november 2008

Close To the Earth, Close To the Heart

By David McGee


Rory Block
Stony Plain

It's way past time for a tribute to Son House, and who better to bring it to life than the veteran blues woman Rory Block? Not only is she a much honored blues artist herself, but she knew the man-as a 15-year-old budding musician, she met and played for the then-newly rediscovered Delta blues giant in 1965, following one of his shows at the Village Gate in New York. Were he still with us, Son would surely approve of this record as much as he did of Block's artistry way back when.

Like her subject, Rory Block plays the blues from deep inside the songs, which is where Son House lived them in real life. A devout churchgoer from childhood, he took to the pulpit at age 15 and initially scorned the blues for its evocations of immorality and slovenly behavior. By his mid-20s he was more tolerant of the music, mainly because he was living out the very tales he so despised as he rambled aimlessly from town to town throughout the South, preaching, riding the rails, working a variety of manual labor jobs, designing his next getaway. Along the way he learned the fundamentals of the bottleneck style that would lend his music its eerie, edgy quality, via the tutelage of now-obscure bluesmen Willie Wilson and Rubin Lacey. He rewrote two songs by James McCoy into the Delta blues classics "My Black Mama" and "Preachin' Blues." In 1928 he shot a man to death in a Lyon, MS, juke joint (the fellow had opened fire in the club, but a judge rejected House's plea of self-defense) and spent two years at the notorious Parchman Prison farm; upon his release a judge warned Son never to set foot in Clarksdale, MS, again. Not that it was worth it, but the Parchman experience yielded one of Son's most devastating numbers, "Country Farm Blues," its tune adapted from Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." Block brings that song to vivid life here with a driving slide guitar attack and a heated vocal that heightens the seething resentment fueling the storyline.

Post-prison Son befriended and began performing with the reigning giant of the Delta blues, Charlie Patton; they were joined by Patton's musical partner Willie Brown, an extraordinary guitarist himself. Son and Forging a friendship and musical partnership that endured for 20 years, Son and Willie Brown also unleashed one heck of a protégé in young Robert Johnson, who would sit in with them on harmonica, all the while studying the guitarists' styles as his own began taking shape. A team of field recordists led by Alan Lomax recorded him in 1941 and 1942. But following Brown's death in the mid-'50s Son lost interest in music completely. He moved to Rochester and began working various day jobs (railroad porter, cook, etc.), until 1964 when blues scholars located him and coaxed him out of retirement, which is about the time Rory Block entered the story. Signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, Son returned to the studio for what proved to be his final studio sessions. Although time had taken its toll on his voice and his manual dexterity, those tracks, released as Father of Folk Blues (and later reissued as Father of the Delta Blues on two CDs with previously unreleased cuts), nonetheless showcased the power he could still deliver when he got going. Son played his last show in 1975, and died in a Detroit rest home on October 19, 1988.

Rory Block hasn't suffered near the misfortune that plagued Son House, but she understands where he comes from-you can't listen to her wrenching, gritty delivery of "Government Fleet Blues" and not be laid low. (And, as Block reveals in her liner notes, she found a link to Bessie Smith in the song, and you can hear it in the attitude she projects; she's also given stirring support here-and on some other cuts-by John Sebastian, whose wailing harmonica fills serve as a second, tortured voice to Block's own.) Son was a man bedeviled by abandonment and conflicted by his attraction to both the sacred and the profane. It's not by chance that so many of his songs speak of the sun going down, but never rising. Once he enters the darkness, he doesn't come out the other end into the light. Yet there is a deeply spiritual quality about his quest to be loved and to love in return. He never stops trying, but constantly bemoans his efforts as "ain't satisfactory," as per the stomping version of "My Black Mama" with which Block opens this journey, her slide emitting a wrenching howl as her right hand pounds out a percussive, stalking rhythm on the strings. "Death Letter," arguably Son's greatest song, is rendered at a brisk, strutting pace that belies the story's chilling narrative telling of how she (Block changes the gender in the songs) was called to come bury her dead lover; after he's buried, "I didn't feel so bad until the sun went down/I didn't have nobody to throw my arms around," followed by a lyric that throws the entire tale into ambiguity, to wit: "It's so hard to love somebody don't love you/it ain't satisfactory, baby/don't care what I do." The tension between Block's searing guitar work and the pain in her voice is so palpable you can only echo the query made by Son himself after he first heard her perform: "Where did she learn to play like this?"

Although Block mostly stays true to the stark, mysterious ambiance Son conjured with only his voice and guitar-and one listen to the intricate, dexterous instrumental work she demonstrates on "Jinx Blues" explains why-she and her co-producer Rob Davis made a wise choice in adding a gospel choir to enhance the desperation of the spiritual quest described in "Dry Spell Blues" ("Should I pray to the Lord/But it seems like there ain't no God") and give the whole endeavor the feel of an epic plea. The choir returns on the 13th and final cut, a moment when Son tried to let in some light, "I Want To Go Home On The Morning Train," as close to jubilation as can be found in the master's canon, even though he's anticipating his own death; still, he can't help but fret that the "evening train might be too late." After the choir slips out of the soundscape, it's left to Sebastian's insistent, rumbling harmonica and Block's percussive strumming and crying slide to bring the song to a plaintive close. The silence that follows is like the chill of an early morning. Close to the earth and close to the heart, that's Blues Walkin' Like a Man, yes, indeed.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
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