Monday, October 7, 2013

Book review: John Milward, Crossroads

John Milward. Crossroads: How the Blues Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll (and Rock Saved the Blues) . Illustrated by Margie Greve. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2013. $29.95 hardcover. $28.99 e-book. ix + 259 pages.

Music history sometimes gets reduced to evolutionary theory: Roy Eldridge as the (not-missing) link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Or instrument-specific chemistry: Coleman Hawkins + Lester Young = Sonny Rollins. Or as Muddy Waters posited, reproduction, with the blues having a baby and naming it rock ’n’ roll. Reality is always more complex, a matter of countless influences, overtones, ancestors. In this book, music critic John Milward does justice to the complexities. As the title metaphor suggests, Crossroads is indeed “a history of connections” — delightful, improbable, and rewarding, as rock musicians drew deep inspiration from blues, and blues musicians gained new (young, white) audiences for their work.

The story begins with white eccentrics of the 1940s and ’50s: record collectors who sought out the most arcane, obscure pre-war 78s. The collector James McKune played a major role in shaping the tastes of later listeners, as did Harry Smith, whose records became the stuff of what must be the most influential bootleg ever released, Folkways’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). The more popular blues musicians of the recent past were of little interest to these men: they leaned to Skip James and Charlie Patton, not Lonnie Johnson and Tampa Red. It is astonishing to think, now, of how little time separated these collectors from the musicians of their recordings: one might think of listening to James or Patton in the ’50s as comparable to listening to some ’80s band today. Milward reminds us though just how inaccessible the world of pre-war blues was (or at least seemed to be), with more obscure 78s known from one or two surviving copies, and the musicians little more than names. Even Robert Johnson, now almost a household word, was for many years known only from the material on a single 1961 Columbia LP.

The 1960s brought new developments. When folk music boomed, electric musicians with dwindling audiences put away their amps and became, at least briefly, folk performers (witness Muddy Waters’s 1964 album Folk Singer). “Rediscovered” or newly noticed older acoustic musicians — the Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James — influenced a generation of young fingerpicking guitarists. Young electric musicians, American and British — Mike Bloomfield, John Mayall, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones — took up the Chicago blues idiom, or, in the case of Canned Heat, that idiom’s Mississippi Delta origins. Guitar heroes — Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page — flourished. And thus veteran electric musicians found new audiences, with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf playing the Fillmores West and East and other hippie ballrooms and recording with their musical descendants. The dynamics of authority and influence must have been at times awkward, what with Waters opening for Clapton or serving as the entertainment at a record-company party for the Stones. But for a working musician, good gigs are good gigs. Consider this exchange between B. B. King and Buddy Guy, crossing paths at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, as recounted by Guy:

“Wasn’t for these English cats, I’d be playing a bar in Three Mule, Mississippi,” said King. “Here I am on my way to Fillmore East in New York City. I think Bill Graham got me booked with the Byrds. Where you off to, Buddy?”

“A traveling hippie festival in Canada. We going by train to four or five different cities. They say it’s gonna be bigger than Woodstock.”

“Hendrix on it?”

“Don’t think so,” I said. “But Janis Joplin is.”
Crossroads abounds in such moments of connection: B. B. King meeting Charlie Parker; Mississippi John Hurt watching a double bill of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! ; Muddy Waters receiving a key to the town of Woodstock, New York; Keith Richards learning open-G tuning from Ry Cooder and passing it on to Ike Turner; Jimi Hendrix turning Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues” into “Voodoo Chile”; Duane Allman turning a seven-note vocal phrase from Albert King’s “As the Years Go Passing By” into the signature guitar phrase of “Layla”; John Lee Hooker playing with Miles Davis. The commerce of the old and the new was sometimes a little too easy, to be sure: details of sheer ripping-off abound, as in the light-fingered musical borrowings of Led Zeppelin and the shameless exploiting of Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. “I bought Skip James for $200,” John Fahey is quoted as saying. Music, we must remember, is a business.

John Milward has done his homework: he seems to have read every relevant autobiography, biography, and work of musical history, and his book abounds in choice anecdotes and surprising details, drawn from published sources and his own interviews. He offers memorable phrases and wry observations, characterizing John Lee Hooker’s music as an “urbane Delta trance,” noting that Willie Dixon switched from boxing to music without realizing that they shared “the same business ethics,” pointing out that blues (in the forms of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf) has become the music of Viagra commercials. O tempora o mores.

Crossroads is in need of small repairs. The jazz festival is Montreux, not Montreaux. The record label is Revenant Records, not Reverent. The Scotch is Johnnie Walker, not Johnny. Canned Heat and John Lee Hooker recorded Hooker ’n Heat in 1970, not 1971. There are typos here and there, and a paragraph that ends with a comma. The narrative sometimes loses its way in a welter of detail: on one page, I counted the names of nineteen musicians or bands, six songs, and four record labels. But as a knowledgeable introduction to musical currents in the 1960s and beyond, Crossroads serves very well. It makes the pleasure of music a greater pleasure.

My favorite moment of connection in the book: Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, and the Stones all in Los Angeles; House for a folk festival, Wolf and the Stones for Shindig! It was 1965, and truly a time of wonders.

Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of the book.

[“The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll” is a song by Muddy Waters. A second Robert Johnson LP appeared in 1970; the Complete Recordings, in 1990. “An easy commerce of the old and the new”: from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” in Four Quartets.]

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