The Best of Blues Edition #4: Delta Blues & The Devil’s Music
My love for the blues first started when I heard the records of British blues musicians like Peter Green, Paul Kossoff and Eric Clapton. I became obsessed with the British blues scene, discovering bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream and Taste in the process. For many years, it was the only type of music to whichI listened. Eventually, I branched out and a new obsession began with American blues musicians like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Muddy Waters and B.B. King.
For a long time, my musical focus was limited to this small collection of musicians and bands. And so it wasn’t until years later that I discovered the Founding Fathers of the Blues – musicians like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. I am almost embarrassed to admit, but even at this stage I wasn’t enthralled by their music. To my ear it lacked the power and energy of electric blues.
It has only been more recently, since I have really studied the blues – both in form and history – that I have come to fully appreciate these early blues musicians. Their compositions are raw, emotional and perfectly capture the essence of what it means to have the blues. Not only that, but they created a platform for the following generations of musicians. It is no exaggeration to say that without Robert Johnson and the Delta blues musicians that preceded him, the modern blues scene as we now know it would not exist.
Over the past few weeks I have been listening to a lot of early blues music and acoustic Delta blues. And so to help you expand your musical horizons and join me on my journey of blues discovery, I wanted to share what I have been enjoying over the past couple of weeks:
Devil At The Crossroads
Part of what prompted me to return to the early Delta blues masters was an excellent documentary that I watched on Netflix. Entitled ‘ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads’ – the documentary covers the life of Robert Johnson, ‘The King of The Delta Blues Singers.’
There is no character in the history of the blues that is more interesting and enigmatic than Robert Johnson. So the story goes, Johnson set out as a musician in pursuit of fame and glory. Frustrated by his lack of progress, he left his hometown of Robinsville in Mississippi. He went to a crossroads in nearby Clarksdale and made a pact with the devil. He sold his soul and in return was gifted with super human song writing and guitar playing abilities.
This brilliant documentary explores this myth, and details the limited facts that historians have about Johnson’s short and tragic life. A lot of the material covered in the documentary was not new to me, but I found its focus on the devil and the supernatural to be particularly interesting. Even during his lifetime, Johnson was persecuted for playing ‘devil’s music’. Blues music was his calling and enriched his life in innumerable ways. But it also caused him immense suffering. He was ostracised, prevented from seeing his son and from entering relationships with the women he loved.
This tension is painfully evident in his music. The documentary helps to frame this tension and gives background to some of Johnson’s most famous compositions. It has given me a greater appreciation of Johnson’s music, the immensity of his skill and the deeper meaning behind his lyrics. It is well worth a watch.
In addition to the early blues masters, I have very much enjoyed listening to Keb’ Mo’ over the past couple of weeks. Mo’ (whose full name is Kevin Moore) has for a long time championed the early forms of the blues. He started performing in the 1970s and has recorded and shared the stage with musicians like Albert Collins, Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal, amongst countless others. In fact TajMo – the album he recorded with Taj Mahal in 2017 – earned him a fourth Grammy award, to go with the 3 that he also won for his albums Just Like You, Slow Down and Keep It Simple.
Over his 50 year career, Mo’ has recorded a broad catalogue of music. It varies from stripped back acoustic blues, all the way through to a style of electric blues similar to that of players like B.B. King. I have enjoyed listening to it all, but particularly to those records that pay homage to the early blues of the Mississippi Delta. Songs like ‘Am I Wrong’, ‘Diving Duck Blues’ and ‘Perpetual Blues Machine’.
These songs illustrate the power and intensity that you can create with just a guitar and vocals. They also highlight the technical complexity of the Delta blues finger picking and slide guitar style.
Yet whilst Keb’ Mo’s music pays tribute to musicians like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson; there is one key difference.
Mo’s music lacks that raw and emotional element. Robert Johnson’s music is the music of desperation. His compositions are intense and they make for an almost overwhelming listening experience. This isn’t the same for Keb’ Mo’. Although his music is rooted in the blues, it is ultimately uplifting. It is like a more traditional counterpart to the music of B.B. King. Mo’s music makes you feel good.
This is also true of his most recent album – Oklahoma – which Mo’ wrote in dedication to his 91 year old mother, who passed away last year. As Mo’ said in his own words:
Oklahoma is everywhere. It’s a metaphor for resilience through adversity and that’s a theme through these songs. I dedicated this album to my mom, who passed on last year at age 91; and I think it honors men and women, that are or have been voiceless.
Keb’ Mo’ is now touring the album – and I’m hoping to catch him when he is in London in a few week’s time. If you want to find out more about his upcoming gigs that are near you, as well as get more information and listen to his music, check out the links below:
Well that’s it for this week. I hope you enjoy the Robert Johnson documentary and listening to Keb’ Mo’. And if there are any other Delta blues musicians (old or new) that you’re listening to, please share them in the comments; I’d love to hear them!