Unless I’m preparing for a upcoming gig by immersing myself in one artist I usually listen to my iPod in shuffle mode. I like a mix, and I like being surprised.
Yesterday morning my tube trip to the dentist and back was no different: my iPod wired to my head, Apple’s randomisation algorithm my DJ. In the mix – which was, overall, a very good one – I heard two artists whose greatness made me sit back and reflect. They’re not new or unfamiliar; they’re both old, both of them dead in fact, and with substantial entries in my iPod. But I think I’d taken them for granted, allowed them to fade into ubiquity. Quite wrongly.
The two artists are John Lee Hooker and Stan Rogers. I apologise in advance to those who already completely familiar with these artists, but I feel I need to salute their coolness.
John Lee Hooker was an American bluesman. One of the quintessential bluesmen, in fact. He was born in Mississippi, developed his style playing songs in the delta, but moved to Detroit after WWII looking for work. He garnered more attention up north, as guitar players weren’t as common there as they were in the south. His style straddled the north/south blues divide of America, with both delta slide and boogie-woogie elements.
Like a lot of bluesmen, lots of people (and especially Hooker himself) exaggerated stories about him: his age, what he’d written versus what he’d adapted, etc. But that’s all part of the mythology. Hooker was a deeply respected and influential musician: he’s in the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame (and has two songs – “Boogie Chillen” and “Boom Boom” – on their list of 500 songs that shaped rock and roll), won three Grammys and a lifetime achievement award, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He’s been covered by a lot of artists and was, famously, in The Blues Brothers.
To me, Hooker’s music has a deeply primal groove. His playing and singing are more rhythmic than they are melodic. And the absolutely coolest thing about him is that he doesn’t stick to the rules: many of his blues are not 12-bar. He starts and stops phrases when he feels it fits. Often his verses don’t rhyme. It must have been hell for a band to stick with him, because he just seemed to let the blues take over and sing and play what felt right in the moment. It’s as unpolished as if he were playing on your front porch.
I was scheduled to see John Lee Hooker play live at a bluesfest in Ottawa many years ago. Unfortunately, Hooker fell ill and didn’t make the date (Gladys Knight filled in). A couple of years later, in 2001, Hooker died in his sleep of old age.
You can listen to many full John Lee Hooker tracks here.
Stan Rogers was a Canadian folk singer. He had a strong baritone singing voice. His songs had lyrics and sounds that reflected the Irish heritage of the Maritime provinces which his family originally came from. As a Nova Scotian myself, I feel a deep affinity for Rogers (also, his music was drilled into me both at home and at university).
Rogers’ songs are all about real, working-class people and their lives. Most are based in historical events or places or legends. They’re so rich, so compelling, because they’re sung with a completely believable mix of earnestness and good humour (which I believe is another Celtic element). They tell tales of loss, of striving for a better life, and – occasionally – of a good life found.
His opus is definitely a song called “Barrett’s Privateers”, a tale about brigand seafaring gone wrong. Every eastern Canadian knows it, and every other Canadian has heard it. I still smile when i think about the description of it given inallmusic’s Canadian music feature of a couple of years ago:
Walk into any Halifax bar after sundown and you’re sure to hear [Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers”, a] rousing tale of the good shipAntelope, from the rowdiest corner of the room. By learning the lyrics ahead of time, you’ll make friends fast and avoid being hit in the face with greasy bits of haddock as your mind cruelly empties itself of anySloan anecdotes.
That’s not exactly true. Walk into any pub after sundown and you’ll hear it.
Stan Rogers died in 1983 when an Air Canada plane he was on burst into flame whilst still on the ground.
You can listen to a whole bunch of full Stan Rogers tracks here.