Blues After Hours

Apr 30, 2021

En route to school a few days ago, the Dauphin aired his disgruntlement with his friends' taste in art. He's obsessed with Magic The Gathering, a fantasy game played with decks one builds out of the over 20,000 cards issued during nearly three decades of the game's existence. Each card features a custom illustration, and credits the artist directly on the face of the card along with the copyright and other necessary fine print. But, my son observes, most of his friends who play "Magic" don't even have a favorite artist, and if they do, it's invariably Seb McKinnon. What's wrong with this, I ask? It turns out, of course, having Seb McKinnon as your favorite Magic The Gathering artist in 2021 is like having Bobby Orr as your favorite hockey player in 1972. Anyone could do it. Yeah, he's great, it just doesn't take any imagination.

And this (sigh, genetics) is where the rubber meets the road for my progeny. As cool and supportive as my parents were about music, I don't remember ever trying to explain why John Renbourn was a more imaginative role model than James Taylor, but I'm sure a lot of my preference for the former over the latter had to do with the fact that while everyone knew "Fire And Rain," being hip to The Black Balloon was a kind of secret handshake. The Dauphin already is his own secret handshake, pursuing a subculture within a subculture, seeking out the coolest artists within a game most people have never heard of in the first place.

This kind of thinking is, at least according to musician and writer Elijah Wald, a big part of how Robert Johnson went from 1930s obscurity to 1960s rediscovery to his current status as, well, the Bobby Orr of blues. For certain folk revival devotees chasing down the seemingly lost world of Depression-era music, rarity was key. The more popular an artist, the more records they sold; the more records they sold, the more easily their surviving work found its way into the hands of 1950s collectors. Where's the fun in scouring flea markets for 78s only to turn up something your friends already know about? For true bragging rights, you need to unearth the work of an artist who only cut four sides in his whole career and never sold more than a couple hundred copies altogether. That doesn't quite describe Johnson, but it does partly explain why, in Wald's view, for white fans of rural blues in the 1950s, the more obscure and unknown, the better.

Folk revival collectors were also looking for otherness. So smoother, slicker or more produced-sounding recordings involving pianists, horns, or other jazz-like elements were not valued as much as solo guitar-and-vocal recordings. And not just any solo guitar-and-vocal recordings, but specifically those perceived to be the most raw and emotionally direct, qualities considered to bespeak a degree of authenticity impossible to achieve through mere skill and musical craftsmanship. As the relatively small group of people making such judgments got involved in operating venues, organizing festivals, running labels and making records of their own, this point of view had a significant impact on whose work got reissued on LP, played on the radio, talked about in print, featured onstage and covered by a new generation of performers.

Tuning in to the blues for the first time in the late 1970s, I encountered my fair share of this perspective via Guitar Player magazine, DJs on local blues shows and used books on blues I managed to dig up around Harvard Square. So when, just a few years after that, I began hearing more jazz-inflected blues artists like T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown and blues-saturated jazz singers like Charles Brown and Mose Allison, I was shocked to discover not only that one could sing the blues without raising one's voice, one could also swing the groove and throw down sophisticated chord changes while still qualifying as a blues musician.

So this week's Youtube lesson is all about that part of the Venn diagram where blues sensibilities and jazz relaxation overlap: the After Hours groove. From 9th chords over a slow-rocking swing feel to serpentine blues licks over a walking bass turnaround – you can check it all out at the link below:

After Hours Blues