Early blues music, I believe, is the darkest genre of music in the 20th century. Old bluesman busking on street corners, playing bars, or fingering on their front porches in stifling heat of the Deep South weave tales of deception, intrigue, and murder. Often set against a jangly 12-string guitar, these balladeers and storytellers create elaborate narratives about the limits of human nature and the worst aspect of our own psyche; often drawing from personal experience.
I love old blues music, but it isn’t a genre I often find myself making the time to listen to. Whenever it comes on, I enjoy it. However, it isn’t something I seek out as an active listener. I get really busy with my day to day routine that I don’t often have the time to really seek music that I isn’t readily available to me.
Every week, I volunteer for a prestigious music school in Chicago. They offer classes and instructions on a variety of different instruments and dance styles. They also have what I feel is the best concert venue in Chicago. I have personally attended shows there by Marshall Crenshaw, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and John C. Reilly. It is truly a great place and shining cultural beacon in the city.
The volunteer work I do is in their resource center; a media archive and library that houses over 20,000 records, CDs, and books. Part of my role as a volunteer is data entry, media asset management, and helping people locate materials. It is a really cool space and a very calm, welcoming atmosphere. I arrive, grab a beer, and just enjoy my time. I can play whatever I find there. Oftentimes, I like finding records that I personally love. The resource center has an amazing hi-fi system and I love playing albums that I already own because the fidelity is so rich that I’ll hear elements I have never heard before since I listen on my low end stereo or Apple earbuds; elements like certain instruments or backing vocals. It feels like I’m discovering something new in something I had assume I knew everything about.
Lately, I’ve been trying to balance my listening habits. I do like to spend some time listening to what I know and like, but also I try to find something random that is unknown or unfamiliar to me. This is usually hit or miss. Sometimes I really love what I find, but most of them I find it just ok and doesn’t particularly move me. So, it becomes background noise at that point.
This week, I came across an LP from blues musician Blind Willie McTell. I had heard of McTell before. Bob Dylan has a very brilliant track about him they he cut from Infidels and relegated to be released on rarities collection years later. I couldn’t say for certain I had heard McTell before. The album was entitled Last Session and was released in 1961 as McTell’s first collection of songs. McTell had actually died two years prior in 1959. This was fairly common for musicians like McTell. He recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s onto 78s, and then recorded a bit in the ‘40s. He barely made much money and would often perform on the street and under different aliases. The bohemian movements in Greenwich Village during the 1960s shed light on these forgotten performers and offered them a new audience, though many were long gone which added to the ancient and ghostly appeal of their music.
Recorded in 1956, but released in 1961, “A to Z Blues” is a wonderfully dark and comically violent song recorded for Last Session. In some versions of the song recorded by other artists, the first half of the song is a duet involving a lover’s quarrel. They can’t get along. The man is tired of being fussed at and his lover’s infidelity, while the woman has had enough of her man’s drunk and violent ways. The song comes to a standoff with the woman responding to a veiled threat from her man. Then, the man threatens to take his razor blade to stab and carve the entire alphabet into his lover’s skull and face. How macabre!
In McTell’s rendition of the song, there is no duet. He is the only one singing and the song becomes less of a fight and more of an attack. McTell is the dominating force and laying it all down on the table. While the duet version appears to be the product of rage brought on by a fight, McTell’s version is one of cold, calculated murder; and he is loving every minute of it. Going through the motions of reciting his ABCs, McTell outlines every step along the way. From cutting her head by the letter D, cutting her face by G, slicing her arms by N, and gutting her chest at the very end with Z. All the while, McTell is relishing every slash.
I was so happy to find this track. The guitar sounds jovial at times and makes the whole scenario more dastardly. Decades before the PMRC and other parents organizations designed to censor offensive music, there were artists telling stories of their lives and desires often reflecting the darker side of humanity. It is all very uncomfortable, but cathartic as well. It makes the whole hunt of finding great older music so much more thrilling.