Gotta Listen To Him: John Lee Hooker

Asking the question “who is your favorite bluesman?” really doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it’s all about mood. Your favorite bluesman is the one who scratches the itch you have right now. Maybe it’s better to remember who is on the list of bluesmen about whom, at some point, you think “I’ve gotta listen to him!” I’m a neophyte in the Blues, but so far my “gotta listen to him” list has four people: Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell and John Lee Hooker. We’ve already talked about the first three, so now it’s Hooker’s turn.

Hooker is the one who isn’t like the others. He was later than the other three, having lived to see the Blues Revival and dying in 2001. Whereas the first three stuck to their guitars only, Hooker was sometimes backed by a piano, drums, and more. But there’s something underneath the differences – call it an attitude, a perspective, or emotional consonance – that puts Hooker in the lineage of Johnson and Patton. But he was no mimic, either, having developed a sound of his own:

His guitar talks in snaky lines, in sitar quivers, in sudden shocks, and in hilly phrases. His songs are a monologue that retells a story of emotional pain that requires a unique verbal pattern. Hooker was the first great recorded practitioner of the electric blues-rock-funk and stream of consciousness boogie. Hooker likes to keep things simple. He rarely strays from a couple of cords and delivers his autobiographical blues with growing menace and much vibrato. (source)

But Hooker isn’t totally unique, if only for a recurring theme in his songs: lady problems. Yes, John Lee Hooker had lots of problems with women:

“Whiskey and women just about wrecked my life.” Whiskey and Women

“You talk too much, woman.” Talk Too Much

Seven days a week I work for you baby

I gave you all I could afford

I’d come home in the evening time

All you did was fuss and fight.” I’ll Never Trust Your Love Again

“When my first wife left me she left my heart in misery.” When My First Wife Left Me

“Baby Lee, you know you ain’t treatin’ me right

You takes all my money wanna treat me like a child. ” Baby Lee

“My baby don’t do nothing but play races all the time.” Well I Got to Leave You

“They ain’t got a dime but enough to have their hair did right.” Processed Hair

There have been numerous attempts to produce “best of” Hooker albums from his many recordings. I won’t add another attempt, but here is a totally subjective John Lee Hooker sampler:

Blues Before Sunrise

Boogie Chillen

Crawlin’ King Snake

Hard Times

Pea Vine (with the Canned Heat)

She Shot Me Down

When My First Wife Left Me

Whiskey and Women (with the Canned Heat)

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4 Comments

Filed under Blues

4 responses to “Gotta Listen To Him: John Lee Hooker

  1. lutherman3821

    After reading Richard Smith’s posts over at oldlife the last 2 months, Hooker’s “Whiskey and Wimmen” is a much better way to lose your bearings in the journey of the Christian life then the constant temperature taking of your religious affections or lack thereof. It seems to me that one is much more prone to return to the true fold and flock after being burned by whiskey and woman a few times. Plus you get the added benefit of really coming to the realization that you are a sinner easily led astray. That fact does not seem to penetrate the Christian subjectivists and revivalists that deeply or easily.

    • When I first became religiously earnest I hoped there were people that really did live on that high plain of perpetual religious rapture. That would be part of the explanation for my adventures among the charismatics. That would explain why I let people lay hands and pray over me so that I, too, could float at that level. But no great flood of the spirit swept me away and I eventually reached a few conclusions. First, some of those were – can I use your word? – “posers” who knew they were not on a another level but did it for show. The most benign of that lot had an upbeat, positive personality and spoke as if the Bible requires us to have their natural personality-type. Then others probably entered in a kind of self-hypnosis in which they truly believed they were on a higher level but had to be in denial about a lot of their life. But after a while it seemed to me that it was better to acknowledge the reality that we are saved sinners in an unglorified state.
      I’ll have to leave it there for now. Back in a few hours.

      • lutherman3821

        I’ve been watching LUCK on HBO and have not seen the “Underlying Poser” episode yet. Since season 1 is over will that be on season 2?

        From what I have read, Scott Clark was heavy into the charismatic scene at one time and even had the Kansas City Apostles and Prophets pray over him. He was close to going all in with them but was spared the tragedy. That stuff got real weird and old quick. It is hard to get out of when your whole life is wrapped up in it-friends, family gatherings, etc.

    • The bluesmen weren’t saintly but they did recognize that you reap what you sow, and you can hear that in “Whiskey and Women.” Speaking of the song itself, it’s first of all just plain fun, and, notwithstanding RS or the 24*7 wordlviewists, it’s okay to just have fun sometimes.

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