Monday, December 31, 2012

# 31 Bring It On Home Sonny Boy

    The other day I scroll past one of those photos on Facebook, you know the ones with the inspirational captions. This one says, Yesterday is gone, tomorrow never comes, live for today! It's a warm, fuzzy thought, but not very realistic. If I live my life with this philosophy, I'll become immobile and ignorant for the rest of my days. I'm always amazed at how often yesterday shows up on today's doorstep. It makes me think of that old blues song, Everything you do, comes back to you.

    My example has a humble beginning. My brother drags home this big old radio from the neighbour's trash. It's huge, battered, walnut veneer cabinet, filled with glass tubes, electronic components and big round knobs. In spite of the fact that it doesn't work, he sets it up in his bedroom. My dad looks at it, buys a new tube, and gets it running the next week. Now, this isn't just any radio, it's unique because a you can actually tune in radio stations from all over the world. He lets me play with it a few times, but after that, it's kept in his 'off limits' room.

    When I turn 15, my parents quit their government jobs and we move out of the suburbs and into the middle of a 45 acre lot, densely populated by cedars and maples. They build a new house, make maple syrup, garden, tend bee hives, make wine and ski the trails that wander through their forest. Everyone who visits is enthralled with the beauty of this secluded place, but I hate it. I feel like I am stuck out in the middle no where.

    So, during the move, my brother leaves his radio behind and I move it into my room. I love  finding new stations from all over the world. The signal is definitely better at night as I can pick up London, Paris, and Rome with a great deal of clarity. While in isolation I pass a lot of time with this novelty and it becomes a romantic lifeline to the outside world.

    One night I am traveling through the channels and I stop at one playing music which is vaguely familiar to me. It's a guy by the name of Sonny Boy Williamson and he's playing a song called Bring It On Home. I've heard of Blues music, and I hear Blues done by British rock bands regularly, but never anything like I am hearing now. As a matter of fact, I realize that this particular song is a version of the one Led Zeppelin does and I wonder if this Sonny Boy guy stole it from them.

    Sonny Boy's voice and harmonica combination is so intense it seems to reach out of the speakers and grab me, enticing me to come inside. The music just floats and sways like a freight train chugging along the track headed somewhere far away. I keep listening to the program and they play songs by people with odd names like: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, Jr. Wells, Otis Spann and many more; each track as seductive as the last. In a way, none of it makes sense to me. I'd only heard Blues referred to as sad and this is definitely not sad music. The scope of emotion communicated is so much broader than just plain old sad. Anyway, I am definitely a captive of the music.

    In retrospect, at 15, my love for this music is a bit of a mystery. The lyrics are very adult in nature, the recordings are often from the 40s and 50s; so the sound quality is poor and the singers are foreign to me, but my attraction is unmistakable. It's one person telling me this intense story about his life, supported with a mid tempo, 12 bar shuffle, guitars and a harmonica. I fell in love with all of it, and especially the sound of the harmonica.

    It is such a simple, yet expressive instrument and I naively think I will be able to duplicate its sound with little effort. I realize that I own an old harmonica and start trying to mimic the sounds I hear from the radio.

    Then, I buy a book by Tony Glover called Blues Harp and work my way through the lessons. I plug away at this little instrument for the longest time and I just can't seem to get the same sounds I hear from the radio. Periodically, I have a break through and something comes out of my instrument that resembles Sonny Boy, but it feels like I am in a battle, and I am losing.

    In spite of my frustration, the more I hear, the more I want to get inside of it. I go to the school library and they have nothing on Blues, only a couple of old books on Jazz. One is called The History of Jazz by Marshall Stearns, I take it out and read it cover to cover. There is also a book of short biographies on prewar jazz artists, but the librarian says I can't remove it from the library. So, I smuggle it out, take it home, read it in a week, and smuggle it back to its final resting place. It's probably still there, read only once, by me. Most of what I read is well out of my scope of musical understanding at the time. To this day I only remember a line from the Duke Ellington interview: "....there are only two kinds of music, good and bad."

    I am still listening to all the other music of the day, mostly rock, progressive rock, pop, jazz, and a little country, but in my own world Chicago Blues is King! I ride my bike to my part time job doing yard maintenance at a resort down by the lake. Every time I get paid, I hitchhike into the city to comb the Blues section of record and book stores, always returning home with something new. Over several months I build a collection of about 50 or 60 vinyl albums, each one a new insight to the Blues. My curiosity leads me to a wider roster of performers. Singers like: Jimmy Reed, Otis rush, Lightin' Hopkins, Skip James, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, John Lee Hooker. It seems that every time I listen to the radio there is someone else who catches my interest.

    After a couple of years of listening and playing I develop a better understanding of what is Blues music. Like all good folk music, Blues is a simple, yet intense expression of what happens to people while they are living yesterday and tomorrow, in the now. My favourite Blues becomes the electric post-war Blues played in and around Chicago. It's just three chords, saturated with minor thirds and sevenths and it is intense. Sustained intensity is ecstasy!

    A few years later I move into the city and start going to all the bars where Blues is a regular feature. Most of the bands I see are young white Canadians playing at break neck speed. I like them though, and finally meet other people who are as taken with Blues as I am. Often, I ask the white bands if I can sit-in toward the end of the evening. Everyone is pretty drunk by then, and I rarely get a cold shoulder.

    Periodically, the big blues stars from Chicago come through town and I see all of them. The venues are usually bars filled with the smell of beer, sweat, stale cigarette smoke and weed. Blues is a folk music and consequently, unlike pop artists, they are much more accessible to their public. I make a point of meeting many of the performers, artists like: Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Sonny Terry, Buddy Guy, Jr. Wells, Howlin' Wolf and a few others. Most of them are very gracious with the time they afford me. They aren't financial success stories like the rock icons, but they are stars to me.

   When I reach 22 I travel through all the southern states looking for the world I visualize in the history books, but I experience disappointment. I forgot to take into account that most of the books I consume are written about the decades before I arrive in the South and the social environment has changed. I remember being in New Orleans' 9th Ward, I walk into a ragged neighbourhood bar to buy smokes and I'm the only white guy there. It is a small joint, filled with middle aged guys drinking beer. They all stop, turn and cold stare me. An overweight guy lightly pulls the flap of his jacket back to reveal the handle of a pistol hanging out of his pant waist. I feel uncomfortable, but I can't leave, the juke box is playing B.B.King, and the atmosphere is funky, so, we avoid eye contact and order a beer.

    A couple of years later my love affair with the Blues starts wane. I have heard and seen most of the influential artists of the post war era. I've read forty or fifty books on the subject and been introduced to the seedy side of the lifestyle. I keep listening to it and the 12 bar shuffle still moves me, but my life moves in a different direction and the Blues becomes part of my yesterday.

   I don't think it matters which art form, if it resonates inside you; it becomes part of your life forever. It might be art, literature, movies, poetry and in my case Blues. Music is like so many other emotional expressions in life, you don't always have a choice about what moves you. Over the years I have spent a lot of time listening to just about every imaginable type of music from Be-bop to Chopin on to Gregorian Chants and over to Techno. Now, I can listen to a hundred musical performances before only one will reach out and grab me. It's like I'm always listening for that feeling I got the first time I heard Sonny Boy. The trick is to always be prepared for the good music tomorrow will bring you.

    In spite of the fact I have a bigger collection of Blues music than I ever had all those yesterdays ago, I don't listen to it as much anymore. I have heard the performers and their stories a million times by now. The style I feel most connected to is the post-war Chicago Blues and that really went into creative dormancy in the mid 60's.  To me that old post war Chicago blues has become like Latin, a dead language practised only by artists living in yesterday.

    I stopped playing harmonica for about 20 years and decided to take it up again a couple of years back. After a year of playing again, I end up in a conversation about music with one of my grade 11 students. He tells me about learning to play the harmonica and he loves Led Zeppelin's song Bring it On Home. I gently inform him that they stole it from Sonny Boy, and he sheepishly says, Who's Sonny Boy ..... ? I tell him I can play that stuff and then he asks me if I will show him.

   The next day we bring in our harmonicas and go into the concrete stairwell where the sound bounces off the walls giving the tone a haunting quality. I play a slow blues, called You Gotta Move, written in the 1940s by Mississippi Fred McDowell. It's only about four notes, but it packs some serious emotion. As I finish, I hear the footsteps of kids descending the last flight of stairs. I know these two girls, they are first generation Canadians. One is wide eyed and with a great deal of curiosity she says, "Hey sir, that's good!" "What kind of music is that?"  I say, "It's Blues."  She says, "I've never heard of it before, I like it," and they leave.


    Maybe it's because the first year of my interest in Blues I didn't know anyone else who listened to it, but I was really pleasantly shocked and flattered that this kid whose parents weren't even born when that song was written, would be so moved by this music. Maybe Duke Ellington is right, there really is just two types of music.