“’The blues had a baby,’ Muddy Waters sang, ‘and they called it rock and roll.’ Yeah, and once the brat began bringing home a paycheck, it looked as though he’d boot the old man out of the house.” (Francis Davis, The History of the Blues, p.209)[NOTE: It turns out that, while I’ve been writing about the history of the Blues over the past few years, I’ve also been circling around the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. I can’t say that I’m surprised, because early on I ran across the Muddy Waters quote cited above. But the question has always been, for me at least, what does it mean to say that rock ‘n’ roll was a “baby” of the blues: Are we talking “founding fathers,” a paternity suit, or some combination of the two? That’s what journalist and music critic John Milward seeks to answer in this volume.]
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Milward begins with a scene in his living room in 1967, when he and a friend put B.B. King’s album, Live at the Regal, on the turntable and discovered the blues, which, he assumes, is the way numerous denizens of the ’60s were introduced to that musical genre. This introduction is typical of the book—anecdotal, light on analysis, but still interesting, not least because Milward never loses sight of how the “blues revival” of the 1960s affected old blues men, how those veteran performers helped shape the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and how their careers were reborn, and briefly prolonged, as a result.
For example, in his “Prelude,” Milward traces the career of Robert Johnson from his reputed meeting with the Devil “at the Crossroads” near Clarksdale, Mississippi, through the release by Columbia of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (1990), which transformed him, retrospectively to be sure, “into both the last of the great Delta bluesmen and America’s first rock star.” (xv) While Milward discusses many later “rock stars,” he repeatedly emphasizes that their success—and the “benefits” it brought (celebrity, of course, but let’s not forget “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll”)—consumed them, whereas Johnson had been dead for over half a century when his epochal box set was released and made him “rock star.” As the Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need”–or maybe not.
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After World War II, the efforts of folklorist/musicologists like John Lomax and his son Alan, and of dedicated record collectors like the so-called “Blues Mafia,” who scoured homes and shops in small southern towns in search of blues records, kept a fading musical form alive. Moreover, in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, records by blues performers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker made their way to England, where they attracted young fans who, in a grim postwar world, were looking for music that “spoke to their condition,” seeking a way up and out.
These youngsters, attracted by the music, lyrics, and performance styles of American blues artists, did their best to re-shape songs by African American musicians to attract European teenagers—and, subsequently, during the so-called “British Invasion” of the U.S. in the 1960s, American teens as well, during a prosperous postwar period that made affluent adolescents objects of desire for American corporations. And, at least in Milward’s view, this came at a propitious moment, because American teens were largely being exposed to “neutered” versions of rhythm and blues songs performed by white singers. By the late ’50s, Milward argues, rock had already lost much of its vigor, with Elvis in the Army; Buddy Holly the victim of a plane crash; Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis caught up in sex scandals. Moreover, the blues was becoming less popular, with both blacks and whites. (39)
Most of those young Brits were attracted by the guitar skills of American blues men, especially the modifications made when guitars were electrified as part of the post-World War II “Chicago Blues.” These adaptations came to characterize groups like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and Cream. More importantly, at least one member of each group became a “guitar hero” whose skill and charisma attracted huge numbers of American teenagers to rock concerts and record stores.
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Milward makes an important distinction early on concerning race as the impetus for much of postwar blues music and its blues/rock successor: “In the United States, issues of race inevitably challenged white musicians who chose to play the blues. In Britain, the blues was a musical choice that, like folk music in the States, owed more to bohemian instincts and adolescent rebellion than race.” Milward cites in support of this distinction Eric Clapton’s (to me, dubious) claim that he “didn’t even recognize the racial aspect of the blues.” (40)
In Milward’s view, two things had occurred simultaneously by the early 1960s: American fans “rediscovered” elderly blues men, mostly off the grid since the 1930s, but their “rediscovery” occurred in the context of what was called “folk music,” not the blues; and, in Britain, young musicians organized bands that recognized how skillful those old performers had been, especially on the guitar. As a result, numerous ancient bluesmen, like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and Son House, were being steered, usually by youthful white managers, to the Newport Folk Festival and, ultimately, to college campuses, recording studios, and television shows. At the same time, neophyte “guitar heroes” from Britain were headlining so-called “British Invasion” groups in American concert venues, and devoting their spare time to locating older blues men, praising them as “role models,” and arranging to have them open for them, either in this country, in Europe, or both.Although Robert Johnson’s music supposedly taught Bob Dylan that the blues and folk music were “undistinguishable” and “both genres embraced a tradition in which one song was built upon another,” (30) Dylan still had a single rule for guitarists in his band: “I don’t want any of the B.B. King shit, man.” (69) Milward accepts Geoff Muldaur’s exaggerated assertion that the Paul Butterfield Blues band was more important than Dylan’s controversial appearance with an electric guitar at Newport in 1965, because, thanks to the stellar talent of Butterfield’s lead guitarist, Michael Bloomfield, “there would be two hundred thousand blues bands in the world based on that model”— can you say, “Guitar Hero, the Sequel”? (73)
* * * * *After bringing old blues performers, folkies, “British Invasion Bands,” and American blues/rock groups together, Milward turns to their achievements—and their excesses—which gives some of his later chapters a strongly elegiac quality, as one stellar blues/rock performer after another learned the tragic lesson, “be careful what you wish for.” Even those who didn’t die from it experienced the perils of addiction (Eric Clapton, Gregg Allman, Keith Richards, Peter Green), while others were unable to stop themselves from falling over the cliff of rock ‘n’ roll fame into musical martyrdom (Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman, Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield). Once more, we get a hard-to-swallow rationalization from Eric Clapton: “We’re all hooked on something. We need the drugs to help us, to free our minds and our imaginations from the prejudices and snobbery that have been bred into us.” (162) Or, perhaps more honestly, as the blunt-spoken Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones–no neophyte to substance abuse–phrased it, when using drugs, “You don’t need a chick, you don’t need music, you don’t need nothing. It doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s not called junk for nothing.” (167)
Ironically, the elderly blues men whose careers were “resurrected” during the ‘60s function here as a kind of “Greek Chorus,” as Milward examines the excesses of the young, mostly white, “guitar heroes” whose careers make up much of the volume. While managers of blues/rock bands took issue with their clients’ excesses for financial reasons, older blues men criticized the behavior of their younger white contemporaries based on their own long experience with drugs and those who used them. For example, responding to pleas from Michael Bloomfield’s mother, B.B. King did his best to convince the young white guitar hero that, “You can’t let what you’ve got go to hell like that.” (175) But in the end, that’s what Bloomfield did. And Muddy Waters predicted, accurately as it turned out, though not for the reasons he feared, that if Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t abandon his fondness for a mixture of liquor, speed, and cocaine, he wouldn’t “live to get forty years old. . . . You just don’t get over that.” (188)
For a blues fan, seeing how the white blues/rock performers treated the surviving blues men during the ‘60s “blues revival” is heartening. Most of the old guys were well beyond their “use-by” date as far as skills were concerned, yet being praised as “role models” by the younger players and opening for various groups here and abroad brought them increased attention—and financial rewards—as did the willingness of the younger groups to “cover” songs by their elders.
Moreover, the albums the older performers released at the end of their careers almost always included duets with younger stars, who, despite their egos, were usually content to stay in the background: Listen, for example, to Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan; Bonnie Raitt with John Lee Hooker, “In the Mood,” on his Grammy-winning, The Healer; Don’t Look Back (Hooker and Van Morrison); Hooker’s wonderful last album, Face to Face; any number of “duets” between the still musically prolific B.B. King and his “fans” (the Clapton-King collaboration, Riding with the King; Blues Summit; and Deuces Wild, to name a few); the marvelous Chess double album Fathers and Sons (1969), featuring Muddy Waters and Otis Spann with the likes of Michael Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield; and Johnny Winter’s successful one-man crusade to ensure that Muddy Waters’ legacy was preserved—Hard Again (1977).
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Milward concludes with two interesting statements. First, summarizing the careers of older performers who lived through the ‘60s blues revival and beyond, Geoff Muldaur contends that, “When B.B. King dies, every major inventor of the [blues] form will have passed. So from that point on, it really becomes like a classical music form.” (220) To which one should add that, unlike most classical composers, once King ascends to that Great Blues Club in the Sky, blues fans will still be able to procure many examples of his work with his famous guitar “Lucille,” as well as listen to the singing and playing of earlier blues men, thanks to advances in recording technology. And this persistent interest in early blues performers can be traced directly to the ’60s “Blues Revival” and the fondness of blues/rock stars for the work of these musical pioneers.
The other quote comes from one of my favorite blues men, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who, in the twilight of his long career, claimed that “Musicians have plenty of fun. My God, the world don’t owe me nothing [the title of his autobiography].” (220) And, yet, Honeyboy, like most other blues musicians “rediscovered” in the 1960s, never had to deal with the sheer magnitude of fame encountered by the white blues/rockers of that era–all that money, along with “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” In the words of Robert Frost, perhaps “That made all the difference.”
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: