“I never understood the idea that blues was the music of the devil,” says Rory Block who has sung the blues of the masters for more than half a century and is the minister of her own church.
“I think anything that has incredibly deep emotion and resonates with people in a life-changing way is of a spiritual nature. So, to me, if you’re singing a Robert Johnson song, a Skip James song, or any old blues song that rocks somebody’s world and makes them feel encouraged or comforted, well then you’re singing gospel.”
Rory Block is certainly in a position to know. The Blues Foundation has called her “the top female interpreter and authority on traditional country blues worldwide.” She has released 30 albums in 54 years and has won five W.C. Handy Awards and two NAIRD awards for Best Adult Contemporary Album of The Year for Angel of Mercy on 1994 and Tornado in 1997. Her mentor CD series in the last decade has captured the essence of legacy artists Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, Skip James, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“When I was a child my dad said, ‘God is in everything. God is in the trees. God is in the sky.’ He inspired me and I began to connect the dots that what I was seeing as super powerful, super soulful and super meaningful was one and the same with what he was calling God.”
Rory grew up in Greenwich Village. Her dad was a sandal maker and a fiddler. Her boyfriend was Stefan Grossman who took guitar lessons from Rev. Gary Davis and gave a 15-year-old Rory two-hour tapes of then obscure legacy blues artists that she would listen to on headphones in bed through the night.
“Stefan was four years older than me and, unlike me, he was from a wonderful, stable family. His parents became like my parents. He was a kind, caring and responsible person. He was also cool, he was a guitar player. He was friends with all the musicians, record collectors, historians, and the people who went down south searching for the old blues players. He took me everywhere and introduced me to everyone. He was among a handful of devotees – David Bromberg, Roy Bookbinder, Woody Mann and a few others – who were taking guitar lessons with Rev. Gary Davis. We were die-hard blues fans.
“In those days, it seemed like everyone was a musician of one style or another. Old Timey players, country blues players, and folk artists were everywhere in the Village. Joan Baez got sandals from my dad. Bob Dylan lived just a few doors away from the sandal shop right before he became a household word. Maria Muldaur got sandals from my dad and was inspired to learn fiddle after watching him play.
“We grew up around people before they were famous and after they were famous. It didn’t make much difference to me. They were just regular people. They were the neighbors and friends. They were the people my parents hung out with. It was all normal. The Village was really a small community in those days and we all knew each other. It seemed like everyone was a musician, a painter, a poet or a writer. In my experience, everyone I grew up with was into the arts in one way or another.”
The Reverend Gary Davis viewed blues as spiritual in the same way as Rory and her dad did. He certainly hadn’t sold his soul to the devil, and going to his house in the Bronx with Stefan who was taking guitar lessons from him was – if not a religious experience – certainly a transcendent one for teenaged Rory.
“It was so homey and warm. I remember the soft lighting, ‘God bless this home’ framed on the wall, and the doilies on the arms of the old easy chairs. Reverend Gary Davis never taught in the usual way, ‘And now you take the second finger of your left hand, and place it on the third fret of the D string, and you slide to the fourth fret.’ You just had to watch, play and jump in. He never slowed down to explain, he just played, but that was very typical of the way players learned from each other in the early days.
“You didn’t get an official lesson as much as you hung around and paid close attention. You gathered some information here and gathered some information there. You were just gleaning what you could whenever you could as you went along.
“Rev. Gary Davis was a brilliant man. He was witty and funny, and he didn’t abide fools. He had a lot to say about it if you couldn’t keep up with him, and he gave Stefan a really hard time, although it was all in a good-natured way. In fact, he and Stefan basically roasted each other. It was totally entertaining. I was super shy, so I just sat there quietly like a fly on the wall and watched, and it was amazing. I loved every minute of it.
“If the Reverend ever digressed into playing blues, Mrs. Davis, who was known as Annie, would appear from the kitchen, dish towel in hand, and stop him with a withering look and a well-placed word of disapproval. He was only supposed to play gospel, he wasn’t supposed to slip into the devil’s music. We all knew that in those days blues was considered to be the music of the devil, and the stigma around it was very intense. Sometimes we’d be leaving as David Bromberg was coming in. Other times we’d pass Roy Bookbinder. It was an amazing time.”
Mississippi Fred McDowell was another artist Stefan Grossman introduced to Rory. In her liner notes to Shake ’Em on Down, Rory’s tribute album to Hurt, she writes, “McDowell’s iconic style was a direct bridge between the early acoustic technique of House, Patton, Waters and Brown – and the electric blues of Bonnie Raitt and other contemporary players. Fred was famous for saying, ‘I don’t play no rock’n roll.’ But in fact he did, or if he did not, he practically invented it. He (much like Muddy Waters) taught electric players how to take the rock solid groove of the soul of country blues and bring it into modern music.”
In our interview, Rory elaborates. “You really can’t put a drum to Robert Johnson. It completely changes its character. It just irons it out, and you get a new thing. You get more of a rock-blues song which is cool in itself, but it loses that early flavor where the music speeds up and slows down, where the tempo ‘breathes.’ But you could put a drum to Fred McDowell. He was a bridge between the early fluctuating tempos to the next stage moving towards the electrified style. He had a hard driving rhythm you could put a drum to. He used to say, ‘I don’t play no rock and roll,’ but he really did.”
Son House was another iconic delta bluesman Rory honors on her 2008 CD Blues Walkin’ Like a Man, another in her mentor series. She sat knee to knee with Son who told her he’d taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar.
“I once saw a video of Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, and someone else hanging out and jamming,” explains Rory. “All of a sudden, Howlin’ Wolf confronts Son House on his drinking and how it’s wrong in the eyes of God. Son is already drunk and looks a little uncomfortable, but I think that, as a preacher, Son House understood the frailty of human beings and knew he was grappling with his own situation the best he could. He knew he wasn’t ‘walking in an upright way’ having alcohol controlling his life. But those were the challenges that he was dealing with, and as a preaching man he would say ‘God’s still workin’ on me.’
“I don’t think I ever asked Son House about the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil because I wasn’t fascinated by that. That didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t base my career on the narrative about Robert Johnson and the devil. It wasn’t real for me. What was real for me was that it was gospel music. When I first talked to Robert Johnson’s grandson Steven, he told me that was a myth. He said, ‘You know, grandpa was singing gospel.’ Steven said, ‘Listen to the words: “I went down to the crossroads. I fell down on my knees. I asked the Lord above for mercy. He said, poor Bob, if you please,” and “If I had possession over judgment day, I wouldn’t have no right to pray.” The man was preaching.’
Rory continues, “So I never did involve myself in the idea of blues being the music of the devil. It might be a cool thing to say, to write a story about, or as Steven says ‘It makes a great movie, but that didn’t happen.’ I guess there were some blues contemporaries of Robert Johnson who had a tale to tell about that. And that’s fine. But as Steven says: ‘Nothing good ever came from the devil!’
“In the end if you read what Robert Johnson wrote on his gravestone, you might see why Steven and I say ‘that’s the voice of a believer.’ Then there’s talk of the handwritten note he had with him when he died. If you read it, you realize he was a spirit-filled person. But like everyone else on earth he had his challenges. I’m not even going to call them ‘demons’ because that’s kind of an intense word, but he had his mountains to climb. He had extreme difficulties, he had suffering and issues just like Son House did, but I never took that as having anything to do with evil. To me Robert Johnson’s music is only good.
“In fact I view early blues as being gospel-based. I think that’s something I’d like to be known for. I know this runs counter to the popular notion that it’s cool to think of blues as the music of the devil. Maybe people have enjoyed that as a rebellious point of view, and I get that. I get that. Perhaps it’s empowering. But for me music is deep and about the soul and the fact that we’re all from the same speck of dust. It’s not about the outward self.”
Perhaps because she’s a woman whose played with so many legacy artists, Rory sees the blues from a unique perspective. “I cannot see myself as others see me. I never understood it when people said, ‘She plays like a man.’ What does that mean? When I was 15 and in Berkley, California, Fred McDowell was staying at Ed Denson’s house along with me and Stefan Grossman. One night we all went down to the Jabberwocky Café, and Stefan, Fred and I were on stage together when somebody jumped up and shouted, ‘She plays like a man’ while I was playing Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues,” I couldn’t relate. I felt, ‘But I’m a woman, and I’m playing this way. Thus, I must be playing like a woman.’ I really did not see myself as a category. I didn’t see myself as male or female, black or white, old or young, or anything outward. I didn’t care about that. All I cared about was this: it’s beautiful music. I want to play it. It’s all I’ve ever really known how to do.
“Son House said, ‘How did she learn to play like this?’ I can imagine he was wondering what drew me as a 15-year-old girl from New York City in the 1960s to the music of another place and time. In that context, it must have seemed extremely unusual, and I grant you it probably was. The only other young woman I knew who was playing country blues was Joanne Kelly from England. She, too, I would imagine, was considered an anomaly.”
As proficient as Rory was on blues guitar as a teenager, the secrets of the slide as the masters had played it eluded her until well into her career. “I didn’t play slide for years because I didn’t think modern players sounded like the early recordings. Robert Johnson was clean. He was so perfect, so agile. It was in a universe of its own, so I thought maybe he wasn’t using a slide, and I started using my bare fingers to play the notes. But then one day I realized… he was playing slide! Drat! I knew I had to start figuring it out. My first attempts were utterly rigid and brittle. I couldn’t get it in the pocket at all. It was flat, it was sharp, it was buzzing horribly.
“Then, Bonnie Raitt recorded “Ramblin’ On My Mind” on one of my records. We were mixing the record, and we soloed her incredible playing in the speakers, and there it was! I heard something that rocked my world. I said, ‘Oh, my God. I’m doing it all wrong! It’s relaxed. She’s not racing to the fret like I am. She’s taking a stroll. She’s just going up the neck in this really funky, relaxed way. Then when she gets there, there’s this beautiful, rocking, relaxed vibrato.’ That’s really key. Bonnie is unique, and her vibrato is just so rich, smooth and funky. That changed everything, just hearing Bonnie alone in the speakers. So, I started to practice, and that’s when I began to get a handle on it. It started to fall into the pocket.
“Before publishing my book (When A Woman Gets The Blues), I sent the chapter I wrote about Bonnie to her, and she responded that she hadn’t realized she had inspired me that way. In fact, her playing was the key that started the process for me. It unlocked the door. That’s really what lessons are for, to put a key in to unlock a new door, to help somebody go through to another level that they’re looking to find. At that time, the slide info I needed was behind a locked door, and sometimes you need somebody else like Bonnie to go, ‘Here’s the key. Let me open the door for you.’”
I told Rory about the International Blues Challenge panel I’d moderated in Memphis, Blues as A Healer, on the palliative effects of blues music. “That’s where the gospel overlaps, and that’s why the blues is married to gospel,” she said, “and you can quote me on that. I truly believe that the spiritual nature of blues is one and the same in the gospel, and I always point out that the people who wrote the blues were most likely raised in the church. We’re talking about the late 1800s, early 1900s. All these players and singers who later went on to become the founding fathers and mothers of the blues had deep roots in gospel, and they took that gospel energy and all that spirit information and just rolled it right over into early blues.
“This is that spiritual thing, that lifesaving thing that happened to me when I was a little teenage girl without a root in the soil and without a center to hold me down to earth. When I was 14 along comes this guitar player named Stefan Grossman, and he hands me a record called Really the Country Blues, followed by these fabulous two-hour-long, reel-to-reel tapes of all the rediscovered blues LPs. ”
“For an entire year, I slept with headphones on listening to these tapes of unbelievable rediscovered music, listening through the night, being washed in the healing and spiritual nature of the music. That’s what saved my life, and it still saves my life. It still saves my life.”
Visit Rory’s website at: www.roryblock.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.