The cultural expressions of outrage and resistance against the Bush Administration, so evident in rap and rock, are just as much part of contemporary blues. Since 2002 a number of blues CDs have come out that convey sharp anger at George W. Bush’s far right Presidential agendas—agendas that bring imperial wars, domestic cutbacks, and arrogant impositions of corporate dominance. These political CDs are clear manifestos of resistance. But not only that. They are just as notable artistically and creatively as they are ideologically, involving as they do some of the most proficient and expressive players in the blues today, including both black and white musicians.
Although not as explicitly political as the African American music forms of hip hop, soul and modern jazz, blues has never been, either, that music of supposed accommodation and resignation that is implied in certain stereotypes of it. Direct expressions of left-wing resistance in the blues go back at least as far as Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues,” and are certainly there in the blues CDs that have come out in the last few years.
“‘Blues’ words are usually about men and women,” said B.B King, “but if you hear the blues, you know it’s about a lot more.”1 King himself gave the public one of the most renowned of these openly “about a lot more” blues in his hit record from 1969, “Why I Sing the Blues.” Another “mainstream” blues artist, Chick Willis, expressed that same temerity, directness, and unwillingness to disguise or disavow realities in one of his noted songs, “Hello Mr. Blues.”
But finding the politically explicit left blues of today is decidedly — as it is for today’s blues generally—a matter of gaining access to small-label recordings and being able to hear artists who have little or no exposure through the commercial media. Contemporary blues, as a critically acclaimed “art” music, is often ghettoized. But then, such ghettoizing also insulates it from pressures to accommodate and compromise for greater commercial appeal. And, although not nearly as popular as rock, and lacking today a major blues-to-rock crossover artist such as the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, contemporary blues still has significant popular appeal—an appeal that definitely gives blues artists exposure, audiences, venues, airplay, and opportunities to express through recordings.
Contemporary blues is also racially and culturally integrated, with a multiracial and multicultural appeal as part of this. The emergence of major white blues artists in the 1960s and ‘70s was frequently considered a sign that African Americans, particularly African American youth, were abandoning the blues. But it was not noted nearly as much that the blues were also an attraction point for many young African American musicians, who saw the blues as positively expressing the cultural roots and ongoing cultural affirmations of Black America.
Most of the blues artists discussed below are male, and in this article we are principally focusing on CDs issued within the last four years. Unfortunately, that leaves out a number of individual women-affirming blues songs by female blues artists that were first recorded earlier. But certainly these individual songs establish that the blues is anything but pervasively passive and accommodating. Further, they are profound affirmations of just how correct B.B. King was in saying that the blues is really “about a lot more” than particular individuals. And it is precisely this “a lot more” that’s in these blues songs discussed below, songs that so clearly express a feminist bent “about men and women.” Certainly that’s apparent in a classic song shared by both blues and soul/R&B that was recorded in the late 1960s by one of the all-time classic blues/soul artists of either gender, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Another blues classic that goes back to the 1920s, and still lives on in constant re-recording, is Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.”
Undoubtedly among those blues that are anything but deferential to male egos are Denise LaSalle’s “[Your love is like tryin’ to light a fire with a] Wet Match,” and Francine Reed’s retort to the man who’s threatening to leave her, “One Monkey [don’t stop no show].” The biracial multi-instrumental trio Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women don’t mince words nor spare egos either on their original “Bitch with a Bad Attitude,” a contemporary woman-affirming song of defiance that has already established itself as a classic. Also among those contemporary classics is that much-recorded wry piece of marital advice originally done by New Orleans R&B diva Irma Thomas, “You Can Have My Husband [but please don’t mess with my man].”
Far more serious are another two from Saffire — The Uppity Blues Women: their poignant original songs of women trapped in abusive relationships, “Hopin’ It’ll Be Alright,” and “1-800-799-7233.” The title of the latter, which is repeated several times in the song’s lyrics, is an actual battering help line, and lead vocalist Ann Rabson makes clear mention that it’s there for all who are involved in relationships with abusive partners, men as well as women. On that same theme, and articulating with crystal clarity a determined, no-nonsense attitude, is Chicago blues belter Koko Taylor’s “Don’t Put Your Hands on Me.” And these by no means exhaust the list of woman-affirming blues by leading female blues and R&B artists.
And if these aren’t Blues against Bush, then what are?
Certainly standing forth as Blues against Bush are the original songs of one of the most significant blues bands formed by roots-affirming younger African American artists, Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, a trio of three African American men from New York City. The three came together over a decade ago, and have established themselves in contemporary blues as both artistically dynamic and politically outspoken. The blues of Michael Hill’s Blues Mob draws inspiration from all the myriad musical influences of the City, but keeps the blues at its musical core. The group’s openly left political expression and its blues core intertwine in its live 2-CD recording from 2003, Electric Storyland Live. The Blues Mob depicts the pathos, alienation and destruction, as well as the resistance and affirmation, that are integral to the daily lives of ordinary people, and does this through a recounting rooted in the life experiences of African Americans living in New York, but that also emphasizes the universality of those experiences.
These contemporary New York City blues give a sense of what 9/11 portends, both for New Yorkers and for the world. For Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, this means addressing not only the devastation it wreaked, and its senseless brutality, but also the affirmation New Yorkers showed in face of it. These blues move to address all that connects as pathos, not as chauvinism, to the myriad ways of life in New York. On Electric Storyland Live the Blues Mob addresses these through its two original songs about 9/11, “Heart of New York City” and “Something in the Sky.”
Electric Storyland Live also has originals with more traditional political content, such as “Monticello Nights,” which tells of the sexual relationship Thomas Jefferson had with one of his slaves, Sally Hemming, who became his back-door mistress and bore him six children, but whom he never freed. Also here is the very personal “Grandmother’s Blues,” which tells of the killing by New York police of Michael Hill’s grandmother as she was forcibly evicted from her apartment. There are also those two originals that give positive expression to the regaining of intimacy and love in troubled relationships, “Let’s Talk about the Weather” and “Undercover.”
Affirmations of roots are integral to Electric Storyland Live. One affirmation here of what sometimes seems very surprising to certain “moldy figs,” i.e., purists who concern themselves with what is “authentic” and what is “inauthentic” in the blues, is that African American blues artists themselves make no such invidious distinctions between what constitutes “real, authentic” blues as such, and what are “inauthentic corruptions” such as soul, pre-1965 rock ‘n’ roll, or post-1965 rock. Nor do they invidiously distinguish between African American musicians and musicians of other races/ethnicities or countries of origin, or who are identified with other genres, who also play well and with feeling. This is why so many blues artists revere the music of such “outsiders” as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, and feature their music on their own recordings. So it’s not surprising at all for those hip to the soul of the blues that Michael Hill’s Blues Mob affirmatively does the Cream/Robert Johnson medley of “Crossroads” and “Sunshine of Your Love” that’s on Electric Storyland Live. It’s as much an affirmation of differing roots as the acknowledgement the Blues Mob gives through original song to the roots pioneers of electric blues, such as Hubert Sumlin, lead guitarist for two decades in Howlin’ Wolf’s band; female blues shouter Koko Taylor; Buddy Guy, influential guitarist/vocalist and recent inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; and seminal harpman/vocalist Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka Rice Miller).
Affirmatively acknowledged as well is new roots contributor and devotee of the blues, vocalist/slide guitarist Bonnie Raitt.
Indeed, the very titles of the two CDs, each a recording of a different live performance, are themselves African American roots culture-affirming. “Saturday Night at the Roadhouse” and “Sunday Night at the Union Hall” name the two most common traditional locations for live blues performances in African American communities.2
Another embodiment of such roots affirmation is the 2002 CD titled The Joanna Connor Band.3 Joanna Connor is a white Chicago blues singer/guitarist/songwriter whose original songs frequently draw on African American and African traditions, as in “Afrisippi,” “Fine And Sublime,” and “Six Child.” Her music intertwines the ethos of white counterculture with the grittiness of African American soul and blues, and she gives convincing voice to both as she readily slips from one genre to another. Certainly that stands out in her rendition of early1960s R&B artist Sam Cooke’s “Somebody Have Mercy.” Connor is excellent both as guitarist and vocalist, and the songs on her CD all represent a solid musical craftsmanship that she uses to express humane ethical and cultural values.
What made the release of The Joanna Connor Band especially stand out, though, during that time of active U.S. warfare in Afghanistan, and again in 2003, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was one particular song on the CD, Joanna Connor’s own recently-composed antiwar screed, “Different Kind of War.” “Different Kind of War” melded musical influences drawn from both techno-pop and rock to create a properly metallic, eerily sci-fi backdrop to the message. The lyrics combine chilling description with angry protest in a vivid portrayal of the new technocratic form of warfare that kills in an especially impersonal way. “Different Kind Of War” was not just another protest against the brutality of war generally, or against war being declared and soldiers sent off to die by leaders far removed from the battlefield; it is a specific protest against the newly-impersonal, far more destructive, much more efficient-at-killing high-tech war of today, exemplified in the U.S. attacks on Iraq (1991, 2003), Yugoslavia (1999), and Afghanistan (2001). Fittingly enough, Mark Carpentieri, founder/chief of MC Records, sent out copies of the lyrics to “Different Kind Of War” as an MC Records press release when the war in Iraq commenced in 2003.
Another Chicago-based blues band, the Matthew Skoller Band, joins original songs of protest and commentary on the destructiveness of today’s corporate-capitalist domination to a music that’s a steadfast, consistent expression of traditional Chicago electric blues. And yet “Handful of People,” Skoller’s original composition against domination of the many by an unaccountable few at the top, is done onthe Band’s latest CD, These Kind of Blues! in two very different renditions. One rendition is a traditional Chicago electric blues, but the other, which appears on the bonus track, is an extended contemporary-remix rap song. These Kind of Blues! links the two renditions across boundaries of time to connect the resistance of the past to the resistance of here and now. Further connections develop through the other original songs on this CD that combine social protest with wry observation: “Get Paid,” “Wired World” and “Stolen Thunder.”
The Matthew Skoller Band is both proficient and soulful. Its personnel includes such leading younger African American blues artists as guitarist Lurrie Bell, keyboard player Sydney James Wingfield, bassist Willie “Vamp” Samuels, and drummer Kenny Smith, along with masterful white artists Matthew Skoller, vocals and amplified harmonica, and his guitarist brother Larry. The band demonstrates an uncompromising fealty to the traditional Chicago electric blues, be it in the roots playing of original material, or as devoted renderings of the music of others.4
Kokomo, Indiana, is the home of blues band Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel, a trio consisting of Mike Milligan on guitar, organ and vocals, brother Shaun Milligan on bass, and Derek Felix or Robert “Tiny” Cook on drums. The band has a full sound, and has attained national stature. Venue cities mentioned on its CD, If You Don’t Change, range from Hartford, Connecticut to “you-better-know-your-blues-if- you’re-gonna-play-here” Austin, Texas. The band’s other major CD, titled Live!, is recorded live from two mid-August, 2004 shows at Indianapolis’s acclaimed, nationally renowned blues club, the Slippery Noodle Inn.
I live in Indianapolis, know Mike Milligan, and have seen him mature as a blues guitarist over the past decade. Indianapolis is a strange urban hybrid of sophisticated cosmopolitanism and hidebound provincialism. But it is also home to a number of excellent blues musicians, as well as to a number of earlier blues artists who are notable figures in blues history. Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell lived here, and were the piano-and-guitar duo responsible for originating in the 1920s and 1930s several classic blues songs that live on, including “How Long Blues.” Indianapolis also had its own legendary Cotton Club, where Champion Jack Dupree held berth in the 1940s as the house piano player. Indianapolis became the adopted home of Leroy “Lefty” Bates, who played and recorded regularly with Jimmy Reed and Eddie Taylor on bass and rhythm guitar.
But the bluesman most notable among those who made Indianapolis their adopted home was the blues-legend-in-his-own-time “Blues Mandolin Man” himself, Yank Rachell. Rachell first gained prominence as a player with Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon in the 1930s, and later, with Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson in the 1940s. Further, Yank Rachell was a major blues artist in his own right, with his career as a blues singer/musician/composer spanning nearly six decades. He lived in Indianapolis from 1955 until his death in 1997, and was the eminence grise of the Indianapolis/Central Indiana blues community. He was a gentle, courtly man who had a deeply enriching influence on players and fans alike. Although Yank Rachell had an international reputation as a blues artist, he was personally unassuming and down-to-earth.
Mike Milligan is a gentle, humane man devoted to his wife and toddler son, and his original song lyrics partake very much of that gentleness. Milligan molds his songs into deeply philosophical statements in music that never becomes preachy. Specific attestations of this include “Do Whatcha Gotta Do” and “If You Don’t Change,” with renditions of each appearing on both Live! and If You Don’t Change. Further examples are the songs of honesty and affection he writes of family members. One such is the song he wrote for his wife, “On the Day,” which he sang to her the night of her birthday. Two others are those on his father, both of them recorded with his musician father as one of the players. These two are “Closest Friends” from If You Don’t Change, and “Like Father, Like Son” from Live! The original songs of Mike Milligan resonate for me—a New Left activist in the 1960s—as very palpable expressions of what we meant by our slogan, “The personal is political.” Milligan conveys this also in songs not his own, like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and blues drummer Doyle Brahmall’s “Life by the Drop.”
Musically, the actual playing of Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel tends more toward rock than what’s generally considered to be blues. The lines of demarcation between the two are considerably blurred now, but the good-natured commitment and discipline of the musicians is more typically representative of the approach taken by blues players.5 These qualities are now paying off for Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel, as shown by the gigs the band is now invited to play. They performed the opening act just prior to Buddy Guy at the Indy Rib Fest in Indianapolis on Labor Day, 2005. Although Guy was the greater celebrity, Mike Milligan clearly established himself on that occasion as among the best blues-rock guitarists around.6
While Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel conveys a sense of humane gentleness, the sense expressed on New York blues-rock guitarist Bill Perry’s Raw Deal is more one of streetwise, tough-minded compassion. Raw Deal does not come out of the streets of Kokomo; nor does it come out of New York or Chicago. Instead, Perry’s blues give the sense of an ambiguous Great Middle—the streets of cities like Buffalo or Milwaukee—which lies uneasily between the major metropolitan behemoth and the bucolic small town, and is more an expression of those emotional states that we “objectify” by identifying them metaphorically with physical locations. While the corporate homogenization of contemporary culture makes us all so much the same wherever we live, Bill Perry’s Raw Deal provides us with a countercultural protest we all can share in.
The songs on Raw Deal articulate this feeling. Among them is Tom Wait’s surrealistic portrayal of alcoholic desperation, “Till the Money Runs Out.” Also included is Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” his pointed reminder that we’re never free from that domination that we hoped money, security, or influence would enable us to buy our way out of. It’s there as well in Perry’s own compositions such as “Terrorists,” his expression of constant irritation at the fear-mongering daily hype provided by the media. Perry’s “Harlem Child” is a gritty admixture of concern, resignation and anger. These songs represent that sense of lost, betrayed innocence we imagine we once had but can’t really be sure of.
Bill Perry and his band approach all the music on Raw Deal with the same bluesy equality that’s part of the feeling of caught-in-the-middle desperation pervading this CD. The sense of streetwise awareness is both confining and liberating. It’s evident on those Perry originals that articulate the realities of professional musicianship (“Bluesman” and “Big Ass Green Van”), and it’s evident also in his songs of love and lust running the gamut from good to bad to awful (“Another Man” and “Man on the Side”).
Raw Deal is a CD from San Francisco’s Blind Pig label,7 a small company both open and imaginative that is now known as one of the major blues-specialty labels. It is one of the few active commercial outfits today that has shown any interest in even recording this genre, but the acclaim it has earned has allowed it to remain commercially viable. One reason for this is that much of today’s significant blues talent deliberately comes to it.
Another Blind Pig recording artist is New York City’s creative eminence of blues-rock, Popa Chubby, producer of Raw Deal. Like fellow New Yorkers Michael Hill’s Blues Mob, Popa Chubby has great musical inventiveness and understanding that link well with effectively utilizing blues music for left political expression. Popa Chubby and Michael Hill’s Blues Mob have the largest recorded repertoires to date of explicitly left material.
The five Popa Chubby Blind Pig CDs released so far run in date of release from 2000 to 2005, and in time of recording from 1991 to 2004. Thematically, the deliberate political manifesto in music form, Peace, Love & Respect (2004), and the compilation of first recordings during his time of hardscrabble scuffling, The Hungry Years (2003), stand apart from the other three. Blind Pig’s first Popa Chubby releases—How’d a White Boy Get the Blues? (2000) and The Good the Bad and the Chubby (2002)—give us an artist already self-assured and artistically in control of himself. Popa Chubby’s latest release, Big Man Big Guitar (2005) was recorded from live performances in France.
All five CDs show a performer who is politically of the left, but Peace, Love & Respect stands by itself as a specific, explicit and unambiguous response to the ideological agenda foisted upon the United States and the world by President George W. Bush as he was vying for re-election in 2004. Peace, Love & Respect was Popa Chubby’s musical manifesto of resistance.
But Popa Chubby is as much a creative artist as he is a polemicist, and Peace, Love & Respect is excellent in both senses. Itrepresents protest expressed in blues-rock that’s as creative, ironic and poetic as the protest that Phil Ochs expressed through the folk idiom. There is artistic power as well as expository directness in the lyrics of the Popa Chubby originals here such as “Top Reasons Why I Can’t Sleep at Night,” “Un-American Blues,” “The Devil Gonna Drag You Down” and “Young Men” (which opens directly and insistently with “Young men don’t go off to war”). Peace, Love & Respect is musically compelling as well, in its variegated blues-rock approach kept fresh by differing tempos and rhythms. It is far more than just an expository tract set to music. Instances of irony, affirmation, and creative dissonance abound as well, through inclusion of the Carter Family’s up-tempo country song “Keep on the Sunny Side of Life,” the lyrical instrumental “See You in Sete,” and the clash of impulsive self-destruction, lament, concern and indignation held together in contradictory yet inseparable, mutually-dependent tension expressed in the ending medley, “Midnight Drive/Peace.”
Popa Chubby is an artist with nuance and variety who is perfectly at home in a wide range of approaches and styles. There is a continuity among his works that is not repetitive, and a variety that is not simply eclecticism. While some of the songs on the other CDs are political in the explicit sense of Peace, Love & Respect, others are political in that much more implicit sense exemplified by Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel.
Popa Chubby shares the New York affinity displayed by Michael Hill’s Blues Mob. One obvious Popa Chubby expression of this is his original, “It’s a Sad Day in New York City When There Ain’t No Room for the Blues,” from his first CD. But Popa Chubby incorporates this sentiment more broadly, and more generally, in his signature song, “How’d A White Boy Get The Blues?” And as befits a specifically New York artist, Popa Chubby has his own rumination on 9/11, “Somebody Let the Devil Out,” which he first recorded on The Good the Bad and the Chubby.
Popa Chubby’s first Blind Pig CDs How’d a White Boy Get the Blues and The Good the Bad and the Chubby contain elements of acoustic rock, as several songs feature both acoustic and electric guitars playing in complement. The live Big Man Big Guitar CD features some of these songs done in a rock-concert format using electric guitar only. An electric rock approach is more characteristic of The Hungry Years as well, as is the more generic character of its music. But neither is surprising, as Popa Chubby then was an aspiring artist developing himself and his style while also jamming regularly and seeking gigs. Popa Chubby is an exciting contemporary artist with much to say and many excellent ways of saying it.
He’s exciting as a counterculturalist as well, incorporating into his persona not only the impassioned political concern of the 1960s, but the more recent elements of punk rocker and biker as well. A creative expression of the biker in him is the serious, non-condescending love song that’s on Big Man Big Guitar, “Sweet Goddess of Love and Beer.” He rocks as a frenetic traveling musician on “If the Diesel Don’t Get You Then the Jet Fuel Will,” and expresses on all five Blind Pig CDs an affirmatively lyrical side as well, through various instrumentals and his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on Big Man Big Guitar.
Had Popa Chubby been born early enough to able to record in the 1960s, he would rightly be recognized for what he is, another Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. Alas, his professional music career began only in the ‘80s and he did not begin to record until the ‘90s. The entirely different musical scene has left him obscure and far removed from the commercial “mainstream,” despite manifest talent. The fortuitous politics of culture that produced a Janis Joplin in the 1960s and an Alice Cooper in the ‘70s has become the unfortunate politics of culture today that produces a Britney Spears and a Justin Timberlake instead.
Still another important Blind Pig artist is Australian blues wizard Harper, whose first CD for Blind Pig, Down to the Rhythm, debuted to critical acclaim in the first half of 2005. Harper was born Peter Harper 35 years ago in England; his family immigrated to Perth, Australia shortly after his birth. Perth is one of the world’s most isolated cities, separated from the population centers of Melbourne and Sydney by thousands of miles of desert. But Perth was also home to blues guitarist Dave Hole, who had already gained recognition for his artistry when he signed to another major U.S. blues label, Alligator Records, several years earlier. Indeed, Harper frequently jammed with Hole at blues gigs in Perth. It was also in Perth that Harper first became exposed to the blues at age 12, through listening to his blues-lover grandfather’s record collection.
It’s far too little realized among those born and reared in the United States how much the blues, along with other genres of African American music, is actually treasured and revered by the rest of the world. We Americans all too frequently hear but don’t really listen. What to us is a throwaway pop music is considered by the rest of the world a major expression of creativity and artistic intelligence from composers and musicians as artistically significant and accomplished as a Johann Sebastian Bach, a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a Vladimir Horowitz, or an Andrés Segovia. This regard so evident everywhere but America bemuses even American blues artists themselves, as evinced in the notable quote of an anonymous American black bluesman playing at a blues festival in France: “Man, they treated us like we was artists or somethin’.” But African American blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll records, especially all those old 45s so easily forgotten here when they don’t rise to prominence on the Top 40 charts, are eagerly snapped up when they are available in Europe, the British Isles, Australia, and everywhere else. Indeed, African American artists are lionized in Africa, the Caribbean, and even in Japan.
In England, appreciation for African American blues and R&B gave impetus to a whole generation of seminal blues groups and players who exploded into prominence in the 1960s. These British blues groups included such blues-rooted entities as Savoy Brown, the Yardbirds, and the Rolling Stones (which started out as a blues cover band), along with individual musicians also deeply rooted in American blues such as Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. So naturally, given its close cultural ties with Britain, this awareness of the blues came to Australia as well, through those recordings from the original African American artists that were available, and also through the more accessible recordings of British cover bands.
Australia has now spawned three notable blues artists, guitarist Jeff Lang as well as Harper and Dave Hole. Australian blues artists are notable for their idiosyncratic creativity. But this specifically Australian approach, precisely by virtue of its distinctiveness, is the essential nitty-gritty that’s at the very heart of the blues. For, universal in spirit and meaning as the blues may be, it is very localized stylistically, which is exactly what makes it so striking and compelling. It’s a music that originated and developed as a cultural manifestation of the lives of African Americans, as found in the specific geographic locales of African American residence. That’s precisely why the Texas blues of a Johnny Copeland differ from the Mississippi-to-Chicago blues of a Muddy Waters, and why both differ from the New Orleans blues of a Professor Longhair, the Louisiana “swamp blues” of a Slim Harpo, or the Memphis soul blues of a Bobby Bland—which is as it should be if the blues are to be true to themselves.
The basis for Harper’s appeal, which is at once universal and specifically Australian, is well shown by three examples drawn from Down to the Rhythm.First ishis original song about his country, “Big Brown Land,” a blues of specific place as much as “Sweet Home Chicago.” Another is the incorporation into his blues of the didgeridoo, the 5-foot-long woodwind instrument of the Australian indigenous people. And last is his blues harmonica playing, unique both in both its multi-note trills and runs, and also in the harmonica’s being his instrument of choice within the very much guitar-driven Australian blues. In an interview I had with him the summer of 2005, Harper related how his own approach that emphasizes the blues harp over the more standard Australian blues emphasis on the guitar actually combines the two: “I was generally more of a guitar fan. I try to emulate guitar with my harmonica.”
Harper’s blues reflect a deeply felt commitment to social justice. He is an activist on behalf of the rights of the indigenous Australian people, whose plight he sees as very much akin to that of the American Indians. He sees both these indigenous peoples as the victims of white colonial settlers of European descent who considered them as only a bother to be gotten out of the way, and who consequently subjected them to genocide, discrimination, and confinement to reservations on land the white settlers found useless. This is a plight he finds universal to indigenous people, who, as he said in our interview, “usually got trampled on in history.” Harper says of his coming to consciousness on this issue, “I think it was actually meeting the Native Americans that spurred me on to learn a bit more about the Native Australians, because we’re very ignorant of what goes on there, and I think it’s deliberately made that way that we don’t listen to it, that we don’t find out about the terrible things that were done only up till the 1980s, stealing children and putting them into white families. Awful things, not including the massacres that happened in the 1800s, and all the terrible, ironic things that happened.”
This concern, and this respect, for the Native Australians and their culture drove him to actually get their permission to play the didgeridoo that he incorporates into his music. The didgeridoo, or yidaki in the indigenous language, is, as Harper explains, “an aboriginal tribal ceremonial instrument. It’s used for healing, as a fertility instrument, and it’s also used for general storytelling, dancing.” Although Harper didn’t actually need to, he went to the tribal Keeper of the Didgeridoo and “asked permission to play it. I was one of the few people that actually do ask if I’m allowed to play.” Harper specifically asked permission because “I just have respect for the people, so I always ask. Which makes it better for me, and in return they bless it, they bless the didgeridoo, and they bless my playing, and that makes me feel more comfortable.”
Harper and I then briefly discussed how, at present, many American Indian tribes generate money for their members and their reservations by operating gambling casinos, something Harper wishes were possible for the indigenous Australian people, who don’t have much opportunity to generate money for their communities. Harper continues on the subject of American Indian casino operating, “But they’ve learned the White Man’s way, which is greed…but, you know, that’s just how it runs. Money is the root of all evil. If you could forget about the money and just get into the foundation of society, it’d be a better place. And that’s why the blues is so good. There ain’t no money in blues, and that’s what makes it so good.”
Another open expression of Harper’s concern for social justice is his song from an earlier CD (but which he still performs), “I Swear I’m Innocent.” This is the haunting, poignant plea of a prisoner to his jailers, a theme which is usually absent not only from the blues, but from all genres of music. Also on that CD is “Does Anybody Care,” a song Harper wrote in the form of a first-person lament giving voice to the indigenous Australian people, who, despite the loss of their land, their culture, and many lives, still defiantly affirm, “you can never take my soul.” These songs are very much Harper, a most talented and creative songwriter who can make the thematically unusual into something that’s artistically compelling. He is not at all hesitant in applying his composing talents to themes that are disturbing and unsettling, but which impel open, forceful expression simply as a matter of justice and honest humanity.
I saw Harper perform in Indianapolis in August, 2005 and January, 2006, and was most impressed by the natural, conversational way he expresses his left political convictions, frequently as ironic bons mots. For instance, from his January show, in his introductory banter to “I Believed In You,” his song of misplaced trust that’s on the Down to the Rhythm CD, Harper notably dedicated this song to politicians everywhere, and specifically to George W. Bush, whom he mentioned by name.
Harper and his manager/wife, Bobbi Llewellyn, moved permanently to the United States in 2005 and bought a 10-acre property near Ann Arbor, Michigan, the better to be situated for Harper’s now extensive U.S. touring and active involvement as an artist with Blind Pig Records. But Harper is no stranger either to the U.S or to recording. He first toured the U.S as a blues performer in 1996, and had recorded six CDs for small-label Australian companies before signing to Blind Pig.8 A live Harper show is something not to miss.
A final notable Blues against Bush from 2005 is “Patriot Act Blues” by Howard Glazer. It’s currently released as a CD single on Random Chance Records, “Patriot Act Blues—Howard Glazer Rocks against the Right,” and will appear on an anthology album, No War, Free Thought, Equal Rights, that’s scheduled for release in the spring of 2006. “Patriot Act Blues” was composed by Random Chance Records founder/head Rick Congress, who is also a former left activist. Congress, who lived in Indianapolis some time back, returned regularly in the late 1990s to conduct several lengthy interviews with Yank Rachell before his death in 1997. These interviews became the foundation for his biography of Rachell.9 Howard Glazer, recording artist with Random Chance, is a blues guitarist originally from Detroit who later moved to Chicago, and records as a solo artist as well as with his band, Howard Glazer and the EL 34s.10
And that’s the blues as they stand against George W. Bush at the beginning of 2006, six years into his dismal reign. Blind Pig’s publicity flyer for Peace, Love & Respect provides the best words for concluding our discussion of how contemporary blues artists use the lyrical and musical power of the blues to tackle Bush and voice resistance to his nefarious deeds. From this flyer we quote Popa Chubby’s pithy response to the interview question, “Where is the outrage in America? Where is the anger over the violation of our rights as Americans and human beings?” Popa Chubby’s direct reply sums it all up: “It is here, and people are waiting for a rallying call, a way and a reason to stand up for their rights as Americans. A way to stand up against the current policies of those in power that do not take into account that America is built on the sweat of the working class.”11
1. From Michael Lydon, Rock Folk (New York: Dial Press 1971), as quoted by A.X. Nicholas in his Introduction to A.X. Nicholas, ed., Woke Up This Mornin’: Poetry of the Blues (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), p. 4 (emphasis in the original).
2. Electric Storyland Live is a recording on Germany’s blues specialty label, Ruf Records, and can be ordered from Ruf’s website, www.rufrecords.de. (On-line ordering information is deliberately given for all CDs discussed, because they may be very difficult to acquire otherwise.)
3. The Joanna Connor Band can be ordered directly from MC Records through its website, www.mc-records.com.
4. These Kind of Blues! is available on the Band’s own Tongue ‘N Groove label,through its website, www.matthewskoller.com. The CD includes notes on the band by Sterling Plumpp, Chicago’s poet laureate of the blues.
5. Both the Live! and If You Don’t Change CDs, as well as the group’s two earlier ones, can be ordered from the website, www.mikemilligan.homestead.com.
6. My article on this show at www.frogmajikmusic.com/GeorgeFish.html appears as a link on Mike Mulligan’s own website listed above (note 5) Many subsequent appearances of Mike Milligan and Steam Shovel confirm the group’s outstanding quality.
7. All Blind Pig CDs can be ordered from its website, www.blindpigrecords.com.
8. Harper’s Down to the Rhythm can be ordered through Blind Pig’s website (note 7).
9. Richard Congress, Blues Mandolin Man: The Life and Music of Yank Rachell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001).
10. “Patriot Act Blues Howard Glazer Rocks Against the Right” can be ordered from Random Chance’s website, http://www.randomchancerecords.com/.
11. A recent scholarly treatment of the blues as a specifically African contribution to a more general working-class culture is John H. McClendon III, “Jazz, African American Nationality, and the Myth of the Nation-State,” Socialism and Democracy 36, vol. 18, no. 2 (July-Dec., 2004). Significant earlier discussions of blues and other forms of African folk/popular music genres as African American working-class cultural contributions include Charles Keil, Urban Blues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966 [reprint with new Afterword, 1991]); LeRoi Jones, Blues People (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1963); and Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, (New York: Othello Publishers 1958 [reprint, Beacon Press, Boston, 1988]), “Appendix C: A Universal Body of Folk Music—A Technical Argument by the Author.” Also relevant are my obituaries/left cultural appreciations on Ray Charles: “Hallelujah, We Just Loved Him So,” Solidarity News (Sept.-Oct. 2004); on Little Milton and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: “‘The Sky Is Crying,’ but…‘The Blues Is Alright,’” Against the Current 119 (Nov.-Dec. 2005); and on Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett, in Against the Current 122 (May-June 206).