If it’s December It Must Be Time for Hill Country Blues

xmas guy

Why is this in my office?

The other day I had to talk my neighbor off her steep-pitched ladder as she was extending an electrical cord with bulbs to illuminate the area around her gutters. It seems like any reward from such an activity wouldn’t justify the risk, but then yesterday I saw a middle-aged man sitting on his roof, leaning toward the edge to do the very same thing. By then I had already begun to notice a bunch of odd things since Thanksgiving. In fact, that very night I saw people camping out to go shopping. Soon there arose a population of nine-inch male dolls standing in various places around my office. Traffic is more congested around stores, and the kids seem to be talking a lot about toys and gizmos. I thought a bike ride might be an escape from all this oddness, but then I looked at a familiar landmark along the way – a decorative sheep at the entrance to a driveway – and it had a circular decoration around its neck. Whatever’s going on, it seems to be both tense and tacky.

Naturally, the escape from tense and tacky – and the escape from red and green – is the Blues. This winter my two most recent purchases come from a genre known as hill country blues.

First, there’s Mississippi Fred McDowell. Fred bucked the trend of the stereotypical blues man; he just seems like a nice guy who likes the blues. Until being “discovered” (in 1959) by Alan Lomax in at age 55, he had worked in fields, sacked con, stacked logs and built freight cars.Fred McDowell But he was also playing the guitar, doing blues and spirituals, and, though surprised by his reception, has been called “a singer and guitarist of such commanding, gripping power and originality that he must be numbered among the leading exponents of the pure country blues, now or anytime.”

You can join Fred and hear his considerable bottle-neck guitar skills Goin’ Down to the River. There’s also a University of Mississippi black and white short film with shots of rural Mississippi, Fred’s blues, and an interview in which he tells us “Pacified…You got that off your mind – what you were thinking about – that’s what the blues is.”

In contrast there’s bad boy Junior Kimbrough, also “discovered” (in the early 1990’s) at an advanced age after spending years entertaining in his own juke joint. A Junior Kimbrough biography tells us:

junior-kimbrough-worked-out“Me and my sister, we used to steal our brothers’ guitars out of the loft and started to play. When I first started playing, I had a wire on the house, a diddley bow. You know, a broom, they have wire on ’em? I put me three strands of wire on the house and cut me a piece of wood and run it up under them,” he told Guitar Player. “I used a bottleneck. You know, break a bottle and put the neck piece on your finger, just like a slide…. I sung spirituals for eight years over in West Memphis. We had our own group named the Faithful Five. We went to a lot of places, singin’. Then I said, ‘Well, I’m goin’ back to the blues.’ I went back to the blues, so everything you hear me sing, this is my own. I make up everything.”

…”The further the blues gets from Mississippi, the worser it all seems to get,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in a 1999 story about Ford. “The whole concept of ‘the blues’ has just been so cheapened by the music that’s out there now. Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd? Man, if they were my kids, I’d beat ’em in the yard in front of all the neighbors. And meanwhile, all these guys down here are getting neglected.”

His style is his own, something fresh yet deeply rooted. Most Things Haven’t Worked Out has put a new groove in my brain. You can also join Kimbrough in saying Lord, Have Mercy on Me.


Filed under Blues

13 responses to “If it’s December It Must Be Time for Hill Country Blues

  1. Okay… why are these strange looking dolls in your office?!! I would be uncomfortable if surrounded by little beady-eyed motionless men staring at me.

    Tense and tacky… that word combination really got your point across.

  2. Ninja, the one above actually looks a great deal like a supervisor in the office. A few years ago a clerical worker stuck needles in it hoping for a little voodoo magic. That would be the same women who buried a little saint in her yard to help sell her house.

  3. MikeInIowa

    You sold me on the Mississippi Fred. Just bought a 20 song album from ITunes. I listened to “Goin Down to the River” on the Lomax recordings with him being accompanied by a kazoo……awesome stuff.

  4. Aimee Byrd

    Great stuff, but I’m just glad I’m not one of Jr.’s kids.

    • Not, to worry, Aimee – anyone showing proof of paternity at the door got 10% off on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Junior’s juke joint.

      Funny how we care little about the biograhies of most musicians but the bio is mandatory when talking about blues men. I’m guessing it’s because so much of the blues were discovered or preserved due to John and Alan Lomax, who were interested in transmitting the history of the blues. But, yeah, Junior wasn’t one of those guys who waffled between blues and preaching.

  5. Aimee Byrd

    Blues come with a testimony of sorts.

    • Yes, I guess they do, and sometimes I wonder if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The stories tend to perpertuate a sometimes-fun mystique or image about the blues, and I’m not sure if that’s helpful or just distracting noise. The music itself is a struggle with conditions under the sun, and for many, it’s almost therapeutic. BTW, I tend to think the best blues portray that struggle in the music itself before one even starts to consider the lyrics. For example, Kimbrough’s Most Things Haven’t Worked Out (link above) tells the an intense story without a single word. Or, to go more mainstream, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar playing itself exudes the blues.

      • Aimee Byrd

        That’s certainly true. But then you have those like Bessie Smith, where the blues exudes from her voice more than the instruments, I think. Grew up with my mom playing Vaughan.

      • You had a privileged upbringing then.

        I vividly remember a time when “Pride and Joy” started playing and my mother broke out in some kind of hip twisting dance – very uncharacteristic of her and initially disturbing to me. But I’ve come around and now it’s kind of cool that we have that in common

  6. sean

    Most things Haven’t Worked out. If that ain’t the shiznit. It’s also the music of pilgrims who’ve learned to place their hope somewhere else, no theology of Glory need apply. Good stuff.

  7. sean

    I also like that the closest contemporary music that gets queried up when you put in the blues on youtube is soundgarden or chris cornell. Makes me feel better about my music choices in the 90’s.

  8. sean

    Here’s my modern day homage, which my wife deems stripper music to which I respond; ‘ it’s more, blind date blues’, to which she responds like there was a difference for you. I assure her I’m deeply offended on some level I’m not aware.

    • Funny stuff.
      As for me, when I vaguely feel like I should be offended by something the wife or kids say, I go into voluntary ADD mode and think about the Celtics, the Blues, the blog – anything will do, really. That vague sense goes away and I’m happier.

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