A few weeks ago I was driving (probably a little too quickly) to pick up pizzas for my son’s birthday party, I was lucky enough to have the radio on for the local jazz station’s weekly blues evening. The DJ was revisiting some of the releases from the past calendar year focusing especially on possible award winners in the upcoming and endless award cycle. When he introduced an album up for the Grammy for Best Blues Album and the Blues Music Awards for Best Blues Album and Best Traditional Blues Album I might have yawned (awards shows don’t always impress me). But from the first note to the last (I was late returning with pizza because I listened to five full tracks) this was the best thing I had heard on the radio in years.
The band? A group of talented and seasoned musicians who form the Heritage Blues Orchestra. The album? Their debut And Still I Rise.
I don’t often like to get nationalistic or jingoistic, but we, as Americans, should take pride in our musical art forms, though not without first admitting that they were made possible by a particularly vile bit of history. The cultural blending from forced migration (i.e., slavery) and economically or politically motivated immigration created a violent and vibrant mixing pot (more a boiling and roiling stew than a true blend) that gave birth to the most influential musical forms of the last century: jazz, blues, rock, R&B, country, folk and hip-Hop all come from the admixture of our national heritages.
Of these genres, blues is probably the least well-represented in mainstream culture even though it may be the oldest, most pure and the granddaddy of them all. Blues musicians of the greatest talent labor in relative obscurity because the genre doesn’t have the catchy colloquialism of its rock, pop and hip-hop descendants or the Caucasian-approved art-house elevation of jazz. The repetitive and seemingly ‘un-original’ nature of its composition, moreover, makes blues seem less exciting to modern audiences
Unless, of course, you spend some time watching blues musicians and realize how talented they are (or learn to play a little yourself). When I was learning to play the guitar, my teacher—who could play an impressive range of genres with equal talent—spent time teaching me the basic picking patterns of piedmont and delta blues both as a way to give depth to my musical knowledge and to strengthen my hands for folk and classical pursuits. While I never became the guitarist he hoped (it was the nineties, power chords were all I needed!), I have never forgotten the feel for it or the basic twelve-bar blues.
This feel and pattern are at the core of so much American music. But modern music has lost some of the verve and desperation of blues, which also draws on the field-working song, the holler, and traditional laments. The Heritage Blues Orchestra channels both the origins and the history of blues into their fantastic And I Still Rise. Each member of the band is an impressive musician who brings to the creation of this album decades of experience in all musical genres. The result is sublime as the band blends traditional forms with exceptional musicianship—the soul and aesthetic of blues with the wit and sophistication of jazz.
The album announces itself slowly but surely with guitar phrases that jump and swing to a stompbox beat with a lead harmonica line. Both the form—which is a combination of rhythmic work music, delta guitar playing, and Chicago-style electric with some swinging horns—and the content (lyrics proclaiming Clarksdale Mississippi the vocalist’s home and destination) proclaim the musicians’ deep and complex musical heritage and their deft use of it.
The swing/big band offshoot of blues is visited on the next track (“C-Line Woman”) that leaps out with a 1930s style dance-piece drum pattern overlaid with a complex—now chesty, now throaty but always tonal—female vocal. The vocalist’s moves within the song are as fine and complicated as anything that happens on the album; in fact, the repetition of the drumming pattern and the backing vocals are almost necessary to frame the complexity and richness of this voice.
The urban/urbane, dance-hall sound of the second song gives way to a more southern conventional blues number you might expect in an icehouse or roadside hall off the beaten path, a place where, even if they have air conditioning, it doesn’t work. The repeated lyrics and their resolution (“you’ve got something, baby, make a bulldog hump a hound”) give a sense of play that is still earnest—a feeling supporting by the skipping and major-interval voicings of the acoustic picking pattern. The not-so-coded sexuality combined with some of the strangeness of the imagery is honest both to the genre and to human nature.
This type of back-country delta blues is translated with slight but important alterations (a more sophisticated horn arrangement and a more roughly electrified and aggressively played guitar/harmonic combination) to the fourth song as well (“Catfish Blues”) where, as it seems to me, the indirect and playful imagery of the blues koan is strained a bit (“I wish I was a catfish…I’d have so many women / fishing after me / If I was a catfish and your belly was a bog / I’d jump down to the bottom and make myself at home..”). Yet, the breathless harmonica drives the song through any strangeness and the male vocalist’s rhythms—coming from a voice with perfect tone yet a finish of smoke and growl that is just one of the finest blues instruments I have ever heard—makes it all work. One of the things I prefer about blues is that the instrumentalists solo less frequently; when they do, as when the harmonica takes over three-fourths of the way through this song, it is absolutely thrilling. The band gives you just enough so that you know what they can do but then leaves you wanting more.
The range of the band is clear throughout the album but the country, almost piedmont-style, blues is clearest on the next to last track (“Chilly Jordan”) where the finger picking pattern makes clearest the interdependence of folk and blues even as the vocals and themes dwell more on the gospel side. A similar combination—less country and more soul with deep and smoky female vocals—brings the album to a more than satisfying conclusion (“Hard Times”) as the spare delta sound transitions into a more contemplative horn arrangement whose phrasings recall the album as a whole, the complex of genres that made it possible, and the future notes of jazz and rock while still managing to introduce the orchestration of classical and contemporary instrumentals. Just when you think this is over, the band surprises again as it revisits the same melody with a more aggressive Chicago-style carrying some pretty heavy funk and jazz elements. As the music fades away, the saxophone wails and trills in a way familiar to any jazz fan—but on this album it trills to silence.
But blues is not all finger-picking, harmonica-playing and guitar-blasting music. The fifth track, the traditional “Go Down Hannah” not only reminds us of this with its lyrics (“they work the women just as hard as the men”) but the backing rhythmic grunt—the only accompaniment for a remarkably clear and pure vocal by Chaney Sims—reminds us that the blues was (mostly) formed through the crucible of abduction, slavery, and then quasi-slavery through the poverty, depredation and deprivation of the years after the Civil War. The Heritage Blues Orchestra doesn’t need to explain the racial strife and crimes against humankind that made this music possible—anyone who knows a little about music and history can hear the story in the tones and strength of Sims’ voice.
Another musical reflex of this cultural mixing, gospel, is prominent on the lively sixth track “Get Right Church” which, for the first time on the album, introduces a choral vocal. Yet, even here, the different branches of blues are blended together—the guitar solo-line is all Chicago with some delta turns while the overall feel of the song belongs in some Platonically perfect version of a Blues Brothers’ church service. The lyrics here are, as in some of the best gospel and blues, both daily and universal. When they sing “I’m going home on the evening train” it seems both like a prediction and a prayer, clearly more than a declaration of commuting plans.
The gospel influence is clear as well on the ninth track (“In the Morning”) where male and female vocalists alternate over a traditional gospel structure interrupted at times by a horn arrangement that is at once New Orleans style jazz and conventional blues. The hope for the morning (“when I rise”) where there is no sickness or sorrow not only plays on the album’s title (answering the “rise” that leads to judgment day of “Go Down Hannah”) but also points to the polarities of a musical genre that explores the torment of daily torture and the threat of damnation alongside the promise of eternal salvation. This song made me sure that the band can do anything.
And the play with the title And Still I Rise with these two songs also reveals the depth of these musicians’ appreciation for the historical development and meaning of their music. Their title, I suspect, is at least partly (if not directly then indirectly) inspired by the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou which starts:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
The pride, defiance and beauty claimed by this opening stanza–which acknowledges history and debt to that suffering but refuses to be bound by it entirely–contribute to the very same spirit communicated by blues in general and by the core of this album.
This tour through history and generic evolution continues on the seventh track (“Don’t Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down”) where a John Lee Hooker-style beginning stays gospel with the vocals but more jazz art house with the horn arrangements. On the vocals here, I might want a little more growl, but otherwise the arrangement is just perfect. The guitar solo on this track is just paradigmatically poignant. When I first heard it I had to holler out a bit—good playing deserves praise. This song will be picked up as the theme for a movie or television show before too long.
The eighth track is thematically entertaining and the music reflects some rather amusing identity formation. The sound of the music is thoroughly delta and country blues, yet the title (“Going Uptown”) and a repeated verse (“My Baby’s so high-brow / the white folks all think she’s white”) reflects not just complex issues of personal identity faced by many in the modern world (whatever our race and creed, many of us must negotiate the dynamics between high-culture/ low-culture, country and city, etc. for which race is often—but not always—shorthand). The song is, then, in essence, a slow but pleasant paean to the pain (like the word-play?) of the negotiation of musical as well as personal identities (or something like that).
I don’t know if this album will win the award for the best blues album—I am not well-enough versed with the competition or the parameters to make that judgment. Because I love the album, I think it should. But, more importantly, the Heritage Blues Orchestra should win some award for their accomplishment and for their contribution. For the first, they have encapsulated the style and history of blues in a dynamic and challenging record that stands on its own as an artistic achievement. For the second, they have created something of an aural textbook for the history of American music. By listening to this album you may not learn the details of the history of blues—the political currents, the racial tensions, the names of the generations of men and women whose suffering and talent made it possible—but you will absorb the range of its sound and the unique beauty of its spirit.
I am grateful I have this album to share with my children. And, my brother as well.