[25 July 2002]
Although he passed away last year, blues legend John Lee Hooker is still a source of inspiration for many blues, pop, and rock newcomers. Along with Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin’ Wolf, Hooker’s legacies has been captured in various boxsets, remastered editions and compilations. But in 1966, Chess Records decided to record each of the four artists. Each artist would record his own The Real Folk Blues as well as a More Real Folk Blues in 1967. All of these artists released both albums, except for Hooker. In 1991, nine tracks recorded from the session was released as More Real Folk Blues: The Missing Album. Now, for the first time, all 18 tracks are gathered in one collection. And like fine wine, the songs only seem to better with time.
The Real Folk Blues starts off with “Let’s Go Out Tonight” and has Hooker’s blues boogie and ragged howls all over the song. Backed by guitarist Eddie Burns, who was a longtime friend from Hooker’s early days in Detroit, the tune has all the qualities of a standard blues classic. The subtle tickling of the ivories over drummer Fred Below’s no-nonsense tempo is proof of that. It’s a song that obviously had influences on newcomers at the time like the Rolling Stones, particularly when considering the band’s eventual signature “Midnight Rambler”. What is probably the oddest thing about the song is its length and ceaseless boogie feeling over almost seven minutes. “Peace Lovin’ Man” consists of a typical, slower-paced blues arrangement while “Stella Mae” returns to a more hell-raising performance. The bassist, who is still unknown but is thought to be Phil Upchurch, Leroy Stewart, or Jack Meyer, has an infectious groove that never falters.
“I Put My Trust In You” still packs a punch, but the track doesn’t emit the same emotion Hooker offers. This sounds more like a run through than anything else, despite some lovely dueling guitar work. Hooker takes things down another notch with “I’m in the Mood”, but the results are far greater here. While lacking a certain boogie to it, this is a song that gnaws in your gut and doesn’t let go. The authenticity cannot be denied. Hooker has lived it and he’s going to tell you about it, plain and simple. As a result, “You Know, I Know” tends to roll off the blues assembly line with much more oomph to it.
One of Hooker’s signature songs is “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”. With more of a rambling vibe in it, the endlessly covered tune has all of the musicians working for the common good of the song. The first album closes with a sparse and haunting track, “The Waterfront”. With just his voice, toe taps, and guitar, Hooker captures the “real folk blues” component of that Chicago session in a mesmerizing performance. An interpretation of a previous song by Hooker, “I Cover the Waterfront”, he has a roots quality to his delivery here.
The nine newly discovered tracks that compose More Real Folk Blues have a definitive folk blues feeling to them, much more than the first album. “This Land Is Nobody’s Land” has a distinct social protest quality to it. “I don’t know why the people gettin’ out of hand / This land is no one’s land” he sings before letting his guitar do an equal share of the talking. “Deep Blue Sea” is the antithesis of the previous track, resembling an early Fats Domino single or a modern day Bob Dylan tune. Moving on all sonic cylinders, Hooker plays a bit part here over the piano and rambling bass line. Howling and hollering, Hooker expresses more emotion here, and it works quite well.
“You got to be through these things to say the blues,” he mutters and hums in “Nobody Knows”, one of the average tunes of the18 here. Autobiographical and honest almost to a fault, the pacing is too middle-of-the-road. “Mustang Sally & GTO” creates numerous boogies-within-boogies, whether it’s the initial verses or Hooker playing off the terse harmonica playing. British blues groups would flock towards this style of song as it feels like it could burst out at any given moment in any direction. Remaking some of his older songs was another large portion of the session, as “Lead Me” is a remake of “You Can Lead Me Baby”. Although not exactly different from the original, it still keeps the listener’s attention.
Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is the only cover song here. But it’s not the memorable track you might anticipate. A standard arrangement almost downplays the song at times and it thereby suffers from it. “Want Ad Blues” is a great one-two punch with the closing “House Rent Blues”, but by then, the legend has been once again proven. A must have for anyone new to the blues or wanting to see what the fuss was and still is all about.