Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Takin' the Blues Back Home

Once a month I review albums for a magazine called Blues in Britain. It isn't a bad job, not least because it means I get to expand my CD collection for free and usually I get to choose which artists I want to review from a great big list (that I later memorise and use to sound knowledgable).

So today, whilst sheltering indoors for fear of the first few planes allowed up falling back out of the sky, I received that joyous list in my inbox. Scouting around the internet to see which artists I liked, I got listening to a band called Call Me Albert.

I strongly recommend everyone listens to the free songs on their website. If any of you aren't convinced by their catchy, rock'n'roll name, maybe you'll be swayed when you hear they're a Welsh Blues band...

In particular, one song stands out, and not just because it's the first one. Called 'Never Gonna Dance', it boasts the unusual feature of a lead mandolin. This seems really folky and I admit I nearly classified it as 'not proper Blues', made a noise of impolite derision and moved on down the list when I heard this song. I'm glad I didn't though. Blues and Folk have become two very different genres in British music but they needn't have, their roots are inextricably tangled.

Take Rory Gallagher, arguably the man who started the British Blues Rock movement. In interview, Gallagher would always talk about his folk influences, sometimes even describing himself as a folk musician (he played the mandolin too). In 2003, 8 years after he died, Gallagher's label posthumously released an album of Folk songs Wheels Within Wheels.

I'm not suggesting that Folk is intergral to the genre because one great Blues musician liked it. Rather, Rory Gallagher picked up on the fact that the Blues came from Folk music, and quite a lot of what's great about one is there in the other.

Whilst you can argue for days about how the Blues started (and there are forums available if you'd like to), most people are agreed it has some connection to the music of black, American slaves. The songs these people were singing were mostly game songs and work songs, both using the music to keep time.

Listening to these tunes (there's a great album of recordings by Alan Lomax called Afro-American Blues and Game Songs available from the Library of Congress here) you can hear that they've got lots of the same lyrics and themes as Apalachian folk music. Early Blues was the fusion of those songs, the songs of the slave owners, with the more rhythmic music of the slaves themselves. For the first generations of slaves to be born in the US, it was perhaps the only bit of culture that was truly theirs; sung in the language of the country they were born into but with links to their cultural heritage.

If that's where Blues music came from, why should it seem odd to hear folky Blues sung by a Welshman today? The pioneers of electric blues, guys like John Lee Hooker, were carrying on a tradition. They were making the music they identified with relevant to their experiences and culture. So why shouldn't British Blues musicians do the same?

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