August 9, 2012
Benoit's blue history lesson
The Beat has paid attention enough to know the names of "original" blues artists and their importance to American music history and cultural history -- names like Son House, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith. We admit to not being as well-versed as many hardcore fans of this music, but, you know, we're kinda interested in music of all forms, so we've paid attention and tried to heed our lessons.
When we interviewed Blues singer/guitarist/songwriter Tab Benoit, we got another. Perhaps it should have been obvious, but we guess it wasn't, at least to us. So we share with you, just in case.
If you read our print piece (and please, do so here if you haven't), you read that Benoit eschews looking back on his own work in favor of working on what comes next. This led to a conversation regarding the idea that, nowadays, the blues isn't thought of as a songwriter's genre, but rather more often an instrumentalist's, and secondarily, a singer's. Blues guitarist, blues harpist, blues, singer... like that. We'll let Benoit pick up the narrative from there.
"You don't have to have originals to make a career. And it's a good thing to do other people's material. The blues formula is pretty simple, and it allows room to play and (improvise)."
"So maybe that's why it's not thought of as about songwriters. But look at the songs. They're some of the best songs on the planet. Led Zeppelin's whole first album was old blues songs. Clapton... they all copied those great songs. They last forever."
"Part of what makes them great was they were a natural expression of what was in that person's heart."
Then he hit on something that struck us. That the early bluesmen weren't writing music to be recorded and sold - and perhaps not even to be shared in any formal sort of way, despite the fact that they most certainly were shared.
"When they started recording in the 1920s, it was a lot of these blues songs, and it was to document them for the Library of Congress, not for commercial (purposes). When they sat down and made those recordings of Robert Johnson, it was as an art form."
So our subsequent reading led us to names like John and Alan Lomax, two generations of folk music archivists, and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Search those at your leisure.
The Beat recently spent a few days in Memphis, and came away with an understanding of the city as a musical crossroads and crucible -- but mostly because it was also a historical and cultural crossroads and crucible as well. Interesting to consider that music history is not a necessarily separate exercise from "history" itself in the broader context. The bit from Benoit struck us in a similar fashion.