by Michael Corcoran AAS 1999
John Lennon described the blues as a chair. “It’s not a design for a chair or a better chair,” he said. “It’s the first chair. It’s a chair for sitting on, not for looking at. You sit on that music.” Too often, however, the music that calls itself the blues today is made to marvel at: the deft solos, the octave-leaping vocals, the harmonica blasts that require as much air as an inflatable lounger. There are so many out there who can play the guitar, but they sure can’t play the blues.
America’s greatest musical invention has become a musical tourist trap, where quality-craving yuppies and former powder merchants in Hawaiian shirts lay down their credit cards and boogie badly to the same 18 songs, over and over again, every night. Walk down Halsted Street in Chicago at 2 a.m. and you’ll hear a version of “Sweet Home Chicago” coming from every club on the strip. Meanwhile, fast-fingered teen-agers are in their rooms listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan records, turning the guitars in their laps into PlayStations with strings. But virtuosity has nothing to do with the primal stomp that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll.
When the blues were born in the Mississippi Delta in the ’20s, it was music that just had to be made. Guys were nailing broom wire to a wall to make a slide-guitar sound and toe-rappin’ the soggy part of the porch for some low end. The rhythmic wails, meanwhile, came from a dark place deep inside, even as they conformed to a rigid 12-bar structure with repetitious, rhyming lyrics. Deep, pure blues are thirsty for a cool drink of water out in the fields and a belt of whiskey in the juke joints at night.
It’s that parched desire that makes 74-year-old North Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside less a traditionalist than the tradition itself. At a time when retro blues clubs are flourishing, Burnside’s the true “Hoss of Blues.” He didn’t start playing guitar until the ’40s, long after Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and other O.B.’s (original bluesmen) had passed away. But even as he copped riffs from John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, two Delta players who had moved to Detroit and Chicago, respectively, Burnside earned the right to carry on by tapping the raw, unfiltered feeling at the core of the real blues. R.L. Burnside plays the blues as if rock ‘n’ roll has yet to be invented. Fat Possum Records owner Matt Johnson knew Burnside was the genuine item the first time he met him, about 10 years ago. “Every. . . warning light in his car was on and flashing at him, and he was totally drunk,” Johnson told Spin in 1997. “He was such a bad s.o.b.”
That’s Burnside’s music: drunk and crazy, with all the warning lights on. He brushes the strings, and images of hard times come out of his amp. His voice is soulful, detached or maybe it just stepped out for some air. Another slug of canned heat and it’s back inside, mind glowing. He plugs in and looks for that big easy chair to fall into.
He learned how to play guitar from his legendary neighbor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and has carried the torch to the indie rock crowd. But when Burnside goes, the last living link from the Delta to the present will be gone. Who will be left to sing the songs of death and redemption that scent Burnside’s new album “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down” like benediction smoke?
Even colored with modern touches — DJ scratches, loops and samples — these songs are a jittery flashlight down dark and dusty roads haunted by hellhounds. There’s an eerie, almost ghostlike glow in these new songs of old themes. Even the covers seem possessed, such as the lead-off track, Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor,” as Burnside injects his own experience of having a father, an uncle and two brothers all murdered within a year of each other in Chicago in the late ’40s. “Hard times, everywhere I go/ It’s rough, rough, rougher than ever before,” he sings in a mournful tone.
After a decade in Chicago, where he did everything but play music, Burnside moved back to Holly Springs, Miss., in 1959 and has lived there, in the hill country just north of the Delta region, ever since. By days he drove a tractor and worked the farms, and at night he’d play the juke joints and house parties. R.L. didn’t make his first recordings until he was 41, with a couple of those 1967 tracks ending up on a compilation for the Arhoolie label. He also was booked for various folk festivals, as young, white America was discovering the blues. Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White and Victoria Spivey were trotted out like museum pieces before Peter, Paul & Mary would close the show with “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
When history class was over, Burnside went back to Mississippi, where his family band was known as the most rough-hewn blues act around. Two decades of obscurity only made the roar stronger, and when former New York Times critic Robert Palmer and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics came to Holly Springs in 1990 to film the “Deep Blues” documentary, Burnside and his neighbor Junior Kimbrough kept the flame of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf alive.
Palmer ended up producing “Too Bad Jim” for Burnside and “All Night Long” for Junior Kimbrough, two ’94 releases which resuscitated gritty, down-home, back-porch blues to a chorus of rave reviews. These were throwbacks who could really throw down, and punk rockers, who have a history of hoisting hidden heroes of roots music (rockabilly, ska, country, etc.), embraced Burnside in much the way that Ministry fans ate up Don Walser. Key among the R.L. admirers was Jon Spencer, who was able to legitimize his band’s “Blues Explosion” name by taking R.L. and his Sound Machine on tour as his opening act. Later Spencer produced “A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey,” a conspiracy of overamplified boogie and drunken epithets that ended up on many critics’ top 10 lists for 1996.
Even greater commercial inroads were made when “It’s Bad You Know,” from 1998’s electronica-laced “Come On In,” was used during a body-dumping scene in “The Sopranos.” Tony never looked as menacing as when Burnside’s growl was rollin’ and tumblin’ in the background. As played hourly on stations like KGSR (FM 107.1), “It’s Bad You Know” was probably the most-heard blues tune since ZZ Top turned “Boogie Chillun” into a song about a bordello outside La Grange.
At the height of its popularity, Burnside had to cancel a sold-out concert at La Zona Rosa in September ’99 because he had just had angioplasty surgery. But he’s back tonight, and with him, he brings a two-piece boogie band and a simple philosophy of life: “Drink a lot of whiskey and love all pretty women . . . maybe a few ugly ones, too. And then just try to get old.” The blues are thirsty and sitting down. Somebody get R.L. Burnside a drink.