The Real Folk Blues with John Lee Hooker

John Lee HookerMurray, Charles Shaar. Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century. St. Martin’s Press. 2000.

The lyrical content of traditional blues music describes the emotional pain from lost love, cheating spouse, or vanquished hopes. Nonetheless, the music will make you feel good, and that is the power of this music. One guy with a guitar and a stomping foot is all that’s necessary. Simple materials and the expression of emotional pain evoke a satisfying response. Speaking of young people today, Murray writes: “The blues make them feel bad, and they can’t get past that. . . the blues is not about feeling bad, but about feeling good despite every factor in the world which conspires to make you feel bad. By telling his story, John Lee Hooker enables us to face our own. . . it is his (the bluesman’s) job to forgive us and comfort us, shoulder our burdens as he invites us to help him shoulder his own. I (Murray) remember what it is to feel so flat-out, rock-bottom bad that you simply, involuntarily, apropos of nothing in particular, begin to weep. And I know that, eventually, the weeping stops. And then the boogie begins (9).”

The Real Folk Blues. Murray provides a lengthy description of blues as a native art form and how it evolved and is distinguished from Anglo-American folk music (see chapter 3). “The most crucial . . . point about ‘folk music’ is that the constituency whom it most truly represents doesn’t consider it to be ‘folk music,’ but simply their music. Folk music—the traditional set of forms, styles and songs indigenous to a people, a culture or a locale—is radically distinguishable from ‘art’ music, of both the classical and avant garde varieties, and from ‘popular’ music, produced and marketed to a mass audience (52).” It is safe to say, however, that the music we call “blues” crosses over into all forms of music today—folk, jazz, pop, and rock; the genre lines are flexible and porous. The blues is a kind of folk music.

The folk singer draws upon the traditional arts and beliefs of the larger group to which he belongs—a clan, family, or local culture; a social chronicler with a song to sing. “In contrast, the bluesman’s vision is, almost by definition, personal. . . The bluesman makes himself the focus of his work; by placing himself at the center of his art, he is taking possession of his life. He is asserting his right to interpret his own existence. . . (73).” The bluesman is saying this is how I feel today and how the world is impacting me in my sadness, or happiness. One’s own perception of his present condition as expressed in song removes the ambiguity of the group’s emotional response and gives it a sense of realness that only the individual can convey—his personal psychology at the moment, so to speak.

African-American blues musicians recognize that there is “a strong and clearly defined tradition,” and “its practitioners are expected to improvise freely within it, re-creating it anew to meet the immediate needs of both performer and audience (54).” The traditional blues music themes lie in “dance songs, work songs, celebrations, laments, love songs, hate songs, and so forth.” These themes and the materials (riffs, chord progressions, melodies, etc.) employed to create them are available to all. “What counts above all in the blues is individuality: the development of a unique and unmistakable voice (54)” to place a personal stamp on the creative process and product. In this biography, Murray succeeds in using the historical perspective to trace the cultural events and personal experiences that helped shape the musical style and personality of a unique blues voice—John Lee Hooker.

Master Bluesman. John Lee learned to play blues guitar from his stepfather. His parents had divorced and, lo and behold, his new stepdad could show him everything on the instrument. “Will Moore gave his new stepson his next guitar–an old mail-order Stella. . .(34)” Quoting Hooker: “He would tell me what’s right and what’s wrong, and if he would tell me I wouldn’t do it, because back in them days if you did something wrong that you shouldn’t’a didn’t’a did, you get a good whuppin’. . . But he never had to do that because I never did get outta line. . . He wanted me to do what I wanted to do best, long as it was right. . . He is my roots because he is the man that caused me who I am today. . . What I’m doin’ today, that’s him. . . I wanted to play just like him, and I did, but he was so bluesy.” Moore played with Charley Patton and Son House, but he would not take 15 year-old John Lee with him. In describing his first hit, Boogie Chillen, recorded in Detroit some fifteen years after he left home, Hooker said, “That was his tune; that was his beat. I never thought I would make nothin’ out of it, and he didn’t either. But I came out with it and it just happened.”

The “Oral Transmission” of Folk Blues. Murray writes: “Hooker’s earliest musical experiences came through the oral tradition: from direct contact with Tony Hollins, who taught him his first chords and songs, and from Will Moore, who gave him the boogie. . . his most profoundly formative influences came from direct, face-to-face encounters with musicians who had themselves learned their stuff the hard way, the old way, the traditional way—from their elders, the elders who were themselves the first generation of bluesmen. . . they were his folk (61).” Hollins befriended the Hooker family in Mississippi and recorded in Chicago during the 1940’s but his work was never released on records; included were tunes such as “Crosscut Saw” and “Crawlin’ King Snake” that were popularized by others and were to become standards in the blues genre. The music and lyrics were not written for passage to successive generations, and Hooker learned directly from this “master bluesman” by word-of-mouth and demonstration, as we assume Hollins learned from his elders. In modern times, readers of liner notes and the center of vinyl platters may note the tune credited to “traditional.” The unknown creator did not write the tune for posterity and no one has the right to claim it.

In this short review for a blog format I have summarized, quoted, and interpreted from a lengthy biography of 491 pages with emphasis on Chapter 3, “The Real Folk Blues?” There is no reference list, but from Murray’s descriptions in text and footnotes I provide a few sources for additional reading:
1. Evans, David. Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues. Da Capo Books, 1982.
2. Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People from Charley Patton to Robert Cray. Secker and Warburg, 1995.
3. Charters, Samuel. The Bluesmen. Oak Publications, 1967

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Uncategorized

2 responses to “The Real Folk Blues with John Lee Hooker

  1. I travel through the south, the Delta, Memphis … listening to Blues musicians no one has heard of … yet … taking pictures and decided to check out GIP’S PLACE in Bessemer, Alabama … Gip Gipson runs these ‘jukin’ parties ..he’s in his 90s and loved going to Michigan to play with John Lee Hooker in the l940s =)

  2. Peter Furlong

    Reblogged this on Peter on Music.

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