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R.L. Burnside: The last of the Delta Blues men

“I think I’ve worked out RL Burnside actually. It’s just old blues on an electric guitar”.
[John Peel dismisses RL Burnside in 1999].

Exactly so.

RL Burnside is for me the embodiment of modern delta blues, together with his usual band of Kenny Brown on guitar and grandson Cedric on drums, Burnside’s blues crosses right over to a modern generation of fans like me who like music rough, missing out the stagnant pond of white boy guitar trio blues entirely.

And no matter who was buying the tickets or attending the shows Burnside did his thing – and it wasn’t the hip hop blues of Come on In, or the folksy nonsense of the Arhoolie singles. No matter how other people recorded and arranged his songs, live he only played it one way – the electrifying rough house pogo music that finally found a voice on Burnside on Burnside.

RL Burnside It’s hard to see how Burnside learned his blues direct from the masters, as the liner notes like to suggest. But then ‘learned at the feet of X’ is blues mythology, signifying the passing on of a torch. He learned blues because it was always there, in the local jukes and bars where he grew up and began sharecropping. These songs they sang to each other and passed around by travelling musicians were handed down, evolving, growing, alive. When Burnside decided to take up music as an easier way of making a living than farming or fishing, he played the stuff in his head – he didn’t go and listen to a bunch of records to learn every note. Burnside’s Arhoolie Years When finally asked to make a record in the late 60s, Burnside knew the lessons from history. It was Big Bill Broonzy who got taken off to la la land by the white chiefs of the US ‘ethnomusicography’ industry. So he cut his cloth accordingly – acoustic farm blues in the old style. And it got reviews, it got a little bit of recognition, and he made some money. For 20 years he occasionally cut singles for the professors who knew all about blues. It didn’t affect the electric boogie he played in the jukes – that was his real living, and if he so much as put a straw in his mouth or mentioned a chord shape he’d have been run out of town as a boring old wet drip.
Come On In  Burnside learned fast, and he never forgot a trick. Fat Possum teamed RL up with producer Tom Rothrock to make the hip hop crossover hit Come On In out of fragments of Burnside sessions. Burnside approved the rushes without listening to them – he never had much to say about the record, except he liked it a whole lot more when he got the royalty cheques. And the cheques kept coming – a reworked fragment of Snakedrive called Let My Baby Ride was used as a link for two years on MTV. We heard it in the UK in a mobile phone commercial. Moby used RL samples in his big beat hit LP.
There were more hip hop cross-over records to follow, but none hit the spot like Come On In. I don’t suppose Burnside listened to any of them.
A Ass Pocket Full O Whiskey  Although I can now hear some holes in it, I can’t deny that the influence of this record on me has been immense. In the 1990s Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion dragged Burnside’s trio on to one of their tours, and then admirably went one step further, sitting in with Burnside and recording his usual catalogue. It doesn’t all work of course, the art school artifice of some of the tracks palls after a while, and when you hear the real thing you realise that a lot of the tracks lack that groove, the Mississippi beat. But the high points are high, a towering version of Goin’ Down South that at least takes it away from the hip hop beat Burnside was becoming associated with, and Snakedrive really clicks in places. Actually, the best groove is on the tail end of one of the tracks, Poor Boy. Judah Bauer and RL really slot in – and then get cut off.
Same old same old How many times has RL recorded the same songs? Goin’ Down South, Shake em On Down, Snakedrive, Poor Boy, Walkin Blues all get at least 5 outings on the Matador/ Fat Possum/ Arhoolie catalogue. There just has to be a lesson here. ‘Serious’ musicians keep trying to make new epoch-shaking records. But music hipsters are just people with repeated short term memory failure. It sounds great now, but soon we’ve forgotten. Make the record again 3 years later and it will sound different because the style of the time in the studio and in the culture will be different. What seem like the biggest hit records of the day will in turn sink without trace: U2, Coldplay, Elton John…so long. I’ve got ‘great’ records in my collection that I haven’t listened to for 20 years. New records get 30 plays a month ’til I get bored of them. Burnside on Burnside Finally, Burnside gets to make a record with nobody else interfering. This is it, the sound of today’s delta blues. It’s an absolute mess, and I love every minute. The pissing about before every song, the catchphrases ad nauseam ‘Thank y’all, thank y’all’ and ‘Well, well, well’, the stupidest joke which the audience seems to think is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard, the MAJOR fuck ups in at least 2 songs, this is a tour de force of infectious energy that makes me smile just to think about it. Eric Clapton made a tribute record called Me and Mr Johnson, that couldn’t be further from this living organic car-crash of music if it was sung in Chinese. If Mr Johnson were alive, Eric, I know which record would sound more like him. Yes, so do you.

2badJim

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The North Hills Beat

Mississippi Disco

It seems as simple as 1, 2, 3, a straight 8 beat pattern that’s either fast or slow. Seasick Steve calls it ‘Tractor Disco’, Wallace Lester says ‘the North Hills Beat’, Some say ‘Country Blues’, it’s all the same, an infectious bounce that makes your backbone move.

The grandfather of this scene is Missippi Fred Mcdowell . He played two types of tunes, the gospel lilts like I wish I was in Heaven Sitting Down, and the sex and drugs and (not, he insisted all his life) rock and roll of Shake ’em On Down. His entire set seems to be repeated by Burnside, in exactly the same order. Only a few recordings were made of McDowell’s later performances, because they didn’t fit the formula that was selling blues records. But there are a few which feature a drummer, and the pattern is clear as day. Then you can apply it to his earlier solo recordings, and then listen for it in other artists – Bukka White, Robert Johnson, sometimes captured on early Beefheart records (Sure Nuff Yes I Do), T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough and above all on Burnside. It’s not there on Chess, fine records though they are – the 50s recordings had added a hint of jazz and shuffle that comes more from Memphis than hillbilly. Listen to early John Lee Hooker records like Boogie Chillen, and feel it!

Slim plays a basic 8 beat or quaver pattern on bass and snare, with a couple of fills to give it life. There’s a real less-is-more philosophy here . The beat swings, or drags behind, every alternate beat. Rather than the straight ‘cement mixer’ effect you get from modern drummers, this has a lilting, bouncing, sinuous feel.

We explore a few other things as well, using 16 beat rock on Goin Down South for example. Tom riffs and percs drive some of the songs. But these are exceptions – the heart of the matter is the Mississippi tractor beat that makes you want to get up and dance!

RL Burnside  Burnside’s version of the blues shows what happens when you go on the road for 20 years, economy class. A basic drum kit is all you can fit in the car, so no fill, toms or even much in the way of cymbals. To guitarists play out of the same amp, and no room for cumbersome bass equipment. Fit this little lot in a standard american sedan, and off you go, criss crossing the state for 3 hours at a time, sharing the driving three ways. The Guitar   The guitar is a latecomer to juke bands, and it’s interesting that early guitar players like Mississippi Joe Calicott played with the guitar on their laps, and they used a knife or similar to make the guitar screech – one way to be heard above the drinkers. In his old age, Calicott taught a young Kenny Brown to play the guitar. Brown says he didn’t play ‘conventionally’ ’till he was sixteen – he didn’t even know you could play it upright.
Gospel  A lot of the early records are bible influenced – of course this is the one time in the week when you can put down the hoe and make music for fun. Churches have a ready made chorus of singers, and hymns to sing. How a renaissance clef came to underpin the chord changes of all these bible words beats me – another musical story I guess. But it’s still true that gospel has the lift of the north hills beat, showing that in the north hills, blues and gospel are the two sides of one community. The church is still at pains to try and eliminate the bad influence from people’s lives, and blues was and is frowned upon by preachers and matrons. Shake ’em On Down  The first song in the songbook is Shake ’em On Down, Fred McDowell’s set opener for forty years. It’s a diary of sex acts, showing just what a big guy the singer is. The association of Blues and sex was right there at the start, and no wonder the church wasn’t amused. He was so closely associated with this song that his nickname was “Shake ’em”. Or maybe he was associated with the sex addiction described in the song? Fred introduces it with ‘Some people can shake ’em, and some people can’t”. Junior Kimbrough, RL Burnside, T-model Ford, all performed this song at the beginning of their set.
KimbroughJunior Kimbrough was poacher turned gamekeeper. He bought his own juke on Highway51, and played there regularly ’till he died. (Later it burned down). Kimbrough’s version of blues is hugely important, keeping the juke tradition alive across the years after the delta musicians upped and left for Chicago and Memphis in the 50s. His recordings are the basic template for Saturday night music – long tracks with one evolving groove and no stops or rhythm tricks, occasionally a few shouts and words on the top, and no chord changes.

2badJim

Tractor Disco  John Lee Hooker said that it was the sound his daddy taught him, the sound of the tractor. However, it seems likely that it really comes from fife and drum bands that toured the county and warmed up the joints in the 1920s and 30s. These simple instruments were loud enough to keep a beat for a party, where the acoustic guitar is just too quiet. If you listen to Othar Turner’s Rising Star Fife and Drum band, you can hear the North Hills beat there too, bouncing along on big bass drum and marching snare.
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