It’s hard to talk about Rory Block‘s music—even after 15 records—without talking about her gender and race, since so few white women play the Delta blues. Still, it feels anti-feminist and condescending to talk about Block in reference to her biology. On the other hand, it seems a bit circumspect to avoid these topics when they’re two of the first things that strike me. It’s not that Block hides these traits; in fact, she’s titled earlier records High Heeled Blues, Mama’s Blues, Ain’t I a Woman, When a Woman Gets the Blues, Gone Woman Blues, and I’m Every Woman (a title which reveals her attempts to express a universal woman). Whether I cringe at the phrase “female blues singer” or celebrate the anti-stereotype, I have to acknowledge Block’s wonderful ability to pull together history, vision, and individuality.
On her newest release, Last Fair Deal, Block mixes original blues and gospel songs with covers, integrating her tradition with her personal perspective. The woman who twice covers Robert Johnson (that old soul-selling skirt-chaser) on this record also sings “Hallelu, Hallelu” with her own gospel-style backup vocals. She also performs an astounding slide rendition of “Amazing Grace”, bringing out a positive spirituality in the blues that is often only latent (at best) beneath the sex, drink, and crime of the Delta blues. This tension probably reflects the influence of Reverend Gary Davis, whom Block visited frequently in her teens.
Both of the Johnson covers show her debt to the tradition as well as her unique skills. On “Last Fair Deal Gone Down”, Block stretches the song out to near twice the length of Johnson’s original, maintaining the original feel of the tune while working in some of her own licks. Block stays much closer to Johnson’s structure in “Traveling Roadside Blues”, but she makes gives it a harder sound by pounding the strings and increasing the tempo.
“Mama’s Stray Baby” might be a first in blues history. It’s the true story of the Block family’s rescue of a stray dog, which they subsequently raised as part of their own litter. Block has a distinct an open love for dogs (she owns four), and this song could easily have been treacly and cloying. Instead, she keeps the story earnest and subdued, and the music soft and undramatic. She fares less well with the sentimental “Two Places at a Table” about a person who has lost a long-time partner (and dedicated to someone in this situation). I don’t want to be cold, but the song does not work. The music and lyrics are both uninteresting and the piece is best described as “heartwarming”, in the way that Christmas specials your Grandma watches are. Block follows “Two Places at the Table” with “Awesome Love”, a short instrumental work that’s actually much more powerful than its predecessor, except for its title.
The album’s opener, “Gone Again”, hides any hints of the sentimentality to come. We first hear a car driving off and then Block starts with a fantastic riff and an ingenious, syncopated rhythmic structure. The lyrics are traditional blues thoughts on the need to “keep movin’ on”, but the stellar guitar work is an update on classical playing. “Sookie Sookie”, the next track, gives us a hardened character in tough times. In her liner notes, Block reveals that this track grew out of an attempt “to create a song that embodied ‘gals sittin’ around talkin’ about stuff’”, but became a character study of one woman.
“Sookie Sookie” provides the quintessential example of these contemporary women applying her personal vision to a predominantly male genre. The main character isn’t a stereotype but describes problems usually associated with women and not male blues singers (such as having too much domestic work, as opposed to lacking commercial work). The guitar work is skilled but standard; the lyrics are an inverse view of the blues-sufferer’s world.
Rory Block continues to demonstrate her creativity within a defined tradition. She makes new lyrical insights, employs original hooks, and sings her own stories that acknowledge the customs while modifying the expression. Political insights aside, though, Last Fair Deal is just great music.