Friday, September 3, 2010

Alan Wilson

[“20. Four great musicians. Left to right, Fahey, Rev. Rube Lacy (P.M. 12696), Blind Aouhl Krishnawhilsan, David (etc.) Evans, in front of Rev. Lacy’s church in Ridgecrest, California.”]

Singer, guitarist, harmonica player Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, third from the left in the above photograph, died forty years ago today. Like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (both of whom soon followed), he was twenty-seven.

Alan Wilson, or the Blind Owl, as he was called, was a brilliant musician. His Skip James-influenced singing is immediately recognizable (you may know it from “Going Up the Country”), and his reedy timbre is a reminder that blues voices come in many sizes. As a guitarist, Wilson brought the fingerpicking idioms of pre-WWII acoustic blues to electric music. (Who else could take a rhythmic motif from Garfield Akers and a melody from Blind Willie Johnson and turn them into a song of lunar devastation?) Listen to any number of Canned Heat recordings, and you can hear how Wilson’s creativity as a rhythm guitarist shapes and reshapes a tune. As a blues harmonica player, Wilson is unsurpassed. The strongest evidence: his duets with John Lee Hooker on the double-album Hooker ’n Heat, masterworks of musical empathy. (Try “Burning Hell.”) Hooker called Wilson “the greatest harmonica player ever.” Hooker was right.

I remember as a much younger person thinking of Alan Wilson as a kindred spirit. He was a geeky guy: awkward-looking, glasses-wearing, obviously quite shy. I still think of Alan Wilson as a kindred spirit. How I wish he had had many more years in which to grow as a man and musician.

I chose the above photograph for (what I think is) its obscurity. It appears in the liner notes of guitarist John Fahey’s 1967 LP The Voice of the Turtle (Takoma). Also in the photograph: ex-blues guitarist and singer Reverend Rubin “Rube” Lacy and musicologist David Evans. P.M. refers to the Paramount master-number for Lacy’s only released blues recording, the 1928 “Mississippi Jail House Groan” and “Ham Hound Crave.” The photograph is most likely from 1966, the year that Evans located Lacy in California. Evans, Fahey, and the Blind Owl all recorded with Lacy that year.

Related posts
Canned Heat
Hooker ’n Heat

comments: 4

macon d said...

Wasn't Mr. Mojo Risin 27 too?

And I reckon that's John Fahey? Great music from that one--may he RIP. I saw him play once. It was a small place, and he got progressively schnockered on Schnapps, which he had various members of the audience buy for him from the bar. It did gradually affect (that is, degrade) the music he was playing.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, Morrison was twenty-seven. There’s an entire mythology about that age.

What luck to have heard John Fahey, even in those sad circumstances. (Yes, that’s JF; his full name is in the last paragraph.)

Rebecca Davis Winters said...

Thanks for remembering Alan. Always loved that picture of him with Fahey, Evans and Lacy. There are some funny stories about those visits...

Michael Leddy said...

Rebecca, my library is now ordering your Alan Wilson biography. I look forward to reading it.