Seattle was like a battle ground that night.
Seattle was like a battle ground that night.
Three sentinels stand, guardians of the valley.
This leaf has been pinned to this tree for a long time. Gold is valuable because it never tarnishes or loses its luster.
The leaf’s shining isn’t through its color, but in its story.
Up on the slopes of the mountain, the trees grow tall and straight– but never taller than than the lonesome peak between the pines.
The path winds around the bend, no one knows where your path leads.
If I hadn’t heard Lightnin’ Hopkins, I would not be playing guitar anymore. After two months of bumbling around on my girlfriend’s mini-sized acoustic guitar, trying to strum an A chord, I began to question what I was doing banging around on this stringed box.
We have all had that moment when we try to learn a new skill and we rapidly progress but then hit a wall.
My wall derived from being uninterested in the songs I was trying to play. I never liked playing with a pick, preferring to play with my fingers.
To try and remedy my sudden plateau, I Googled “best music to play on acoustic guitar.” One insightful poster mentioned a learner should try learning blues because it’s the basis of modern music.
I knew I wanted to stick with acoustic guitar with my fingers, and the blues sounded intriguing. Not knowing that acoustic finger style blues is synonymous with country blues, I typed in ‘acoustic blues player old.’
Here’s what came up:
Immediately I thought that this is how a guitar should sound. From that point on, I knew I had to make my guitar sound like that-— I’ve been on the journey ever since.
The player in the video is Lightnin’ Hopkins, perhaps the most widely recorded country bluesman that ever lived. Hopkins was a Texan through and through. Music giants from the area like Stevie Ray Vaughan cite Lightnin’ Hopkins as a major influence in their sound. Some musicians like BB King are as bold as to claim without Lightnin’, there would be no rock and roll.
Lightnin’ was brought into the main stream in 1959, and thanks to his prodigious output and charisma, we have several COLOR videos of him playing.
A lot of bluesmen had their standard guitar licks, and Lightnin’ was no exception. The aphorism ‘it’s not what you play, its how you play it,’ rings true with Lightnin’ Hopkins. He played in a free flowing, improvisational manner; paired with his powerful singing, he had an unrivaled presence and immediacy about him.
Although Lightnin’ typically played in the keys of E and A, he would sometimes play old pop songs like Baby Take Me Back:
If there is one video that characterizes what I think of when I hear Lightnin’ Hopkins, it’s the video below. His poetic, improvisational, effortless style is very evident:
If you are interested in learning more about Lightnin, check out this documentary that was made in the 1970s. Watching him live his life is very interesting, and at times humorous.
When I started listening to the blues, I was fortunate to live in the world of YouTube and blogs. All of the living old blues men and women had already been tracked down, rare sides found, and historical performance footage uploaded to the internet.
One of my favorite stories to read about are when old performers were rediscovered by a small group of dedicated record collectors and amateur historians.
The legendary blues man Skip James was rediscovered in 1964. Check out this amazing performance he recorded that same year:
Skip James recorded some incredible sides in 1931, but his success was marred by the Great Depression. He did not record again for over 30 years.
In 1964, after rediscovery, James preformed for the first time at the Newport Blues Festival. For the next five years, James enjoyed the career as a musician he never had. He passed away in 1969.
Aside from Blind Lemon Jefferson, it’s hard to find a more idiosyncratic musician from the pre-war blues era than Skip James.
In many of his 1931 recordings, James played in a strange minor tuning he called “cross-note tuning.” This gave his music a somber, dark, moody quality. He also sang in an eerie falsetto that he was able to replicate even after his rediscovery.
James’ contribution to music are unknown to many, but are significant. Hard Times Killing Floor Blues was famously covered in the Cohen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Additionally, Skip James’ recording Devil Got My Woman heavily influenced Robert Johnson’s 1937 Hellhound on my Trail, which is considered to be one of the greatest songs of the 20th century.
Many people think of blues men as nomadic, soulful, troubled men that traveled the open road expressing themselves through their guitar. In reality, many great country blues artists we’re not like this, but were seasoned performers, playing pop songs of the day.
When you listen to Skip James’ music, you don’t hear a 1930s pop performer. You hear a man channeling something deep through his voice, piano, and guitar.
Skip James is a true country blues legend– there will never be another.
I remember telling my friend in high school that the reason I loved the Beatles was because all of their recordings were good, there were none that I didn’t like.
Now I would change this statement to:
Some of their recordings weren’t good–
some of their recordings were great–
and some are bad.
Later, when I started listening seriously to the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, I realized there were quite a few tracks I didn’t like at all. A couple examples is this copy of Stagger Lee by the Dead or this song from Leonard Cohen.
Despite these examples’ clear badness as songs, I thought they were good because I was unable to divorce the artist from their work.
There are a lot of arguments you can make about how art is a representation of the artist. To critique art is to critique the artist.
However, to truly understand the art you love, you have to realize that an artist can create a lot of duds. These artists we love are just mortals like you and I, no matter how much we deify them.
Let’s take Robert Johnson as a prime example of this effect.
Johnson had a short career. He died at age 27 in 1938 from being poisoned. If dying from poison isn’t enough proof that Johnson wasn’t a god, I don’t know what is (sorry Clapton fans).
Later rock-and-roll and blues fans claimed Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and was given incredible musical skills. If you listen to his tunes like Me and the Devil Blues or Crossroads Blues you can see how this myth perpetuated:
In truth, Robert Johnson was just a great musician who played a lot of other styles besides blues. We even have a recording of his hokum tune They’re Red Hot. He lived a hard life, traveled around the south to play music, and then died violently. In his life he recorded 29 different songs, with 13 surviving alternate takes of these songs.
I don’t like the song They’re Red Hot, but I still think Robert Johnson was a great musician. A lot of people, who deify Robert Johnson do not accept that any of his work could possibly be bad.
To really appreciate music, we have to be able to discriminate against certain recordings and understand that they are not good. This outlook is especially important for old recordings because there wasn’t really any post processing, we got an honest view of an artist’s performance at the time.
At the same time, we can always be grateful we have these recordings to formulate these opinions.
Blind Boy Fuller is another example of a prolific artist who made some poor recordings. There a lot sociological reasons why these recordings were bad, but the point is that we can separate artists from their work.
We shouldn’t assume that because we love an artist, everything they produce is gold. Realizing this improved my own musicianship, as I became able to understand that some sounds will appeal to people for a longtime, and some sounds are relics of a time, or simply bad.
As a final comparison, check out these three songs by 12-string wizard Blind Willie Mctell. I think the first song is bad, the second song is good, and the last is great.
What songs do you think are bad, good, or great?
I used to frequent the forums of Weenie Campbell to expand my oeuvre of music beyond traditional country blues.
In my earlier days, I used to judge contemporary country blues artist by how they played songs I was familiar with.
My mindset used to limit me!
As I matured as a musician and as a listener, I became much more interested in artists that would play in the style, not just play slavish copies of source material. After all, all the country blues greats played regional and popular songs in their own style which led them to producing great music.
Paul Geremia is a player that really stands out to me as a living country blues artist. Using 12 strings, 6 strings, harmonica, and his voice, Paul always paints a picture through his work.
From crosses between Blind Boy Fuller’s Walking My Blues Away (part 2) and Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk, to a cover of Robert Johnson’s Come In My Kitchen with Skip James-esque falsetto, Geremia was never afraid to experiment to push the genre.
Also, it’s important to note that Paul is one of the greatest exponents of playing the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson. A video of his version of Shuckin’ Sugar Blues is shown below.
In some ways, I think Geremia’s voice prepped me for later country music I listened to. He definitely had a great twang to his voice when he wanted.
Paul also hung out with Howling Wolf and Hubert Sumlin in his apartment! Check out the story here!
Unfortunately, Paul had a stroke in 2014, and his career is on hold. You can support him and his family at through this Paypal link.