Guitar King

Jan 16, 2020
Maybe the best thing about Guitar King, David Dann's brick-like new biography of Michael Bloomfield, is how it succeeds in putting the guitarist's post-rock-star output into context. I missed the big bang of 1964's The Butterfield Blues Band, but having read Bloomfield's 1979 Guitar Player interview countless times in my late teens, I managed to round up copies of Super Session, the first Electric Flag record and the Takoma LP Between The Hard Place And The Ground while the outer crust of my electric blues sensibilities was still cooling. Having heard Bloomfield's burning Les Paul on "Albert's Shuffle," "Texas" and "Your Friends," I was pretty baffled when I first encountered the guitarist's later, more acoustic LPs. There had been a lot of talk in the GP interview about people like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tampa Red, but since I didn't know what they sounded like yet, it hadn't meant much to me at the time.

In Dann's exhaustively detailed retelling, as crucial a role as Bloomfield played in bringing electric, South Side Chicago blues into the folk revival, he was as much affected by the folk revival himself in the early Sixties, and not just in terms of blues. At his 1964 audition with John Hammond, you can hear Bloomfield ask "You know who Merle Travis is, Mr. Hammond?" before proceeding to play a ripsnorting Travis-style instrumental showstopper. (That's John Hammond, Sr., the guy who scouted everyone from Charlie Christian to Bruce Springsteen. He did indeed know from Travis, and his reply is priceless). Bloomfield's interest in older music was obsessive, but he didn't waste time digging through thrift stores for old 78s; he got straight to the business of digging old bluesmen out of their Chicago apartments to play at local venues.

By his mid-twenties, Bloomfield was over the business of rock stardom, and spent most of the next dozen years headed in the opposite direction. For fans who only knew "Born In Chicago" and "East-West" or Bloomfield's adventures with Al Kooper, the idea of Mike Bloomfield, fingerpicking singer, could be difficult to grok. Even Tom Wheeler, in that 1979 interview, asked "How long have you been playing this kind of music?" Bloomfield replied, "Much longer than I've been famous for playing rock and roll...maybe [audiences] think I just saw Leon Redbone on Saturday Night Live and just got into it or something." That wasn't the case, although he did single out Ry Cooder for embodying a level of creative integrity he aspired to attain himself.

In the last years of his life, at solo shows, Bloomfield felt plagued by fans who still expected some kind of rock guitar extravaganza rather than the rags, blues and gospel tunes he'd come to play. And considering the depth of his passion for all shades of blues, and the wit and chops he brought to that repertoire, his frustration is understandable. In a live recording of "Darktown Strutter's Ball" from McCabes in Santa Monica, Bloomfield starts out fingerpicking the 1917 melody with as much spark and finesse as any Gary Davis disciple, sings a verse with his relaxed, unaffected delivery, segues into Louis Jordan's "Mop Mop," and slips in a set of verses from "Black Dog Blues" before easing back into the jump blues lyrics. That's a lot of ground to cover in less than four minutes, and he makes it sound easy. As a kid, I found his multitracked arrangements of Duke Ellington and Hawaiian music a little too cheesy for comfort; now I hear in them a kind of aching, evocative melancholy every bit as soulful and compelling as the best of his electric guitar legacy. Guitar King may not be the most uplifting read in the world, and at times it feels less than objective, but it goes a long way towards illuminating the art and motivations of one of the Sixties' most talented roots musicians, and that's good enough for me.


Speaking of Ry Cooder, in this week's lesson I show how to play the opening groove from Cooder's version of "Crow Black Chicken," along with some additional voicings and licks in dropped-D tuning. You can check it out here:

Crow Black Chicken

and you can download the tab here (no need to enter your email again):

Get The Tab

More soon,


P.S. For a playlist of acoustic and electric Mike Bloomfield, mosey on over to the Playlists page on Fretboard Confidential:

Bloomfield Playlist