Late last night I finished compiling this second (and probably last) series of videos. If you haven’t watched the first one yet, I’d recommend doing that first, since it includes a higher proportion of big-name acts — though I have plenty of those in this one, too. Gems like the opening and closing videos are kind of hidden in plain sight on YouTube, since it’s often impossible to tell what’s a real film and what isn’t until you play it. (I think music fans tend to assume the music can speak for itself. At least I imagine that’s why they’re not too good about annotating their uploads.)
This one’s longer. The first playlist was a mere 3 1/2 hours long; this one clocks in at 4:17:47. That’s because I’ve included more multi-song videos, such as the first part of a concert by Mance Lipscomb, as well as a wonderful short documentary by blues scholar David Evans on the fife-and-drum tradition of Gravel Springs, Mississippi, complete with footage of Otha Turner cutting cane and making a cane flute. There are also more long guitar jams — though not nearly as many as I could’ve included if I were a more typical blues fan. (More about that below.)
I’ve included more younger performers, more Texas blues and more jazz-blues than in the first playlist. I’m obviously far from a blues purist, but remain conservative about including performers from outside the African-American community, favoring those who, like Doc Watson, made the music their own, rather than slavish imitators like Eric Clapton… but see Buddy Guy’s passionate speech about the importance of the “British invasion” (and the band Cream specifically) in #21. As collectors, promoters, appreciators, and (since the 1970s) audiences, white people on both sides of the Atlantic have been essential to the survival of the blues. It’s great to see a younger coterie of players, black and white, taking the blues in new directions. The next to last video, for example, is from a young Serbian guitarist, Ana Popovic, who clearly isn’t afraid to use the blues to address the intense ethnic tensions in her own country.
I discovered a couple of new-to-me artists in the process of putting this playlist together, for which I’m mainly indebted to John Hayes’ Any Woman’s Blues series of portraits of female blues guitarists at the excellent, multi-author music and poetry blog Robert Frost’s Banjo. I remain personally more interested in blues as a vocal art-form, but as I said on Facebook last night, there’s always something powerful about a woman with a guitar. I think my favorite discovery was Barbara Lynn, whose career exemplifies the familiar woman’s trajectory of taking a couple decades off to raise a family. But it also exemplifies something that I love about the blues: there’s always been a strong place for older performers. Like jazz, and unlike rock, blues is music for grownups.
And that leads to the last point I want to make today. Unlike most white guys in my generation, I didn’t come to blues from a classic rock background. I listened to a lot of folk music growing up, including my brother Steve’s clawhammer banjo, and more than anything I think it was that latter sound that prepared me to love the haunting, droning style of traditional Mississippi blues when a college roommate with a great record collection first exposed me to guys like Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Muddy Waters. I remain fondest of the country blues in general, because I think it’s more musically diverse and much more interesting lyrically than the more commercial stuff.
When I did get into rock music in my early 20s, I found myself gravitating toward genres where the role of the lead guitar solo was minimalized, and the emphasis was on killer riffs — mainly thrash metal and punk. So to balance what I said above about the importance of white fans in keeping blues alive, I think this may have also retarded its development quite a bit, because so many fans are in it for the electric guitar leads, and prefer blues that sounds like classic rock. Where are the great blues pianists and saxophonists these days? Playing jazz for Cassandra Wilson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, apparently.
I will say, however, that much as I share Buddy Guy’s oft-expressed impatience for contemporary blues fans’ adulation of Stevie Ray Vaughan, specifically, making this playlist reminded me that he did have a unique and soulful sound — especially compared to some of his contemporaries. I couldn’t leave him out. Ditto with Albert Collins and some of the other axemen and -women in the playlist. Perhaps it’s time to revisit my indifference to screaming guitar solos. But mostly, I’ve found that compiling these playlists has reminded me why I love the blues so much in the first place: its bittersweetness speaks to me. It makes we want to get up and get down, and the years drop away. Also, I still think I might be able to dance like Cab Calloway if I just concentrate a little harder…