Music

Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.

Prove It on Me
Rory Block

Stony Plain

27 March 2020

Rory Block is one of America's greatest performing blues historians. Her Greenwich Village upbringing provided her with a solid foundation as she met many contemporary folk-blues revivalists, including Peter Rowan, Maria Muldaur, and John Sebastian. Even as a child, Block wasn't satisfied just watching others but picked up the guitar and played and sung herself. She hit the road at 15 years of age to seek out the greats and perform for others. Despite many gaps caused by personal issues and recording squabbles, she has a substantial discography and has received many awards for her blues discs.

For the last 15 or so years, Block has worked at honoring those that came before her. She created what she calls her "Mentor Series", where she offered her album-length interpretations of artists she met back in her early days, including Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James, Bukka White, and Mississippi John Hurt. This is a who's who of the country blues masters. The fact that she learned directly from all of them speaks volumes about her credibility and talent.

In 2018 she decided to pay tribute to blues women and began by releasing an album of Bessie Smith (A Woman's Soul). Block has just issued her second record in the series, Prove It on Me, which contains nine tracks of classic tracks by female blues artists from the relatively obscure (Rosetta Howard, Arizona Dranes) to the more well-known (Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Memphis Minnie) as well as one self-penned gem ("Eagles"). The songs range from the bawdy to the religious and convey the diversity of elements within the blues tradition. They share one thing in common: they express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and the larger American society. They are proud women who refuse to accept their social status as inferior beings.

Block had a treasure trove of material to choose from, and she selected some tasty nuggets. There's not a bad song on the album, and each one is performed masterly with grit and gumption. Block provides all the vocals, all the guitar work—including slide and playing the bass notes on the guitar, drums, and percussion. Block is literally a one-woman band, in addition to co-producing the disc with Rob Davis. Highlights include the slithering, sexy "It's Red Hot" (Madilyn Davis), the solemn "Motherless Child" (Elvie Thomas), the gospel "Wayward Girl" (Lottie Kimbrough) and the boisterous "He May Be Your Man" (Helen Hume).

Block also does a bittersweet version of the most well-known song here, Memphis Minnie's "In My Girlish Days". Block doesn't play it coy but instead looks back coolly at her past. That matches well with Block's autobiographical contribution. "Eagles" looks at past hardships without saccharine nostalgia. Instead, she expresses pride in being a survivor. She has more than endured. She has found peace through her music. Block may not be the first person to find a home in the blues. There's room enough for all, she notes, and she invites us in.

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