Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Violent World of the Bluesman

A personal favourite form of music to me, is that of the blues.  My first real immersion into this genre, although I never realised it, was towards the mid 1970`s, when I purchased the Greatest Hits of Fleetwood Mac.  The guitar solo that Peter Green ripped out in "Black Magic Woman" had a very profound effect on me. It felt like my heart had been torn out!  But towards the end of the 70`s, I started looking deeply into the world of the blues, and discovered just what truly appalling lives they led and it reflected in their music.  Some of the bluesmen were extremely violent, and met violent ends.  So where do we start off?  How about one of THE most influential; Robert Johnson.  The man who made a pact with the devil at the crossroads.  This tale is firmly entrenched in blues legend, and with the superstitions that ran through black people for generations, many actually believed it.  His prowess as a musician could only have come through a deal with Lucifer.  His soul for talent.  He married a couple of times, travelled all over the south, played at parties, in juke joints but had a great weakness for womanising.  The tale goes - well, one does - that he was poisoned by an irate husband or boyfriend in 1938.  His 29 recorded songs are amongst the most influential in blues and rock.

    Pat Hare was a singer and guitarist in the highly influential band of Muddy Waters - real name McKinley Morganfield - in the late 1950`s and had recorded a song that was later to prove deadly accurate. "I`m gonna murder my baby" was recorded in 1954 for Sun Records, the label run by legendary producer Sam Phillips.  Hare was by nature, an extremely jealous man, and in 1963, this proved fatal when he murdered both his girlfriend and a Minnesota Police Officer.  He was jailed for the rest of his life.

    Huddie Ledbetter, otherwise known as "Leadbelly" personified the wild man.  He once had his throat cut during a brawl.  He was big, tough and had a furious temper.  A man to avoid in a desperate situation.  His first serious brush with the law was when he was 15. (in 1904)  He shot a man.   The victim was said to have been the father of a newly impregnated girl!  Ledbetter already had two children by then!  He was fined and told that it would be better for him to leave town.  By 1915, he had shot and wounded another man.  He was fined and jailed for a month!!  But he actually escaped and vanished.  He then committed a murder.  He killed his friend Will Stafford and received 20 years.  He behaved himself in jail and after so many years, he actually sang a song to the State Governor, in order to win parole.  I believe it was one of his most famous songs "Goodnight Irene" but some stories say that this Governor did not parole him but the next one that came into office.  After a five year period of good behaviour when he was paroled, he then stabbed a man, a white man at that! and jailed for between 6 & 10 years.  He was incarcerated in one of the toughest jails in the country.  Angola, in Louisiana.  It was in the 30`s that he came to the attention of field producer Alan Lomax, where he recorded him and  set him on a path to a much wider audience.  But there was trepidation, after his release, wherever he went, as his violent reputation preceded him.  One nickname he was given was "The Murderous Minstrel." Ledbetter died in 1949.

    The last person to be featured is a man rated one of, if not the best, blues harmonica player: Little Walter Jacobs.  He was born in 1930, and in the 50`s he found himself in Muddy Waters` band.  He had a good voice and the most exquisite harmonica playing.  But in the tradition of many bluesman, he drank a great deal and had a volatile temper.  Not a good mixture.  Strangely enough, despite many bluesmen who found that the white audiences truly appreciated their music, and people like the Rolling Stones and Clapton ensured they received royalty payments for covering their songs, and bringing them to a much wider audience, Jacobs hated performing to whites!!   His volatility whilst in drink, resulted in him being beaten to death by some men in 1968.  A real waste.