Booker (Bukka) White and The Blues — Then and Now (1)

I‘ve always been a fan of the blues and I mean the real razor in the shoe-down home neon blues, not most of the stuff that passes for blues these days. My all-time favorite acoustic blues player is  Booker “Bukka” White. He was a giant of a man; son of a railroad worker, boxer, baseball player, prisoner, blues genius. He was a giant and I mean a real giant not only as a musician, but also as man, a sonic philosopher and bona-fide American Shaman of the twentieth century. On top of all that he was BB King’s cousin and helped teach the young BB how to play!! He emerged from a society that was marginalized not only by the majority white segment of the population, but also from some within his own community. Many proper church-going folks did not listen to the blues, especially the gritty, greasy, down-home flavored blues thrown down by Booker. He sang and played profane songs full of temptation and need, murder and greed, prison and trains, desperation, isolation, loneliness, and the danger and excitement of being full of White Lightning and in the wrong house at the wrong time. He was a man on the outside and a man on the move from an early age, living the life that became his music.

Booker White-Shake 'em on Down

There is very little showbiz in this kind of blues; it is art from the mud, saloons, juke joints, street people, hustlers and fast women. Though he recorded some early “spiritual” sides with Memphis Minnie on background vocals Booker was more about living and singing in the “right now,” leaving the glory of the hereafter to the others. Many of his best songs have a very conversational feel about them. They describe ordinary situations and feelings that carry powerful statements; When Can I Change My Clothes seems like a very mundane topic unless you realize he is in jail, on Parchman Farm in Mississippi; one of the toughest prisons in 1930s America. His plaintive holler and wail, the timbre of his voice, and cross-tuned E minor National guitar cast a very harrowing portrait on most everything he did, especially his 1937 and 1940 recordings that bracketed his arrest and prison sentence for shooting a man. He was able to embody that “devil at the crossroads in the middle of the night” terror better than anyone except for maybe Robert Johnson and Skip James, and like Robert Johnson, an aura of mystery surrounds him, especially the real story behind Booker’s arrest, conviction and release only two years later. He was initially sentenced to life for shooting an assailant in the thigh (just where he wanted to shoot him!) in a bar brawl, but research has turned up differing theories and no documents that explain why he was released after serving only two years or who the victim was or where the crime took place. It’s almost like the Kennedy Assassination! What this does illustrate though is that playing the blues in the old days was a very dangerous business and to survive one had to be as quick with his or her fists, wits, or weapons as one was with the instrument.

Booker, who didn’t like being called “Bukka” —  the name originated from a white record producer who had never heard of Booker T. Washington — was a heckuva guitar player. Here he is doing the Eddie Van Halen slap-mute move that would turn up on the song Mean Street many years later. Okay, not really. I don’t want to stretch my whole connections theory too far, but if you expand this technique a little bit, and put it through 3 amp heads and 6 cabinets, it’s basically what Van Halen is doing too. Aberdeen Mississippi Blues is one of my favorite Booker songs. The recording, from early 1940 is pretty soft and tender, as he is singing about two pretty little ladies from New Orleans, but he rocks it out here. Listen to the sound of that National guitar! Loud!

What always struck me about Booker’s records was the SOUND.  I wonder if his original records were done like Robert Johnson’s? Here is an interesting article on how Robert Johnson was recorded. Many acoustic, solo, and blues guitar players have heard about corner-loading I’m sure. But for those unfamiliar with it — the idea is to face the player/singer into the corner to roll off the highs and lows and pump up the middle frequencies. Heavily picked acoustic instruments, slide guitar (and possibly the vocals) sound more powerful and resonant when recorded this way, at least in theory. The diagram on the above linked site illustrates how the player set-up is something anyone can try in their own studio or apartment to see if it makes any difference. While Robert Johnson certainly laid down some brilliant playing and influenced pretty much every guitar player after him, I find his recordings tinny when compared with Booker White. Part of it, I’m sure is that Booker’s voice had a deeper timber (even in the high wail) and more resonance to it. The fact that he was a big and obviously strong player might have increased the powerful sound and resonance on his guitar work too, but it would be interesting to know how his records were done. All recordings in those days were pretty much “what you hear is what you get,” but producers, engineers, and even players themselves found little tricks to enhance the sound they were going for. Here is another song from the same film session as above. Booker lays the guitar across his lap and is using a thin piece of iron or metal, going for more of a lap steel sound. Booker is looking pretty advanced in years in these clips and he was man of modest means. No money for the rack-mount delay and crossover switches but it’s all very real and musical. I think this song has gone by different names over the years depending on the release or repackage, but here the title is Poor Boy Long Way From Home.

Some of my other favorite Booker songs are Special Streamline, Fixin’ To Die Blues, District Attorney, Sic em Dogs on Me, Parchman Farm, Strange Place Blues, Black Train Blues, When Can I Change My Clothes and, Pinebluff, Arkansas. The lyrics from all of these songs are as brilliant as his guitar playing and vocal delivery. He elevates simple thoughts and obvious personal situations to complex high art.

Gonna get up in the morning, baby with the rising sun
Gonna get up in the morning, baby with the rising sun
If the train don’t run, gonna be some walking done.

Then, of course, there is Shake ’em on Down. A brilliant song made even more brilliant by Robert Plant who used in repeatedly throughout Led Zeppelin’s career.

Here is a recording a Booker doing Shake ’em on Down and here is a recording of Led Zeppelin’s Hats Off to Roy Harper. Robert Plant got a lot of mileage out this song he liked and a man he must admire quite a bit. I think there are at least 4-5 LZ songs with some fragment of “shake ’em on down” contained within. Some people regard this as theft and some regard it as parody, but I believe Plant (and Page) genuinely love this stuff and used this as a template for where they would take their music. Many musicians from the 50s and 60s who loved and were influenced by records like this one incorporated various sonic aspects of them because they were all crucial parts of the song. Certainly on “Hats Off…” Page and Plant are using a combination of technology and no-technology to accentuate and exaggerate the effects of the sounds coming off Shake ’em on Down. This is certainly how all the blues players like Booker learned to play, perform and record. Shake em on Down was a hit for Booker, selling 16,000 copies, but Big Bill Broonzy recorded a New Shake em On Down soon after and had a hit of his own while Booker was at Parchman farm. This is also certainly what the Rolling Stones, the Heartbreakers and a million punk bands have done with Chuck Berry. Is that theft? Parody? I don’t know. I guess it depends on who is doing it and their intentions.

While the blues players of yesteryear certainly regarded themselves as guitar heroes, they were more concerned with entertaining the Saturday Night Juke Joint crowd because that’s where the money was. Guitar Player magazine didn’t exist then and like guitar players today, some were very protective of their technique and the various tricks they employed (Robert Johnson) and others were very open and even generous about sharing what they knew. Because many acoustic players performed solo or with a washboard player or another guitar, this resulted in a more focused and stripped-down playing approach, as opposed to the vehicle for soloing the blues became later. The SONG was the thing, because there were limitations on what they could pull off without compromising the rhythm and beat of the music, which was and is always more important than the guitar lead. A man by the name of Washboard Sam was present at Booker’s 1940 sessions and you can hear another guitar on some of his other tunes. Things changed for the blues as time went on, but there were those who kept it and keep it with the original vibe early players like Booker White had back in the day. But that’s another post for another time.

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