Rory Block,
Keepin' Outta Trouble: A Tribute to Bukka White
(Stony Plain, 2016)

Though not as celebrated as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, Booker T. Washington ("Bukka") White (1906-1977) lays claim to comparable distinction as an intensely focused performer who gives voice to Mississippi blues of a profound order of magnitude. He is also the composer of dramatic blues narratives -- in which it is possible to detect the influence of ballad traditions -- often lifted from his life history. These almost explosive songs are spun out of White's years as a hobo criss-crossing the South and as a prisoner confined at the notorious Parchman Farm. Besides the scenes of travel and conflict set in the larger world, White confronts the extremes of the dark private experiences of depression and death. His instrument is a National Steel guitar with bottleneck and thumping rhythm, voice and instrument almost supernaturally attuned. All the potential of country blues as an art form is met and amplified in Bukka White's music.

If you haven't heard it, you might look up The Complete Bukka White (Columbia/Legacy, 1994). Twelve of its 14 cuts come from White's legendary March 1940 Vocalion sessions in Chicago, from which the enduring "Parchman Farm Blues," "Fixin' to Die Blues," "Special Streamline" and "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues" emerged. "Parchman Farm" was to land on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, bringing White's name into the consciousness of urban, mostly white folk singers. A decade later, Bob Dylan put "Fixin' to Die" on his eponymous first album, which is probably where nearly everybody reading these words had first exposure to a Bukka White song. Then living in Memphis, he was rediscovered in 1963 in time to participate in the folk revival and to record some albums for small labels. Eventually, he died of cancer, survived by -- among others -- his cousin B.B. King.

Formidable in her own right, Rory Block is a child, in close to the literal sense, of the 1960s folk revival. Not a Greenwich Village pilgrim but a native resident, she became acquainted with most of its leading figures before embarking on a long career of her own. Attracted in particular to rural folk-blues, she had plenty of opportunities to observe the masters, who were showing up in the flesh after decades as ghosts on antique 78s, as they played for a new, enthralled audience. Keepin' Outta Trouble is the sixth in what she calls her Mentor Series. I have reviewed all but one in this space (most recently Hard Luck Child, devoted to the music of Skip James, on 15 November 2014).

As on previous discs Block is less interested in copying the masters' styles than in evoking their musical personalities, as conjured up by an unusually imaginative player and keenly expressive vocalist. Deeply conversant in the old recordings, she feels no obligation to revive the old songs in the language, verbal and instrumental, of the originals. Her interpretations are more reinventions than resurrections; thus, her readings overlap with the originals in no consequential way except in spirit, broadly speaking. Nobody is going to confuse the two or object, "Why listen to this? I've already heard Bukka White."

Keepin' and its companions are pretty remarkable. Even superior musicians struggle with music from another time and place, from a life experience far from their own. On her current project Block captures, if not the precise sound, certainly the wild exuberance that renders White's work so instantly recognizable. Only five of the 10 cuts, however, are his originals. The other half are Block-penned tunes about the man's life, at least those parts of it not documented in his autobiographical blues. "Gonna Be Some Walkin' Done" borrows a line from White's 1937 "Pinebluff, Arkansas" and fashions a whole song around it. The title number relates the circumstances under which White left Parchman as an acclaimed bluesman. Lead Belly, we learn, wasn't alone in charming governors.

Block's acoustic guitar, augmented with slide, is accompanied by assorted homey oddities such as a Quaker Oats box. Her recording led me back to White's, and I've spent the past two or three weeks alternating between hers and his, without for a second giving thought to the proposition, absurd on its face, that Block's might be redundant.

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 December 2016

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