When we were invited to spend the Woodstock Festival’s 40th anniversary weekend at our friends’ home in Woodstock itself (actually Bearsville, a few miles west on Route 212), I checked the local gig schedule and saw that former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin would be appearing at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday night. Hubert turns 78 this November and it seemed an opportune moment to hear one of the last surviving originators of Chicago electric blues. Only when we saw the flyers posted around town did I discover that Hubert was but one of four acts on the show.
Also appearing were a local local gospel-infused jam band called Children of God, the 2009 version of the Blues Magoos (!), and the folk-blues singer/guitarist Ellen McIlwaine. (So far as I know, this Children of God has no connection to the notorious mind-control/child-bride cult of the same name. That organization’s founder/ruler, the demonic Tony Alamo, is now incarcerated — for life, I hope — although that hasn’t stopped his zombie believers from scuttling through the streets of the East Village in the pre-dawn hours, inserting their poisonous “literature” under the windshield wipers of parked cars. But I digress…)
Ellen McIlwaine released two Polydor albums, Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We The People (1973), that were among my wife’s turntable favorites as an Oberlin College undergrad. I dimly recalled seeing this artist live, probably in Minneapolis circa 1973-74, when I may have dismissed her as a Bonnie Raitt wannabe. I’d barely played Ellen’s two-CD retrospective, Up From The Skies: The Polydor Years (Universal Music, now stupidly out of print) , that had been taking up precious shelf space since its release in 1998. So I had no particular expectations of this gig except that it might come as a pleasant surprise to Leslie, who’d never seen her live back in that day.
Well, that night at the Bearsville Theater, Ellen Mcilwaine was really good even though not in peak form or performing under ideal conditions. The venue was less than half-full; the singer claimed to have “blown out my voice” at a blues festival the week before in Canada (where she’s lived since 1987); and because an on-stage fan was broken, she sweated profusely under the lights.
But McIlwaine — who’s been out there since 1966, who jammed with Jimi Hendrix (nee Jimmy James) at the Cafe Au Go-Go — is a trouper in the best sense of the word. There was nothing slick or rote about her performance: She struck me as someone who always will try for real communication — if not with her audience, then with music itself. She’s an original and highly inventive amplified-acoustic guitarist who plays in multiple open tunings using all ten fingers; and a powerful, supple singer whose occasional ululating swoops into the stratosphere never sounded forced or showy. Ellen told us that she’d spent some of her childhood in Japan (where, I surmised, her parents may have been missionaries) and had listened to a great deal of “world music” — including Japanese folk music as well as that of South Asia and North Africa — long before anybody began using that term.
McIlwaine had me from her unexpected opener: a medley of Seventies funk classics by Al Green, the Isley Brothers, Bill Withers — I think she even tossed in a chunk of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” She held me right up through her encore of the gospel classic “Farther Along,” a full-throated, ragged-but-right rendition for which she was joined to excellent effect by the four black male singers from the Children of God.
Afterwards, we stopped by Ellen’s merch table and bought a copy of her most recent CD, Mystic Bridge (2006). I’ve been disappointed by any number of self-released albums but this one sounds and plays like a real record rather than a haphazard collection of demos. It includes some worthy EM originals like “Save the World” and the qawwali-inspired “Sidu” (with her intense, droning guitar joined by tabla and soprano sax) alongside covers of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” Gene McDaniels’ “Disposable Society,” and Jimi’s “May This Be Love.”
-> Ellen McIlwaine – “On The Road Again” – live at Calgary Winter Bluesfest, 2008
-> Ellen McIlwaine – “Sidu” – live, 9.26.2008
Which brings us to Hubert Sumlin, who was backed by guitarist Chris Bergson with standup bass, electric piano, and drums. Bergson impresses with the clean, ringing tone of his hollow-bodied Gibson 335 and in his warm-up set prior to Hubert’s appearance I dug his version of “The Stumble,” one of my favorite Freddy King instrumentals. Predictably, I was much less stirred by his singing, which is unforced but rather colorless.
(“They got all these white kids now. Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they cannot vocal like the black man.” — Muddy Waters)
Of course, Hubert Sumlin is a black man but he’s not much of a singer either. He never had to be, having made his rep as the brilliantly intuitive instrumental foil to Howlin’ Wolf over the course of two decades until the latter’s death in 1975. It was Hubert’s fate to live on, performing Howlin’ Wolf classics without having Howlin’ Wolf around to sing them, and tonight was no different than a hundred others.
There’s a kind of magic in his fluid, fractured riffs and in the constant movement of his long fingers up and down the frets. But Sumlin has always been the most self-effacing of lead guitarists, never one to build up a solo through multiple choruses to some roof-raising peak of excitement a la Albert King or Buddy Guy. After he and the band had worked their affable way through three or four numbers, most sung by Chris Bergson, we were done for the night (didn’t stick around for the Blues Magoos).
-> Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin (lead guitar) – “Shake For Me” – live in Germany, 1964
[This essay was commissioned by the editors of Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey, a book published in 2003 to accompany the release of the same-titled documentary film. It was not included in the final selection and is published here for the first time.]
The first time I met the blues (to quote Buddy Guy), I was an impressionable teenager from an upper-middle class family in suburban New York. Little did I know that this music would remain an ever-present part of my life for the next four decades and profoundly shape my understanding of my country and its culture. “Blame it on the Stones,” in the words of Kris Kristofferson, for the Rolling Stones—more than any other single group or artist—were my guides and interpreters to this music, along with writers and researchers like Samuel Charters, Tony Glover, Bernie Klatzko, Paul Oliver, Robert Palmer, and Pete Welding.
These were four live performances of the blues that I will remember for as long as I live.
(1) HOWLIN’ WOLF [July 1966, Newport Folk Festival, Newport RI]
I was one month away from turning fifteen and had just completed a summer school program at Brown University in nearby Providence. In celebration, my parents took me to the Saturday night concert of the four-day festival. The featured acts included contemporary folk stars Phil Ochs and Judy Collins; bluegrass stalwarts Jim & Jesse McReynolds; the Bahamian singer/guitarist Joseph Spence (1910-1984); and singer/harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982), the first black performer to appear on the Grand Old Opry. Yet today I can’t remember anyone but Howlin’ Wolf.
In 1966, I had never heard him on record, and was only dimly aware of the inspiration his music had afforded the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and other British invaders. Indeed, I had seen only one previous live performance of black popular music, when latter-day doo-woppers the Jive Five (featuring the great Eugene Pitt) had played the Mamaroneck (NY) High School gym earlier that year. I was, to put it mildly, utterly unprepared for what I was about to see on this night at Newport.
The curtain rose on a five-piece all-black band identically dressed in white dinner jackets, striped tuxedo pants, and carefully processed hair. They vamped on an instrumental until the sax player (almost certainly Eddie Shaw) stepped forward to introduce “The Howlin’ Wolf, ladies and genne’mens, The Howlin’ Wolf!”
Another black man appeared from stage right. He was a head taller than his accompanists, and wore striped denim overalls and an engineer’s cap set backwards on his enormous head. He was pushing an industrial-size broom and holding the microphone at the end of the handle. The sheer force of his voice overpowered most of the lyrics, half the band, and a good chunk of the p.a. system.
I didn’t recognize any of the songs he sang, and I can’t remember their titles today. What I do remember is the shock of “The Howlin’ Wolf,” whom I found simultaneously thrilling and embarrassing. It was one of those moments in life when everything you think you know—especially about music and how it works—is suddenly tossed up in the air for some serious re-evaluation. Even at fifteen, I sensed the transgressive nature of Wolf’s performance. He didn’t break through the shared assumptions and political niceties of folk music culture: He crushed them, joyfully and carelessly, under a pair of Size-16 brogans.
I was still trying to process this otherworldly spectacle when Wolf sang his last chorus and lumbered off stage. But the band kept riffing and suddenly he reappeared, riding a tiny motor scooter. He took a couple of quick spins around the stage, and then “The Howlin’ Wolf, ladies and genne’mens, The Howlin’ Wolf” was gone for good.
(2) SON HOUSE [November 1969, Beloit College, Beloit, WI]
I was an eighteen-year old freshman at a small liberal-arts college set on a hill overlooking a gritty blue-collar factory town on the Wisconsin/Illinois border. I’d begun to connect the blues present to the blues past: Paul Butterfield to Little Walter, Duane Allman to Elmore James. It was my great good fortune to be attending Beloit College when the Wisconsin Delta Blues Festival — the first all-blues weekend festival ever produced in the U.S. — took place in the college Field House in the fall of 1969.
The blues men—there were no female performers—were everywhere on campus that weekend. Mississippi Fred McDowell set up at a table in the student union, his bottleneck slide riffs ringing out as the smoke curled from a cigarette stuck in the headstock of his guitar. J.B. Hutto wore a double-breasted suit the color of an orange traffic cone and a guitar strap of butcher’s twine. My dorm buddies and I sat enraptured at the feet of Mance Lipscomb, Johnny Shines, Roosevelt Sykes, and Rev. Robert Wilkins. I thought they would all live forever.
Friday and Saturday nights were devoted to formal concerts, if “formal” can describe a crowd of mostly-stoned college kids sitting cross-legged on a gym floor. On the second night, when Otis Rush cancelled, the show closed with Son House. Rediscovered in 1964, the Delta blues godfather had gone on to play Carnegie Hall and to cut a comeback album for Columbia. But I’d never heard him on record.
I don’t even remember him being introduced. Suddenly Son House was just there, as though he’d cartwheeled or teleported onto the stage, already in full cry. He slashed and flailed at his metal-bodied National guitar. He half-shouted and half-sang his fierce, apocalyptic songs: “Preachin’ The Blues,” “Death Letter,” “John The Revelator.”
Here was something quite apart from Mance Lipscomb’s avuncular warmth or Roosevelt Sykes’ ribald showmanship. Son House was scary. There were moments in this brief, explosive drama — which was something much more, or entirely other, than “music” — when I thought he might be having a heart attack or a grand mal seizure.
Poor health did, in fact, restrict his performing career after 1972. Son House died in bed in 1988 at the age of eighty-six, having outlived his most celebrated protégé, Robert Johnson, by fifty years.
(3) BUDDY GUY & JUNIOR WELLS [September 1976, The Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago, IL]
I was 25 years old and living in Minneapolis. I owned a bunch of blues albums and even some Chess, King, and Excello label singles. I’d seen a fair number of blues performances, including Muddy Waters singing on crutches following a near-fatal auto accident and a memorable Apollo Theater show with B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Big Mama Thornton. But I’d never set foot in a Chicago blues club patronized by black people.
One late-summer weekend, my friend Philip Dray and I drove to Chicago. Our first stop was the Jazz Record Mart, where we met the proprietor (and Delmark Records founder) Bob Koester. He invited us to join him for a visit to Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge.
The next night, we drove in Koester’s station wagon through the streets of the South Side. To a visitor from the tidy, prosperous Twin Cities, every fourth building appeared partly burned or half-demolished, the rubble awaiting removal on some uncertain future date. On East 43rd Street, Koester took care to park as closely as possible to the Checkerboard’s entrance.
A large black man silently pulled back a heavy chain that hung across the doorway. Inside, a horseshoe-shaped bar under too-bright lighting occupied the right half of the smoky, low-ceilinged room. On the left were some tables, chairs, and a low stage—or perhaps no stage, just some drums and amps set up on the cracked linoleum floor.
A jukebox emitting the loudest bass frequencies in creation played Albert King’s “Cadillac Assembly Line” in heavy rotation. There were less than 50 people in the place, and our foursome joined the half-dozen white listeners already seated. A sharply dressed black man sat drinking at the bar, red-eyed and looking vaguely pissed off. Only when he stepped to the microphone and began to sing did I recognize Junior Wells.
Buddy Guy played that night, with and without Junior, and a fine but little-remembered singer named Andrew “Big Voice” Odom (1936-1991) also sang a few numbers. The casual, matter-of-fact quality of the night—you couldn’t really call it a “show”—threw me for a loop. Already in his third professional decade, Wells was an internationally known performer with a half-dozen albums under his belt. I’d seen him earn standing ovations from white rock audiences—yet the Checkerboard Lounge regulars barely seemed to pay attention, and they didn’t give up much more for Buddy. (The prediction that, fifteen years later, the guitarist would earn a gold album and the first of four Grammy Awards would have struck all of us—black and white alike—as wildly improbable.)
But there were no hard feelings. Everyone on both sides of the bandstand, it seemed, knew the deal: The blues is its own reward. Never before had I heard this music as the soundtrack to daily life in an American urban ghettom and I never heard it quite that way again.
(4) OTIS RUSH [February 2001, The Village Underground, New York NY]
In the year that I turned fifty and he turned sixty-seven, Otis Rush made one of his increasingly rare New York appearances, at the basement-level Village Underground on West Third Street in Greenwich Village. He was then one of the greatest living blues exponents, as well as one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated. In 1993, Robert Santelli wrote: “Only among fellow blues musicians and serious fans does he remain a major blues figure, whose emotionally charged solos, achingly plaintive chord phrases, and careful attention to textural detail make him one of Chicago’s greatest guitar stylists.”
Throughout the first set, the self-absorbed crowd chattered away relentlessly—I wondered why they had bothered to pay the healthy cover charge. Rush’s band seemed intent on matching the volume of conversation with their own: They banged away busily while the leader, dignified and self-possessed as ever, delivered pro forma renditions of his Fifties classics (“Double Trouble,” “All Your Love”) and selections from more recent albums. When this unmemorable set ended, I went home. But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that, against all odds of time and circumstance, Otis Rush was still capable of much, much more. So I put my coat back on and retraced the dozen blocks to the club.
The club was now little more than half full, and even the band had calmed down. Otis played an opening instrumental and one or two other numbers. Then he counted off a slow tempo and hit the soaring guitar intro to “Walking the Back Streets and Crying,” from his 1998 album Any Place I’m Going.
On a 1972 Stax single, Little Milton sang this song in the first person as a straightforward tale of lost love. Rush’s recording changes the key from major to minor, further slows the tempo, rewrites the bass and horn lines, and completely transforms the lyrics. (Both versions are credited to one Sandy Jones.) Now Otis Rush, in a subdued, almost conversational tone, began to relate a woman’s story of love found, rejected, and lost forever:
You know the other day a woman stopped me / She said, “Daddy, let me talk to you
“Listen baby, I ain’t beggin’ / I’m just lonesome and I’m blue
“Once I had a good man / but I didn’t know how to act
“By the time I learned my lesson / my good man wouldn’t take me back…”
And then the piteous refrain:
She said, “That was too much for me /That’s why I walk the back streets and cry
“It hurt me so bad, it hurt me so bad / to see the man I misused say goodbye…”
Otis’ voice was rich with sorrow, and his shuddering guitar lines echoed his words. As he moved into the second verse—in which the woman enlists a friend to plea for forgiveness on her behalf—I realized that the room had fallen nearly silent.
“You know I sent a friend to talk for me / She said, ‘I did the best I could’
“‘I lied like a dog for you / I just couldn’t do you no good.’
“That’s when I hit the back streets, people, just as drunk as I could be
“The man I had misused, he passed by, and didn’t look back at me…”
Rush dug into the first guitar solo, and his elongated, jazz-tinged phrases seemed to well up from some subterranean realm far below this basement cabaret. He stretched and sustained individual notes to their breaking point: They hung in the air just a split-second longer than you thought the laws of sound would allow, the way a Michael Jordan drive to the hoop once seemed to defy the laws of gravity.
In the third and final verse, the departed lover speaks for himself—and his pain is no less than that of the woman he’s left behind:
“He said, ‘You had the nerve to call me / Said you were lonesome as you can be
‘Last time we had an argument, you called the po-lice on me
‘They ran me out my house, people, while you stood there and grinned
‘Now the po-lice can’t help you, little girl, ‘cos they can’t bring me in’
She said, “That was too much for me / That’s why I walk the back streets and cry
“It hurt me so bad, it hurt me so bad, to see the man I misused say goodbye…”
In his last solo, through one twelve-bar chorus after another, Otis Rush poured it on until the final flourish that signaled the song’s end. In his hands that night, “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” was a tale told with the emotional force of Shakespeare, of Greek tragedy.
Though the set wasn’t over, I wanted only to hold that transcendent moment in my heart. I climbed the basement stairs again and stepped out onto Wst Third Street, where the winter wind stung the tears that streaked my face.