Generally speaking, I’m a “roots” kind of guy—I like the old-time performers playing the old-time music. But I’m not fastidious about this—hey, I mean I play Robert Johnson songs on the banjo, so it’s not like I’m against trying new things! & somewhat in that vein, there’s a contemporary blues artist who’s really really worth checking out—she’s been on the scene for years, but has stuck to the music she loves & isn’t as well known as she should be. That’s Rory Block.
This isn’t to say Ms Block's career has gone without accolades—she has won the W.C. Handy Award (now known as the Blues Music Award) five times, has appeared on Austin City Limits, Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Soundstage, has toured worldwide, & has recorded about 20 albums dating back to the mid 70s. She’s won her share of well-deserved praise: consider this from The New York Times:
"Her playing is perfect, her singing otherworldly as she wrestles with ghosts, shadows and legends."
or this from The Boston Phoenix:
"Singing as if every syllable were filled with an explosive charge, she makes traditional blues tunes sound menacing, ecstatic, redemptive, and, most important, as if they were her own."
The blues is—in terms of its bare bones’ form—a simple music: typically (tho not always) based on a very standard three chord progression. On the other hand, blues is the soul of a very complex music—jazz—& that fact should give us a big hint that the form really has almost unlimited potential for expression; to me, that means you have to give of yourself to play the blues—you have to make it your own, not merely thru technique (tho that’s important of course), but also thru heart or passion.
Folks often write about Rory Block as someone who preserves the old blues traditions, & that is unquestionably true. But the notion of Ms Block as a “mere” preservationist seems to miss what’s most important about her music, whether she’s playing a Robert Johnson tune or one of her own compositions, & that’s the fact that her music is dynamic & vital, & played with an almost ferocious passion. Rory Block came to the blues in a really traditional manner, learning firsthand from such masters as Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House & Skip James.
But even learning from such truly great players can only take a person so far—the extra has to come from within, & if that spark isn’t there, no amount of learning or technique can bring it out. Block has this spark, & combines it with killer guitar playing & truly amazing singing—just check out (for instance) her version of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” in the video below.
Ms Block continues to tour & record; she released her tribute to Son House last year—it’s called Blues Walkin’ Like a Man (Stony Plain Music), & it’s fantastic (check out her take on “Preachin’ Blues”); House’s music seems to me particularly hard to “cover,” because so much of the music’s greatness comes from his ability to just give himself over completely to the song; but Block can carry this material off because she shares that ability.
If you’re looking for a solid introduction to Rory Block’s music, I’d recommend checking out her 1997 compilation Gone Woman Blues (Rounder). This album draws its material from five earlier albums (all Rounder releases), especially from 1991 Mama’s Blues, 1995 When a Woman Gets the Blues, & 1992 Ain’t I a Woman; there’s also one track each from 1996 Tornado & 1989 High Heeled Blues. The material covers songs by Robert Johnson, Skip James, Charlie Patton et al., as well as a couple of original tunes, including the title track.
Hope you check out this powerful blues artist, & that you enjoy these videos as an introduction to her work.