How I got into the blues
Alan White of Earlyblues.com honoured me with the suggestion that I contribute to the “Blues Memories” section of his great site, and the long bio below grew out of that.
From the Midlands of England – starting out
I am a white baby-boomer. I first blinked at the sky in Shropshire – my parents were managing the Charlton Arms in Wellington at the time, but all the ancestors I know about lived, spookily enough, in the Kidderminster-Redditch-Aston triangle.
I first remember hearing nursery rhymes, Christmas carols and Rock Around the Clock, but music was not big in our house. For a few years we lived in Glasgow, where my brother, the kid (Jimmy, I think) from across the road, and I formed a skiffle group. Sadly, it broke up after three days of rehearsal, due to musical differences – the sound we were making was different from music. The guitar I was trying to play was different from a guitar, too – jazz body, all varnished curves and f-holes, and a fretboard with rough wooden pegs at the top and heavy copper wire pressed in *at equal spacing*, as an adumbration of frets.
At school, the music teachers, for their sins, brought out the worst in us. But there was one triumph: a class attempt to get every single one of us given the strap within one 40 minute lesson succeeded. It was an all-boys school, as you can perhaps imagine.
Back in Birmingham, the mid-sixties arrived. This entailed listening to radio Luxembourg on a “portable” radio under the bedclothes. Valves, and batteries that cost 14s6d – need I say more? Birmingham, Solihull to be precise, was too far from the sea to hear Radio Caroline properly. One of my little gang – Neil Roberts, who had introduced us to Bob Dylan – was scraping the money together to replace his ghastly plywood “starter” guitar with a Gibson. I bought the thing off him, and by some miracle neither its dull tone nor the pain it caused my fingertips put me off. The sand and salt it had to deal with as I hitch-hiked through Europe in the summer of ’67 sent it further downhill, and I confess to leaving it in a ditch near Naples when I decided to head home.
“The Collier Quick and Easy Guide to Playing the Guitar” by Frederick M Noad had given me the first clues to guitar playing, but Jerry Silverman’s “The Art of the Folk-Blues Guitar” really got me going. I bought it in Woodroffe’s in John Bright Street, having just seen Bert Jansch in Birmingham Town Hall. “I want to play like that,” said I. “Then buy this,” said the guy behind the counter. I did.
(For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not saying that I ever did play like Bert Jansch, I’m not saying that Jerry Silverman’s book would have had that result, nor yet am I saying that I mastered the whole book. But that’s how I got started.)
Continuing the good and only half-wasted education that I was given, I went up to university, where I got caught up in the “folk revival”. “Folk collision” might be a better name, as it was trying to make two entirely different genres wear the same hat. One genre, perhaps properly called “folk”, was centred on the music that had been transmitted through the often rural communities of the British Isles – think of Cecil Sharp, and think of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The other was the commercially-driven “folk” label applied by American music companies to that trend centred in New York coffeehouses, from where such figures as Dave van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez emerged.
Blues and folk and rock and roll
We were happy to mix it up, and in due course I took my turn for a term as the grandly-named president of Heritage, the university folk club. The club met on Mondays in a yellow-painted, floor-boarded upstairs room at the Baker’s Arms in Jericho. Jo Anne Kelly was the guest I was most proud of having booked – I think I’d seen her as a support act at Mothers in Erdington. In those days I was listening to, and failing to play like, people like Skip James, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. In general, we mixed Child ballads with morris tunes, country blues and the Incredible String Band, taking in everything from Clapton and Hendrix through Fred McDowell to Seamus Ennis. And of course Pick of the Pops on the radio every Sunday afternoon. Of that gang, June Tabor was the one who went on to success.
Back in Birmingham yet again, and at more or less the same time (I didn’t keep diaries, so I’m not sure of all the dates), going to see bands was a staple of social life. I’m sure that on one occasion or another I must have been in close proximity to Alan White, master of the Early Blues site, at Mothers in Erdington. Perhaps he was that guy whose beer I spilt one night, and felt that I had to pay for? Seeing John Mayall there on one occasion I recall at least one audience member, someone who had fainted in the crush of the crowd, being passed out over our heads by multiple hands and arms. Impressive? But there was more: Canned Heat were on the following week, when more than one audience member was passed out over our heads using the same transport method (here it comes…) before they had even come on stage.
Gig-going aside, we would often collect on Sunday afternoons at the house of Stuart McGowan, to swap songs and listen to records like Bert and John (Jansch and Renbourn), the Beach Boys, the Bluesbreakers, Martin Carthy and on and on. Why that house?
1: it had a huge and comfortable living room;
2: his parents were wise enough to keep largely out of the way without totally disappearing, and
3: he had sisters. (I went to an all-boys school and an all-male college, you understand.)
Having mentioned records, I must not fail to mention Paul Oliver’s double LP, “The Story of the Blues”, which got listened to. And listened to. And listened to.
Another regular destination, while it lasted, was the Metro, a club housed under the railway arches at Snow Hill Station. The club folded later, and the premises have since housed a motley collection of operations. My favourite memory from that place was the night when Alexis Korner was playing and announced that a friend of theirs was going to join them on the stage. Now I know that by that stage we were all used to those likeable, long-haired mop-tops from Liverpool, but the bubbly hair and what I can only call “blouse” (lilac, I think) he was wearing, combined with the extraordinary wail of both his voice and his harmonica were still quite eye-opening. He was in the process of inventing what we now call a “rock god”. My memory (based on the girl I was with) tells me this was mid-1967, which fits with the formation of Led Zeppelin in 1968. What did they say he was called? Oh yes, Robert Plant – became quite well known, didn’t he?
As I write this, a few special memories bubble up, but at this distance it is hard to get them into a proper sequence – Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee along with the Byrds at Lincoln in 1971; Taste with Rory Gallaher at the Crown next to New Street Station (another venue that is now sadly closed); Woburn Abbey in 1968 with Roy Harper, Family, John Mayall, Champion Jack Dupree, Jimi Hendrix and, and…
Anyway, you’ll see that I never had to fight the oppression suffered by the black Americans who gave us the blues, and that my music may be bastard music – but, hey: it’s from where I’m from.
The real world?
Although I did start and run a short-lived folk club at the Red Cow in Leicester city centre (the folk boom/collision was tailing off by then), there were more than a few years when I really didn’t play very much at all, what with responsible jobs, a mortgage to pay and all that. A 12-string came and went, as did other guitars. A deep red, f-hole semi-acoustic with gold-plated fittings, played through a Watkins Dominator (wow!) came and went. A fiddle came and went. Here and there the odd scratch-gig, sometimes on my own, sometimes with one band or other, but nothing that took off. And not necessarily in that order, you understand. In terms of listening to music rather than playing, I do fondly remember going fairly often to see Trevor Burton (formerly of the Move) at the Red Lion, a tiny pub in Balsall Heath, with the amps propped up on the benches at the side and the band’s financial reward for the evening being thrown into a pint mug that was passed round the end of the evening. Happy nights!
Now that I come to think about it, I’m fairly sure that over the six or seven years I spent in Hamburg in the early 90s, I only sang a song in public on one single occasion, and that wasn’t in Hamburg but at the Buddhist “Kagyu Summer School” in Alsace, which I managed for three years in the early nineties. Things really were quiet on the music front, as you can see.
I even spent more than a decade struggling to play the Irish flute. I tried, honest I did, and I like to think that I became “sort of not bad”, but it never sang for me. Maybe my mouth wasn’t suited to the instrument, or maybe it was the music itself. I liked it in some sort of way, and it provided a backdrop to social life, both in Ireland and to a lesser extent over the years I spent in Sydney, but it never connected at the same depth as blues and rock. In any event, it didn’t work.
I’m not trying to write a book here, so let’s get to the point. Just a few years ago, when I was still thinking of myself as a not-very-good flute player, I was persuaded one summer’s afternoon to get out my guitar – a Martin Dreadnought I’d been unable to resist buying after seeing it on the wall of the House of Music (shop) in Skibbereen and asked to try it. I had owned it for some years, but on that afternoon it really sang to me, and the words it sang were, “Welcome home.”
Now, as it happens, I live in Italy. It will help to mention that Italian laws are highly inimical to small-time music, but this is not the place for rants or explanations. The upshot was that there was an advantage to purging my repertoire of any crowd-pleasers like “Louie, Louie” or “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”. This purge means that I can put my hand on my heart and say to the authorities that *everything* in my performance is either my own composition, is an improvisation, or is out of copyright. Saying goodbye to some of those songs seemed at first like limitation, but it’s made me focus on the nearest thing I have to musical roots – acoustic blues. As well as playing the Martin, I’m now the proud owner of a shiny resonator. I also often play a harmonica in a frame, as I did back in the day. (Hohner Special 20s. Purists may quibble, but the plastic comb was a lovely invention for which the inside of my lips are very grateful.)