[18 December 2008]
One could consider Son House the most important blues musician of all time. After all, he taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar, and served as mentor for Muddy Waters, the two men most responsible for the blues influence on popular music since the birth of rock and roll. The reason more people don’t know about House is due to the obscurity of his recorded material. Fortunately, House was rediscovered by folk blues enthusiasts during the early 1960s and brought back to play before new, young audiences. One of his biggest teenage fans was Rory Block. She was a 15-year-old kid living with her bohemian parents in Greenwich Village when she first met the man in 1965. She played an old-time blues number for him, and House was awed. The music of rural Southern juke joints of the early 20th century was alive and well in the hands of a white girl from New York City. Block hung out with House as much as she could after that, and jammed with him whenever she could.
Block has gone on to a successful musical career and won a number of major Blues Music Awards from the Blues Foundation over the decades. She’s released dozens of albums of traditional blues. Her latest effort finds her going back to her roots, something she’s never strayed far from. Blues Walkin’ Like a Man contains a baker’s dozen of Son House tracks. Block understands these tunes inside and out, and passionately performs them. House’s works are known for their strong rhythms and dramatic intensity; he didn’t sing and play as much as tear into his material like a whirlwind. Block takes a more natural, instinctive approach. There’s an effortlessness inherent in her renditions whose strength comes from her familiarity with the songs.
Consider her cover of “Dry Spell Blues”. Block’s guitar playing comes off as controlled frenzy, like a rattlesnake uncoiling and ready to strike. She repeats powerful riffs at the same fast-paced tempo until it becomes a trancelike mantra of the strings. She sings the dire accompanying lyrics in a plaintive voice, ending with the killer lines, “I prayed to the lord / but it seems like there ain’t no G-d.” She keeps the guitar riffs ringing for almost another minute, before letting the notes drift away in a manner reminiscent of one abandoned without hope. The effect is truly devastating.
Block’s guitar playing usually takes center stage on these tunes. She uses a slide on her left hand as razor blade on the strings to cut open a wail of sound, while her right hand confronts the vibrating disturbances and causes them to resonate with soulful feelings. Both hands seem to be in constant motion to reflect a restless spirit. Block’s version of “Grinnin’ in Your Face” proves the once exception to this.She sings this song a cappella, and lets the phrasing carry the weight of living in a feckless world of mendacity. “Bear this in your mind / true friends are hard to find,” she laments in a focused formality, as one who has born the pain of betrayal. When House originally sang these lyrics, one could feel the ache of the black experience in the American south. Who can figure out why these words resonated with a teenage girl from New York in the ‘60s and be recalled with such concentration and strength four decades later? It says something about the universality of the human experience and imagination. Block convincingly performs House’s music in a way that should inspire listeners who never heard these songs before. That’s a compelling testament to both artists.