Rory Block: The Lady and Mr. Johnson

[17 August 2006]

By Robert R. Calder

Rory Block made an early showing under the name Sunshine Kate, and on an album called How to Play the Blues Guitar. Forty two years have since elapsed, and not without reason has she been called the most gifted female performer of country blues. There’s now a recording of how to play Robert Johnson; those are guitar lessons, and not to be confused with the present demonstration, The Lady and Mr. Johnson. Trendy pseuds ask what it is about Robert Johnson that arouses such enthusiasm. Don’t they know what it is to like good music? Forget references to Johnson selling his soul to the devil, abandon false philosophical consciousness, and learn by listening to a little of what the human soul might be.

Don’t start playing this CD with the volume up high! There’s nothing amiss: it’s just that Ms. Block in raspy voice leaps from the speakers in a way which lifted this reviewer a centimetre from his chair in surprise. Block starts singing unaccompanied, until a choir—said to be of Johnson family members—joins in. Hallelujah! And then, praise bem, there’s her guitar.

The last all-Johnson CD I heard before this one, whatever the real merits of the gentleman’s guitar-playing, had in the gent’s light baritone a little less than the expressive edge needed. It’s all there in Ms. Block’s penetrating mezzo-soprano. She has the vocal equipment, and also the understanding. There’s none of the overheatedness of various performers who began an interest in blues and began trying to perform much at the time she did. Some made much bigger names for themselves and lots of money… and always sounded somewhat hysterical, as if they couldn’t quite believe they were performing this incredible music. And of course, really they weren’t.

Ms. Block’s limitations are much, much smaller, as for instance on “32-20”, where the vocal part is awkward for her voice. Too many notes are a bit low for her to deliver of her best. A full-blown contralto she isn’t. Early on, if the guitar part on that number sounds farther from Johnson’s original than elsewhere on the set, that’s not a fault. Frankly, it’s hardly much different from Johnson singing Johnson than the difference between one and another faithfully accurate singer of the same thoroughly notated Schubert song. Except of course that Ms. Block plays a guitar solo at the end.

Where on “I’ve Got Ramblin’ on My Mind” the guitar part is slightly simplified, that might be a condition of performing the song at all: performing, rather than delivering an imitation. The differences between Johnson’s guitar-vocal harmonisation in “Come on in My Kitchen” and her own are also a matter of faithful interpretation. Behind Johnson’s performance there’s Johnson’s composition, which she doesn’t try to perform in her own way, but really in his way, but with her resources. The valid differences between respectively faithful performances of complex songs or music have all to do with there being a little more to any great composition than even a Robert Johnson could deliver. With alternative performances you can hear the composition better, and listening to Block you might even hear Johnson better when you go back to whichever of his two dozen songs you’ve heard the lady perform.

On “Hellhound on My Trail” she develops details in very, very interesting ways, and throughout this set I never had that realisation which comes as the ultimate disappointment, like “she’s not Robert Johnson.” In purely factual terms I knew that from the beginning. Her performances could be called maybe even conservative, but in fact are all the more imaginatively creative for that.

Published at: