TANGLED UP IN THE BLUES
part 3 Sidetracks & Detours´ Dylan week
By Norman Warwick with Steve Bewick
This episode of the Sidetracks & Detours Dylan serial leads us Beyond The Blues, offering us a glimpse of Robert Johnson, the legendary blues man accused believed by many to have made a deal with the devil down at the crossroads. We looked at that whole Johnson story in an earlier post this week, Dylan Dealing With The Devil and discussed the film inspired by that story and two of seemingly scores of books since written about him, telling one biography or another. As quickly as Dylan has not only acknowledged the myth, but in so doing has also perpetuated it, Johnson´s sister has written a book that seems to reclaim Robert Johnson as a loved and still-missed sibling. In the same post we also looked at Dylan´s reference to the famous song. St. James Infirmary Blues, thinking of connections to Johnson again. Whether Dylan´s reference serves only to further muddy waters of the blues that are already opaque is uncertain.
Dylan, however, clearly acknowledges John Lee Hooker, as we pass him in the shadows.
Known to music fans around the world as The King Of The Boogie, John Lee Hooker remains one of the true superstars of the blues genre: the very definition of cool. His work is widely recognized for its impact on modern music –simple, yet deeply effective songs transcending borders and languages around the globe. Each decade of Hooker’s long career brought a new generation of fans and fresh opportunities for the ever-evolving artist. He never slowed down either and as he stepped into his seventies, he entered the most successful era of his career. He reinvented himself yet again, and energized as ever, toured and recorded up until his passing in 2001.
The son of a sharecropping family, his earliest musical influence came from his stepfather, William Moore, a blues musician who taught his young stepson to play the guitar, and whom John Lee later credited for his unique style on the instrument.
By the early 1940s, Hooker had moved north to Detroit by way of Memphis and Cincinnati. He paid his way by working as a janitor in the auto factories, but by night he entertained friends and neighbours by playing at house parties. He became known as The Hook and gained fans around town from these shows, including local record store owner Elmer Barbee. The music vendor was so impressed by the young musician that he introduced him to Bernard Besman, a producer, record distributor and owner of Sensation Records.
By 1948, now honing his style on an electric guitar, had recorded several songs for Besman, who, in turn, leased the tracks to Modern Records. His first recordings included Boogie Chillun, which became a number one jukebox hit, selling over a million copies. This success was soon followed by a string of hits, including I’m In The Mood, Crawling Kingsnake and Hobo Blues. Over the next decade and more, John Lee signed to a new label, Vee-Jay Records, and maintained a prolific recording schedule, releasing over a hundred songs on the imprint.
By the the late-to-the-party young bohemian artists of the nineteen sixties had ´discovered´ Hooker, he and other notable blues originators were already taking on a new diretheir careers on a new trajectory.
With one of those fairly regular high profile folk revivals underway, Hooker returned to his solo, acoustic roots, and was in strong demand to perform at colleges and folk festivals around the country.
Similarly, across the Atlantic, emerging British bands were idolizing Hooker’s work. Artists like the The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Yardbirds introduced Hooker’s sound to new and eager audiences, whose admiration and influence helped elevate him to superstar status. By 1970, the blues man had relocated to California and was busy collaborating on several projects with rock acts. One such collaboration was with Canned Heat, which resulted in 1971’s hit record, Hooker ’n’ Heat, that became John Lee Hooker’s first charting album.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, John Lee toured the U.S. and Europe steadily, and when he even appeared in the legendary Blues Brothers movie he enjoyed a heightened profile once again. It was at the age of 72 that he released the biggest album of his career, The Healer. The GRAMMY® Award-winning 1989 LP paired him with contemporary artists (Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Los Lobos and George Thorogood, among others) on some of his most famous tracks. The Healer was released to critical acclaim and sold over one million copies. The Hook rounded out the decade as a guest performer with The Rolling Stones, during the national broadcast of their 1989 Steel Wheels tour.
Following such successes, John Lee entered the 1990s with a sense of renewed inspiration. The decade became a sustained period of celebration and recognition for the legendary artist, but it was also a highly productive era. He released five studio albums over the next few years, including Mr. Lucky, which once again teamed up Hooker with an array of artists; Boom Boom, which aimed to introduce new fans to his classic material; the GRAMMY® Award-winning Chill Out; and a collaboration with Van Morrison, Don’t Look Back, which also garnered two awards at the 1997 GRAMMYs®.
Throughout the decade, Hooker’s great body of work and contributions to modern music were being recognized not only by his peers, but also by a younger generation. He became a familiar face in popular culture, with appearances on The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman.
In 1990, a massive tribute concert took place at New York’s Madison Square Garden, featuring Hooker and an all-star line-up of guest artists.
One year later, John Lee was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, while in 1997, he was presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2000, shortly before his death, John Lee Hooker was recognized with a GRAMMY® Lifetime Achievement Award, and just one week before his passing, ever true to form, the bluesman spent his final Saturday night playing a now-legendary show to a packed house at the Luther Burbank Arts Centre in Santa Rosa, California..
The Hook continues to live on: His music can regularly be heard in TV shows, commercials and films, and many of his tracks have also found a second life sampled in new songs by the likes of R&B star Brandi, hip-hop legend Chuck D and French electronic musician St Germain, among many others. Most recently, his iconic recording, the 1962 Vee-Jay Records single Boom Boom, was inducted into the 2016 GRAMMY® Hall of Fame.
The lyrics of Dylan´s Murder Most Foul could almost be argued as a hall of fame in its own right, too, such is the legendary status of the artists mentioned. However British blues artist Eric Clapton is conspicuous by his absence from the lines of Dylan´s song
The enigmatic talent of Eric Clapton is a mark of pride for British music. The singer principally became known as the dynamic guitarist in Cream before a string of other projects which would quickly ascend Clapton to be known not as a guitar hero but a bona fide God.
Despite being born in the United Kingdom, Clapton’s influences come from the other side of the pond and it is there that he draws most of his collection of favourite songs. The perfect playlist, below, of fifteen songs of Eric Clapton’s choice, includes both Robert Johnson and John lee Hooker
When you’ve been in the music business as long as Eric Clapton has then the chances are you’ve been asked what your favourite song or album or musician is or was many times before. It means that no list is truly definitive and each list is likely consistently evolving. However, if you’re happy for a CD compilation to be made of the selections then the chances are you’d be willing to stand by them.
It was in 2005 that Clapton was asked, as part of an on-going UNcut Magazine feature, to provide 15 songs which he’d call his favourite. With indie music peaking the charts once more and a return to the garage rock of the sixties already being firmly adhered to, Clapton reminded the audience of exactly the inspiration behind all those bands that were then doing the inspiring.
That is also pretty much what Dylan does in Murder Most Foul.
By listening to more or less any successful band of the sixties in the British music scene we can often identify roots which reach to the delta blues. The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and The Who were leading the way in music for a long time but they were doing it off the back of the blues. Singing, perhaps, something about pouring new wine from old bottles.
Clapton picked fifteen songs that may not all be firmly labelled as blues but are certainly all imbued with a degree of soulfulness that highlights Clapton’s own place on that podium. All of the musicians and genres on the list performed with power and passion. Yet, Clapton’s heart is in the blues.
Clapton had previously submitted a similar list during his 1989 appearance on Desert Island Discs where he spoke a little about Robert Johnson and Freddie King.
¨I was into the blues form a very early age,´ remembered the artist, ´I went on a pilgrimage to record shops and bought every R&B record I could buy and I would study them at home and learn as much as I could by ear´.
´In fact,´ Clapton recalled, ´that’s been my method all my life. I decided that I was gonna be a blues player. It had the most profound effect on me, the most dramatic effect of all on the music I listened to. I felt in a way it was something I could pick up.´
The universal nature of the blues meant that even a young Clapton could connect with the source of hardship or woe.
In 2005, Clapton was keen to ensure the memory of the blues was fresh in everybody’s mind as they continued to cherry-pick pieces of the sixties subculture as their own. While the blues will never go away it is worth remembering that The Blues isn’t a single genre or style but is a state of mind that comes with letting your soul into your art.
Of all the wide range of music Eric Clapton has selected as his favourite songs, all of them have a soul.
- Freddy King – ‘I Love The Woman’
- Robert Johnson – ‘Kindhearted Woman Blues’
- John Lee Hooker – ‘Hobo Blues’
- Bukka White – ‘Special StreamLine’
- Elmore James – ‘Hand in Hand’
- Wes Montgomery – ‘For Heaven’s Sake’
- Blind Willie McTell – ‘Statesboro Blues’
- Thelonious Monk – ‘Crepuscule With Nellie’
- Leroy Carr – ‘Alabama Woman Blues’
- Luciano Pavarotti – ‘Che Gelida Manina’
- Blind Lemon Jefferson – ‘Chock House Blues’
- Louis Armstrong & The Hot Five – ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbecue’
- Chocur De L’Orchestre Symphonique De Montreal – ‘Pavane, op 50’
- Pat Metheny Group – ‘Another Life’
- Mississippi John Hurt – ‘Frankie & Albert’
Although Clapton´s isn´t a name whispered in Dylan´s almost-prayer-like confessional lyric of Murder Most Foul there is enough commonality between Clapton´s gathering and the Dylan crowd. Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker are on both listings and so too are Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong.
Most professional musicians, anyway, dislike the classifications and categorisations applied to songs by critics, though quite often critics are simply following guidelines laid down by record labels in an effort to boost sales. The singer-songwriters of this world, like Dylan, are not constrained by any such classifications, and like chefs or artists, prefer to create their own masterpieces from colours and tastes of folk, jazz, blues, rock, country, hip, hop and rap. Dylan does so in the music of Murder Most Foul in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to identify what precise genres he might be referencing with his liberal sprinkling of song titles, artists and cultural iconography.
An example of this is his reference to Etta James and the song I´d Rather Go Blind. Like most of us I am pretty familiar with the name of Etta James, having really enjoyed one or two cross-over commercial hits she had in the UK over her long career. I was aware of, but not necessarily very familiar with, the huge body of work she produced and always had a vague feeling that it didn´t quite fit into what I think of as my bag of mixed goodies of all sorts of music.
Seeing her name and this song in Dylan´s work caused me some confusion as there are many versions and interpretations of this song that I love. So, I ran it all through my search engines.
There was, of course, plenty of information on-line though many visitors to some sites clearly assumed the song had been written by Etta James and asked who else had recorded ´her´ song. I had always been vaguely aware it had been written by a song writing team, confirmed as being co-credited to Ellington Jordan and co-credited to Billy Foster.
It was first recorded by Etta James in 1967, released in 1968, and has subsequently become regarded as a ´blues and soul classic´ thus further confusing issues of category ! Nevertheless, I had also asked Steve Bewick´s opinion as to the categorisation of the song, as for some reason I thought it might have had a jazz parentage.
I was therefore somewhat surprised to learn this was a mid-sixties composition, whereas I had assumed it to be much older than that. Of course, more or less contemporaneous with the Etta James single there were album versions, too, by Chicken Shack and Fleetwood Mac, both featuring the vocals of Christine McVie. The song has more recently been recorded by Kelly Clarkson but you should also check out some of the fantastic You Tube performances by Etta, particularly one of her delivering it with Doctor John in a version that, as always with this musician, cannot be described in prescriptive terms. We recommend you also have a look at her playing the song with John Lee Hooker as that enables to hoin a couple of the dots in Dylan´s speckled lyric.
Jamesetta Hawkins, my good friend Wiki tells me, was best known as Etta James (January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012) an American singer. In an echo of our previous comments here, Wiki reckoned she performed in various genres, including blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll, jazz and gospel, Starting her career in 1954, she gained fame with hits such as The Wallflower, At Last, (a favourite song on my playlists), Tell Mama, Something’s Got A Hold On Me, and I’d Rather Go Blind. She faced a number of personal problems, including heroin addiction, severe physical abuse, and incarceration, before making a musical comeback in the late 1980s with the album Seven Year Itch.
James’s powerful, deep, earthy voice bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. She won six Grammy Awards and around twenty Blues Music Awards. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. Rolling Stone magazine ranked James number 22 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time; she was also ranked number 62 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists Of All Time.
There were one or two other references by Dylan in Murder Most Foul that also seemed to be pointing the finger at the blues, though the finger wavered as it pointed. Dylan makes an obvious connection between Oh Lord Please Don´t Let Me Be Misunderstood and The Animals, who did, of course, have a commercial hit with the song on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless The Animals were, and are still, so misunderstood that Steve Bewick, My writing and research partner on this odyssey, was delighted to enter an Etta James version of the song on to our virtual Sidetracks & Detours playlist rather than one by a group he clearly disdained ! Wiki again had some further background information that linked the song also to Nina Simone and that certainly made more sense to us.
Again, You Tube carries a plethora of cuts of Nina Simone singing the song and certainly the fact that Eunice Kathleen Waymon (February 21, 1933 – April 21, 2003), known professionally as Nina Simone, was an American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist would have justified her inclusion in the lyrics of Murder Most Foul by Bob Dylan. His song, after all, eulogises artists and music spanning a broad range of styles. Nina Simone investigated classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop, so surely qualifying her for a mention from Bob.
Nina once said that ´an artist´s duty is to reflect the times.´
Í´ll tell you what freedom means to me,´ she said. ´It means no fear !´
There is still one final phrase in Dylan´s soliloquy that puzzles me, and that is about ´a key to the highway´ which, in one form or another, is a ubiquitous phrase in the songwriters´ collection of myths and fables and folktales.
Key To The Highway is recognized as a blues standard. In 2010, the Blues Foundation inducted Big Bill Broonzy’s rendition into the Blues Hall of Fame. Key To The Highway has been recorded by numerous blues and other artists and was one of the songs played at Duane Allman’s 1971 funeral in Macon, Georgia. Key To The Highway is a story originating in popular culture, typically passed on by word of mouth.
Originally an acoustic number, Key To The Highway is about a woman driving a man out of his home, out of the state, and quite likely out of his mind. It was first recorded in 1940 by the pianist Charlie Segar, who first recorded the song in 1940 This was followed by recordings from Jazz Gillum and Big Bill Broonzy in 1940 and 1941, using an arrangement that has become the standard.
When Little Walter updated the song in 1958 in an electric Chicago blues style, it became a success on the R&B record chart. A variety of artists have since interpreted the song, including Eric Clapton, who recorded several versions. That closes the circle somehow doesn´t it, in this article?
Perhaps so, but there is one matter outstanding and that concerns the origin of Dylan´s own title of Murder Most Foul.
Those who see Dylan´s song as some kind of tribute to John F. Kennedy will see significance in the fact that the first recorded use of the phrase Murder Most Foul is in Shakespeare’s great work Hamlet. It is no coincidence that these words, muttered by the assassinated king (Hamlet’s father), are used to describe the killing of The King Of Camelot even as he was drawing approval from the general public.
Nevertheless, it remains difficult to unravel the myth from the fable, from the folk-tale to the fact unless we are absolutely clear what each of those terms imply.
We accept myths as stories that are passed down about how or why something came to be. We perhaps understand that legends are designed to teach a lesson about a real person in History, with a few facts dramatically changed. Fables, on the other hand are stories that are passed down, with a good lesson to be learned, and are about animals, plants, or forces of nature that are humanlike.
Folk tales are stories originating in popular culture, typically passed on by word of mouth.
So, we could argue that myths, legends, fables and folk tales y are all methods of story-telling employed by those who create or re-create History. That´s a fact !
All the confusion of genre and classification and categorisation in Dylan´s song is perhaps just typical of how he often so quickly covers up what we think we have just glimpsed. He seems to want obfuscate as much as revel.
On the other hand I am reminded of something I was told in an interview with American singer writer John Stewart, who had been a folkie, was pretty much seen at the time of the interview but who patently wanted to be seen as a rock star. I asked him whether he might enjoy greater success if he was more easily identified in one particular genre by audiences.
´People like what they know´, he told me, ´but people don´t know what they like.´