town of La Porte. At the end of my working day, I eagerly started the car and set off.

Given directions by the locals, I made my way down main street, turned left at the second corner past the town hall and crossed the railroad tracks to the wrong side of town. This is what I was looking for, I'd get to see the real blues. The bar wasn't up to much. I got myself a drink and made my way to the back room, following the sound of a loud Chicago-style blues band.

The place wasn't empty, and it wasn't full. Chicago blues wasn't what I was really interested in - I liked the old acoustic blues. An old fellow at my table told me the locals had arranged the band as it was the bar owner's birthday today. He didn't speak at all after that.

The band finished the number and the singer spoke into the microphone. "Happy Birthday, Pinetop" he shouted, and then "Ladies and gentlemen, Pinetop will now kindly play a his boogie piano for us." The old guy at my table rose and walked up to the front, sitting down in front of a grand piano. He played a slow boogie which became more and more complicated with new bar. My mouth dropped open as I realised I'd been sitting next to a real master, an original blues legend.

He played only a couple songs and then shuffled past me out to the bar. I never saw him again the rest of the night. With hindsight, I thought of the questions I should have asked him, but maybe it was for the best. It was the guy's birthday and he might have been bothered by a stranger's questions. Legends are just like us, you understand.

More and more, the bluesmen are dying out, to be replaced by modern heroes. Another time I drove clear across Indiana and Michigan to listen to a modern blues legend, who will remain nameless, because of what he said to me. Thrilled, I suggested that it was a wonderful way to live, to follow in the path of the old bluesmen - travelling around playing the blues.

"Not a bit of it" he replied "It's a pain and I'd rather be at home watching TV!"

We need to remind ourselves - legends are just people, after all.

Les Brampton
Blues guitar channel on YouTube
Doc Watson's guitar style

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