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. 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:
“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.”