photo & text by nacrowe
BLUES was always a genre that took me a long time to find an entry point. part of that is the fact that i was raised on the more easily digestible and frankly soulless culturally appropriated versions by BRITISH INVASION acolytes like ERIC CLAPTON. it was only in my late 20s when i discovered the likes of ELMORE JAMES, JUNIOR WELLS, LITTLE WALTER and especially HOWLIN' WOLF that i developed a fell and appreciation for the deep deep passion and depths of pained expression transformed into high art that is the BLUES.
what drew me to the music of HOWLIN' WOLF was that voice. that deep lower register and ragged timbre and quality of his singing that seemed to convey a seemingly bottomless well of hard experience and disappointment. there is something existential at play in his music, like he is living off of every syllable. that economy of expression was something i found incredibly moving when i first came across his memorable covers of WILLIE DIXON standards like "SPOONFUL," "LITTLE RED ROOSTER" and "SHAKE FOR ME" off of his self-titled, second album HOWLIN' WOLF (CHESS, 1962).
i was lucky enough to visit SUN STUDIO in MEMPHIS years ago with my family, where HOWLIN' WOLF recorded his initial material with SAM PHILLIPS in the same legendary recording facility that also served as the entry point for other seminal AMERICAN icons like ROY ORBISON, CARL PERKINS, JERRY LEE LEWIS, JOHNNY CASH and of course, ELVIS PRESLEY. definitely one of the coolest rooms ive ever inhabited where you can feel the weight of history. definitely worth the trip if you have the inclination.
if you are fan of transcendent mid-20th century AMERICAN musical forms, whether that be BEBOP, ROCKABILLY or even MODERN COMPOSERS, then i highly recommend you check out HOWLIN' WOLF. very much worth the effort.
photo by nacrowe
LOVE IN VAIN: ROBERT JOHNSON 1911-1938 (FABER & FABER, 2016) is lovingly constructed graphic novel depicting the basic narrative of doomed legendary DELTA BLUES artist ROBERT JOHNSON from the perspective of the DEVIL.
in terms of narrative there seems to be a heavy focus on the sheer physicality of the era, especially with evocative visual depictions of the thankless task of laboring in the cotton fields and carousing in the juke joints. you get a sense of how far outside of society JOHNSON was for pursuing a career in music that was unsanctioned by the BLACK BAPTIST CHURCH. you also get a feel for how all modes of escapism, whether they were musical, sexual or chemical in nature, where all just diversions from the harsh draconian reality that was being an AFRICAN AMERICAN in the JIM CROW, post-reconstruction deep south.
as with all types of narrative telling, choices are made regarding the subject that reflect more on the author/artist than the subject perhaps. this is true in the case of LOVE IN VAIN which was created by R. CRUMB acolyte MEZZO and finds interest in the extremity of the subject matter. in my mind, what i find more interesting about JOHNSON and his art are the ways that his upbringing and background informed his art. how they contextualized his lyrics. how those lyrics and that sound connected with generations of artists.
the devil at the crossroads gimmick is overblown in my opinion. it also is highly misrepresented as conversing with god in order to gain insight or wisdom is a hallmark of the WEST AFRICAN storytelling and oral history tradition than anything else. what gets perpetuated in well-meaning texts like this is the idea of a man who deserved to die for his talent, which is bullshit. the man was poisoned by a jilted husband of woman he was pursuing. shit happens. he messed with the wrong guy and due to his status as a societal outside, JOHNSON was left for dead without a doctor. his death was inevitable or a sign of anything.
i was a little let down that the narrator was the devil, even if he questioned the motives of several characters in the process (which is a bit of a head-scratcher when the lord of darkness finds you a bit duplicitous). seemed exploring WEST AFRICAN culture of HOODOO beliefs would have been more interesting, but hey the pictures are amazing.