Legends of the Blues

“The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstance whether created by others or by one’s own human failings. They . . . constantly remind us of our limitations while encouraging us to see how far we can actually go.” –Ralph Ellison, “Remembering Jimmy,” Shadow and Act, 1964

KOKOMO ARNOLD [1901-68] 

“Before 2 Live Crew, before Rick James or Prince, there was Kokomo Arnold . . . In the world of slide-guitar blues, he was as nasty as he wanted to be, infusing such off-color ribaldry as ‘Busy Bootin,’ ‘Salty Dog’ and ‘Feels So Good’ with a furious rhythmic sense and frantic slide play. The least polished and easily most manic of Chicago’s first generation of slide guitarists (Tampa Red and Casey Bill Weldon were his peers), Arnold recorded close to a hundred titles between 1930 and ’38, as a solo act, in piano accompaniments and with the likes of Roosevelt Sykes and Peetie Wheatstraw (‘The Devil’s Son-in-Law’) and in small-band settings . . . Disgruntled over years of unpaid royalties, Arnold laid down his bottleneck guitar in 1938 for a more lucrative career as a bootlegger, a protogangsta to the end.”
The Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, 1999


“Barbecue Bob went on the road in the late ’20s, playing with an old-time medicine show that toured from Georgia to Mississippi. He was in fine form at his final sessions, held at Atlanta’s Campbell Hotel in December 1930 . . . Tragically, Barbecue Bob Hicks died of pneumonia in 1931, and his brother Charley became a mean and dangerous drunk and never recorded again. Following a series of scrapes with the law, he murdered a man in 1955 and was sentenced to 20 years. He died in prison in September 1963.”
–Jas Obrecht, “Southern Blues,” Acoustic Guitar, October 2002


“People like to put me in a box, and specify me as a blues artist . . . and I don’t like that. Yes, I’m known as a blues artist, and I play the blues, but my way. I play positive blues, not that down-hearted, negative blues. I play a lot more, besides: Cajun, country, bluegrass, jazz, polkas, calypso, Caribbean, all of that. And I don’t dress like a typical bluesman, either-I wear a cowboy hat and Western clothes. I’ve been doing that all my life. I was raised in Texas around horses and ranches, and that’s what I’ve always worn. A lot of people don’t know their history, but the first cowboys were black . . . If you’re going to play music, do it right. Use dynamics. Don’t everybody be out there trying to be the front man. Play together, don’t try to overshadow nobody. I used to be a drummer, and I look for timing. Don’t rush, don’t drag, don’t run over yourself, keep it simple. Whatever you play is what you should record, and your album should sound the same as you do when you play live.”
– Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, interview, Mix magazine, Sept. 1, 1999

R. L. BURNSIDE [1926-2005] 

‘You ain’t got no tomato juice do ya? I like to make me a Bloody Motherfucker, ya know. A lot of people like to drink a Bloody Mary. When I go to a bar they say, ‘don’t you mean a Bloody Mary?’ And I say, ‘no I’d rather have a Bloody Motherfucker!’ Tomato juice and Old Grandad.’
–R.L. Burnside, interview, May 11, 1999

‘I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord.’
–R.L. Burnside, interview, Guardian Unlimited, Nov. 16, 2003

“He demanded Canadian Mist and tomato juice before he performed, called the concoction a bloody muthafucka, and R.L. Burnside didn’t stop guzzling them until nearly the end . . . Bellowing in graphic detail about wild women, evil bosses, or beating down some fool came naturally to the roughneck Mississippi native. Purists balked at Burnside’s collaborations with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Kid Rock and Beck producer Tom Rothrock, but the hip-hop and punk generations–including R.L.’s drummer/grandson Cedric Burnside–understood. Listen to Too Bad Jim and then A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, and it’s clear that whether he was playing acoustic guitar and singing about being mistreated, or barking threats across a cacophony of electric distortion, the old man sounded sincere.”
–Wade Tatangelo, No Depression, November/December 2005


The late Joe Callicott was more a songster than a typical North Mississippi bluesman, eschewing the slide-and-drone-guitar approach for a picking style built on arpeggios and thumb-plucked bass notes that served his songs . . . Even his one-chord stomps, like ‘Roll and Tumble,’ seem to spring along at their own distinctive, hopping cadence — always unhurried, riding gently on his well-articulated notes. And his rich-toned voice has more clarity, drive, and diction than those of his peers. Although Callicott was a neighbor of fife-and-drum bandleader Othar Turner and lived just a few more miles from Fred McDowell, neither seems to have influenced him in the least. In turn, his style has not endured in the hills below Memphis with one exception: Fat Possum solo artist and R.L. Burnside sideman Kenny Brown, who was learning at Callicott’s knees by the age of 10. Callicott’s version of ‘Laughing To Keep from Crying,’ with its bright, circular licks, is a blueprint for Brown’s . . . The only comparison this exceptional storyteller begs is with Skip James when he floats up into his falsetto range on the threatening ‘You Don’t Know My Mind,’ which his sweet voice somehow makes sound angelic . . .”
The Boston Phoenix, Sept. 12-18, 2003


‘I had typhoid malaria fever 1933. 1936 polio hit me. Looks like trouble just hit me period . . . But I can play guitar.’
–Cedell Davis, interview, You See Me Laughin’, 2002


“Of the men who had recorded before the Depression in Memphis, few were heard after, but one who was again on record was Sleepy John Estes . . . His father was a tenant farmer not far from Ripley, when John Adams Estes was born in January 1899. When he was eleven, the family of sixteen children and their parents moved to Brownsville, where, in conditions of crushing poverty, he lived until his death in 1977. He lost the sight of one eye through being injured in a baseball game as a boy, and his vision slowly deteriorated in subsequent years. As his father played guitar, he was always trying to play the instrument but he got further instruction from an older singer, Willie Newbern, who lived in Brownsville . . . Though Estes was not a particularly accomplished guitarist himself he shared with Newbern the ability to create songs out of his own experience. His blues were essentially personal or they were comments on personalities in Brownsville. He told of his own rescue from drowning in Floating Bridge and of the burning of his friend Martha Hardin’s house in Fire Department Blues; his blues were his autobiography and were one man’s vision of his immediate world. Big Bill Broonzy described ‘Sleepy John’ Estes’ way of singing as ‘crying the blues’ and it aptly fitted his broken, fragmented song which was held in tension by the contrast between the tendency to disintegration and the rhythmic impetus of his strumming.’
–Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues, 1997


‘I could really stomp some ass back then, stomp it good. I was a-sure-enough-dangerous man.’
–T-Model Ford, interview, You See Me Laughin’, 2002

‘I play the blues . . . I don’t ever get the blues. After my sister died I prayed to God to please let me live like a tree. Tree don’t care if them other trees is dyin’. Tree don’t care about nothin’ . . . I don’t let nothin’ get me down.’ Most people can’t do this–stay happy because they’ve decided to be happy, no matter what–but it seems to work for T-Model.’
–T-Model Ford, interview, Guardian Unlimited, Nov. 16, 2003

“T-Model’s life reads like a horror story. At the age of eight, his father beat him so badly between the legs with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. His ankles are scarred from the chain gang. His neck is scarred where one of his wives slashed his throat. He has been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree with a broken ribcage, beaten unconscious with a metal chair. He watched his first wife go off with his own father, watched another die after she drank poison to try and induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned him at the breakfast table; he woke up in hospital that afternoon and never saw her again.
–“Delta Force,” The Observer, November 16, 2003


“I got the bad luck blues, my bad luck time done come/They said bad luck follow everybody, seem like I’m the only one/I keep on walking, trying to walk my troubles away/I’m so glad, trouble don’t last always”
–“Walking My Troubles Away” 


“The blues came from the man farthest down. The blues came from nothingness, from want, from desire. And when a man sang or played the blues, a small part of the want was satisfied from the music.”
–W.C. Handy, quoted in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, 1955

JOHN LEE HOOKER [1917-2001] 

‘There’s some places in them records, there’s somethin’ sad in there that give you the blues; somethin’ that reach back in your life or in some friend’s life of yours, or that make you think of what have happened today and is so true, that if it didn’t happen to you, you still got a strong idea–you know those things is goin’ on. So this is very touchable, and that develops into the blues.’
–John Lee Hooker

‘The blues is the roots of all music. It’s the roots. Every other song has got some blues in it ’cause blues is the roots of everything. Blues has been here since the world was born. People’s heartaches, aches and pains, trouble and disappointment, money, no money, down-and-out, that cause the blues and that affects everybody of every color, rich and poor.’
–John Lee Hooker

“Mississippi produced the best blues singers out of all the states. Take Muddy and Jimmy Reed, and there’s Arthur Crudup, and you’ve heard of Robert Nighthawk–all great. But as for me, there’s nobody that plays my style. Some of them try, but they’re not even close.”
–John Lee Hooker, quoted in The Tombstone Tourist by Scott Stanton

HOWLIN’ WOLF [1910-76]

‘I don’t play anything but the blues, but now I could never make no money on nothin’ but the blues. That’s why I wasn’t interested in nothin’ else.’
–Howlin’ Wolf

I was three years old and they started callin’ me Wolf. My grandfather gave me that name. He used to sit down and tell me tall stories about what the wolf would do. Because I was a bad boy, you know, and I was always in devilment. I’d say ‘Well, what do the wolf do?’ He’d say, “Howl.’ You know, to scare me, you know, and I’d get mad about this. I didn’t know it would be a great name.”
–Howlin’ Wolf, quoted in Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues

ELMORE JAMES [1918-63] 

“I remember when I was very young my mother used to play Elmore James’s version of ‘Dust My Broom.’ I never understood the meaning of the lyrics, especially, ‘I’m getting up soon in the mornin’, I believe I dust my broom.’ In fact, I didn’t understand the meaning of any lyrics from any blues song–except for W.C. Handy’s ‘St. Louis Blues,’ and that is because I spent time as a young boy learning to play it by heart on my trumpet. Many years later, as an adult, I found myself humming and whistling songs that were escaping deep in my subconscious. The lyrics that were lost to me many years ago are now, in many ways, the cornerstone of how I see human relationships. They are for me, as they are for August Wilson, a rich source of images and dialogue. As Willie Dixon said, ‘Blues is the truth,’ and looking back at that period when my head was someplace else, I realize how much wiser I would have been then if I had somehow been able to appreciate those songs. However, blues is about life, and to appreciate the blues you have to have experienced life–or you at least need to have enough intuition to see through the veil that hides the human condition.”
–Charles Burnett, “Notes from the Director,” Warming by the Devil’s Fire, 2003

SKIP JAMES [1902-69] 

“[Skip James] didn’t come across as someone with whom you could enjoy leaning on a bar; his songs are unremittingly gloomy and devil-ridden, and if his 78s were the only ones to have survived, the myth of the blues as a depressing music would have been fully justified . . . [James’ songs] hint at anger and lurking madness . . . If the blues can really be said to have a genius, then Skip James is the sinister contender for the title.” 
–David Harrison, Blues: A Photographic Documentary, 1997

“Hard time here and everywhere you go/Times is harder than ever been before/And the people are driftin’ from door to door/Can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go/Hear me tell you people, just before I go/These hard times will kill you just dry long so/Well, you hear me singin’ my lonesome song/These hard times can last us so very long/If I ever get off this killin’ floor/I’ll never get down this low no more . . .”
–“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”

“In Skip James you hear a lot of sorrow, but also a lot of anger. When I first heard these guys I couldn’t identify the emotions because I didn’t acknowledge that I had them myself. I didn’t learn the names of these emotions until I was under psychoanalysis. I played some of the records to the doctor and he said, ‘These guys are as angry as hell’.”
–John Fahey, interview, The Wire magazine, August 1998


‘Robert was tall, brown-skin, skinny, had one bad eye. He looked out of one of his eyes; one eye looked like it had a cataract–in that bad eye. At that time he was playing on a Sears-Roebuck ‘Stella’ guitar. Yeah, he was good.’
–David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards

‘We’d all play for the Saturday night balls, and there’d be this little boy hanging around. That was Robert Johnson. He blew a harmonica then and he was pretty good at that, but he wanted to play guitar. He’d sit at our feet and play during the breaks and such another racket you’d never heard.’
–Son House

“Yes, Son House once answered a question about [Robert] Johnson’s speedy mastery of the guitar by suggesting that he had sold his soul to the Devil, but House did not emphasize the point with any seriousness, nor did he repeat it whenever he told the story. And listen to Johnson’s school friend Willie Coffee. In the documentary Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, the blues expert Steven LaVere asks him if Johnson ever talked about selling his soul to the Devil. Coffee says that yes, he did, then promptly adds, ‘I never did think he’s serious, because he’d always, when he’d come in here with us, he’d come in with a lot of jive, cracking jokes like that. I never did believe in it.'”
–Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, 2004

“He had developed a taste for booze, gambling, and an occasional smoke, too, and although he never became habitual with any of them, he did drink to excess more than a few times. He couldn’t handle his liquor at all, and when he did drink too much, he would often talk loud, curse his maker, and get in fights, but he was never a sloppy or messy drunk! Sober, Robert Johnson frequently became a pensive man. Often he could be found sitting alone in a deep study. Over the years, his behavior became progressively moody and erratic, but a drink or two, especially if he had purchased them for himself and a few friends, transformed him into the life of the party.”
–Stephen C. LaVere, liner notes, Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings

“Mississippi bluesman Paul ‘Wine’ Jones was once described as ‘like a blind cave fish’ by Fat Possum Records founder Matthew Johnson. What Johnson meant is that Jones seems to have developed a style entirely unaffected by notable musicians — an approach Jones says was influenced by the guitar playing of his father, who ran a juke joint when Matthew was a boy . . . The result was a boilerplate Delta jukehouse sound: raw, ragged, dirty, and absolutely perfect . . . Jones’s vocal melodies are also distinct. He sings as if he’d smoked a million Marlboros, drunk a million Colt .45s, and then eaten all the cans.”
–Ted Drozdowski, ‘Mississippi Madman,’ The Boston Phoenix, Nov. 7-13, 2003JUNIOR KIMBROUGH

“So the record company came to me and said, ‘We want you to go down to Mississippi and this guy, Junior Kimbrough, has got this great thing.’ He was one of the artists who never left Mississippi. Someone recently asked me why a lot of these blues players didn’t leave Mississippi and get recognition? Well, 50 years ago you couldn’t make any money as a guitar player. You just played it for the love of the music.”
–Buddy Guy


“I pretty much stayed lit up all the time back then . . . I played a lot around N.O. area with Harmonica Williams, and then after the job we’d go to Logtown or Bayou Liberty and play in juke joints. Then we’d come back to N.O. around one or two in the morning and play the Dew Drop Inn. where Guitar Shorty had the house band. I’d go get a pint of corn liquor. Then I’d wake up and we’d do it all over again.”
–Little Freddie King

LEADBELLY [1888-1949] 

“Leadbelly once told me, ‘When you lie down at night, turning from side to side, and you can’t be satisfied no way you do, Old Man Blues got you.'”
–Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, 1993


‘Furry Lewis died in 1981, I heard once that a friend came to commiserate with him in the hospital after his leg got cut off, but Furry supposedly said, ‘It ain’t so bad. I can see the ice-cream factory from my window.’’
–Blues Chronicler George Mitchell (source: www.fatpossum.com)

“Walter Lewis from Greenwood, Mississippi, was one of the earliest singers from the Delta to record. He traveled to Chicago from his Memphis home to cut some sides for Vocalion in April 1927, just a year after Blind Lemon Jefferson’s first releases. Lewis learned the guitar aged six and was given his nickname, Furry, while he was still at school. Shortly after leaving school he started to hobo his way across the South, losing his leg in a train accident around 1917. Like many of his contemporaries, Furry Lewis was a songster first and a bluesman second. But there is no doubting his credentials as a witty and talented blues performer. When he supported The Stones in 1975, one of his onstage introductions included an aside which was probably typical of the sort of patter he would have used as a young man in the Beale Street saloons: ‘Like the time I lost my wife–no, she didn’t die, her husband came and got her.'”
Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey, 2001


“Throughout the 1920s, Memphis Minnie dominated the music scene on Beale Street. Petite and attractive, she used her sexuality to draw attention to her music, even to the point of using the dresses she wore during her performances to entice men into looking up her skirt. In her off hours, she sometimes worked as a prostitute, if accounts from her contemporaries can be believed. The first thing that newcomers to the city learned about Memphis Minnie was that they didn’t want to cross her. When angered, she would reach for a knife, a gun, a big stick, whatever was available. Bluesman Johnny Shines told Paul and Beth Garon that he thought she once shot an old man’s arm off in Mississippi: ‘Shot his arm off, or cut if off with a hatchet, something. Some say shot, some say cut. Minnie was a hell raiser.'”
–James L. Dickerson, Mojo Triangle: Birthplace of Country, Blues, Jazz & Rock ‘n’ Roll, 2005


“Ironically, the man who became legendary as Mississippi Fred was born just across the state line near Rossville, Tennessee, in 1904. (‘Don’t make me no difference,’ he remarked laconically). McDowell spent much of his life in the environs of Memphis, Southwest Tennessee and North Mississippi. Elements of his large repertoire and rhythmic, modal slide guitar work reflect this. You can hear echoes of Garfield Akers, and of Fred’s acknowledged influence, Charley Patton; but as McDowell’s longtime friend and manager Dick Waterman [said] in reference to blues/roots style. ‘It’s like a great giant tent without walls . . . it’s not how you get in. It’s what you do when you get in there.'”
–Steve James, liner notes, “Preachin’ the Blues: The Music of Mississippi Fred McDowell”, 2002


“Well, God is in heaven/And we all want what’s his/But power and greed and corruptible seed/Seem to be all that there is/I’m gazing out the window/Of the St. James Hotel/And I know no one can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell”
–Bob Dylan, “Blind Willie McTell”


‘Sometimes I feel the happiest–or I should say the most content–when I’m sitting around in my empty house playing the blues on my guitar. Don’t matter plugged in or not, I like it both ways, so sometimes I’ll be quite loud and others, why, you can hardly hear me. But for me, anyway, that’s when I play and sing my very best.”
–Otis Rush, interview, Vintage Guitar, July 1998

BIG JOE TURNER [1911-85] 

“In Texas, I got to play piano behind cats like T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner . . . I especially loved playing behind Big Joe. I had grown up with his records, and here I was on stage with him. That man has so much weeping in his voice. If it was just you and him in a room, he could sing the blues at you till you’d break down and cry. I don’t care how cold-blooded you might be; he’d get to you. Joe Turner reminds me of Lady Day when she was a young woman. He has a tear in his voice. And I ain’t ever heard anyone sing the blues so raw and so pure.”
–Ray Charles and David Ritz, Brother Ray, 2004


“After the musicians left the stage, Stevie jumped aboard a Bell 206B Jet Ranger, one of four waiting helicopters. The craft took off in fog around 12:40 a.m. but it never arrived in sweet Chicago. Instead, just a couple minutes after taking off, all aboard were killed when the helicopter suffered a ‘high-energy, high-velocity impact at a shallow angle’ with the ground . . . At 7:00 a.m., searchers found the bodies of Stevie, the pilot, and three members of Clapton’s entourage. Later that morning, Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan identified the bodies. At 35, Stevie was buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas, Texas.”
–Tod Benoit, Where Are They Buried? How Did They Die?, 2003

T-BONE WALKER [1910-75] 

“Born Aaron Thibeaux ‘T-Bone’ Walker in Linden, Texas, in 1910 and an active performer until his death in 1975, he had roots going back almost as far as the blues itself, though he labored in semiobscurity until 1947, when his ‘Call It Stormy Monday’ hit the country like a hurricane. As a child, Walker had guided Blind Lemon Jefferson around the streets of Dallas, holding Jefferson’s tin cup for him and picking up a trick or two on guitar. Before making his recording debut as Oak Cliff T-Bone in 1929, Walker had traveled the Southwest as a tap dancer in a medicine show. But he also had a foot in jazz, having played with Cab Calloway’s band in 1930 (the gig was his prize for winning a Dallas talent contest) . . . Though Walker didn’t record on amplified guitar until 1939, several years after he began to experiment with a prototype, the blues was never the same after he plugged in. It wasn’t just his instrument that was electric; it was his cutting tone and supple dynamics, his very conception. In addition to being a jaw-dropping instrumentalist, Walker was a devastating showman whose little jump bands, usually including only a rhythm section and one or two horns, swung as forcefully as a jazz orchestra. Playing substitute chords and doubling up on the shuffle beat, he would bend his knees and execute a tricky split, leaping across the stage as though he himself were plugged in.”
–Francis Davis, The History of the Blues, 1995


“What is remarkable about Ethel Waters’ story is the hardship she overcame to achieve so much. She was born illegitimate, after her 13-year-old mother was raped at knifepoint. Her childhood was spent in squalid conditions; then, at the age of 13, she got married, though the union only lasted briefly, and she suffered terribly from her husband’s cruelty. She worked in a variety of low-paid menial jobs before she was ‘discovered’ at a party by a couple of small-time vaudeville showmen. Truly the stuff of the blues!”
Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey: A Journey to Music’s Heart & Soul, 2001

MUDDY WATERS [1913-83] 

‘There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues–the blues we used to have when we had no money.’ –Muddy Waters

“All my life I was having trouble with women . . . Then after I quit having trouble with them, I could feel in my heart that somebody would always have trouble with them, so I kept writing those blues.”
–Muddy Waters, quoted in All You Need is Love (Tony Palmer, 1977)

‘That Mississippi sound, that Delta sound is in them old records. You can hear it all the way through.’
–Muddy Waters

“There’s a demon in me. I think there’s a demon in everyone, a dark piece in us all. And the blues is a recognition of that and the ability to express it and make fun out of it, have joy out of that dark stuff. When you listen to Muddy Waters, you can hear all of the angst and all of the power and all of the hardship that made that man. But Muddy let it out through music, set the feeling loose in the air. The blues makes me feel better. I heard Muddy through Mick Jagger. We were childhood friends, hadn’t seen each other for a few years, and I met him on a train around 1961. He had a Chuck Berry record and The Best of Muddy Waters. I was going to mug the guy for the Chuck Berry because I wasn’t familiar with Muddy. We started talking, went ’round to his house, and he played me Muddy and I said, ‘Wow. Again.’ And about ten hours later, I was still going, ‘Okay, again.’ When I got to Muddy and heard ‘Still a Fool’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’–that is the most powerful music I’ve ever heard. The most expressive.”
–Keith Richards, foreword to Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life & Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon, 2002

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