The Last Survivors of a Bygone Blues Age

The most memorable live performer I’ve seen this year was Jimmy “Duck” Holmes at the Montreal Jazz Festival on the night of July 2. The wiry country-bluesman, a few weeks shy of 75, sat in a white plastic chair on the enormous outdoor stage, a red-and-white baseball cap pulled low over his gaunt cheeks and dark eyes. As the dry-ice smoke drifted by, it obscured the lights and speakers to suggest the rural cemetery that supplied the title of Holmes’ masterful 2019 album with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Cypress Grove.

With his acoustic guitar tuned in the open minor key of his native Bentonia, Mississippi, Holmes clawed at the strings, plucking a bass line with his thumb, a melody with his index finger and the chords with his middle and ring fingers. The trance-like drone complemented his ghostly voice as it sang, “When your body starts aching, then your body starts to get cold, you’re headed for some old cypress grove.”

Even if you knew nothing of Holmes’ history, this was powerful, sobering music. But if you did know his background, the experience was even richer, for it connected you to a time and place when the blues were a neighborhood music, played for friends and neighbors, undiluted for outsiders or preachers. These were neighborhoods so isolated by poverty, geography and ethnicity that they could develop art unlike anything else.

Now it’s a good thing that the blues have been adapted by many generations, walks of life and locales, for it is one of the primary building blocks of American music from country to hip-hop, a powerful engine for cultural exchange. But as fascinating as those permutations of the blues are, going back to the original source can be invaluable.

If you want to put your own personal twist on the blues, you’ll have better luck starting with the distilled essence than in trying to add a variation to someone else’s variation. The water is purer close to the spring than it is downriver. You can always listen to the records, of course, but there’s nothing like hearing the music live, preferably in its own context, where you can observe the performer—and maybe talk to them. Unfortunately, that’s getting harder and harder to do.

Holmes didn’t start recording till the 1970s, but he learned directly from the masters of Bentonia blues—Skip James, Jacob Stuckley and especially Jack Owen—who had all been active in the pre-Motown heyday of the Mississippi blues. If you heard Holmes sing “Monday Morning” and “Please Don’t Make Me Wait” in Montreal, you were transported back to those days, back to the origin story. And his younger guitar accompanist that night, Mike Munson, has had the benefit of tapping into that era, as evidenced by his 2019 album, Rose Hill.

Such opportunities are rarer and rarer, so we should appreciate them when they come along. So many of the giants have died the past 15 years: R.L. Burnside, Mose Allison, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Henry Townsend, Snooks Eaglin. But there are still a few survivors like Holmes, who learned directly from the mid-20th-century greats and preserve those lessons today.

Charlie Musselwhite, for example, calls his new album Mississippi Son because he was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1944, and because he returned to Clarksdale, two hours northwest in the state’s same cotton belt, to make this record as leader of a stripped-down blues trio. He had learned his music from the older blues musicians from those cotton fields and nearby Memphis. When he was 18, Musselwhite followed his mentors in the post-war migration to Chicago and soon found himself playing harmonica with Big Walter Horton and Big Joe Williams. He was even Williams’ roommate for a while.

“Blues up the river,” he sings as the album opens, “blues up the river, rolling down to the Gulf / I’m going to drink muddy water till I get enough.” He not only drank up the musical sounds of the river known as the Big Muddy but also spent countless nights in Chicago dives, hearing guitarist Muddy Waters trade licks with harmonica whiz James Cotton. Though Musselwhite is best known for his harmonica playing, he plays guitar and mouth harp on this record, as if echoing both Waters and Cotton.

Musselwhite acknowledges his roots by singing Yank Rachell’s “Hobo Blues” out of the Memphis jug band tradition, Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” out of the Mississippi Delta tradition, and “Crawling King Snake,” written by his old roommate Williams, transformed into a #6 R&B hit by John Lee Hooker and later recorded by The Doors and Black Keys. Musselwhite returns the latter tune to its country-blues origins, singing it in a smokey, sleepy voice that is all the more ominous for its tense restraint.

That tension is obvious in Musselwhite’s original song, “In Your Darkest Hour.” The harmonica-and-guitar intro establishes the slow-blues mood of desperation, even before the lyrics spell it out. “I took a dark road,” he drawls, “till I found the sun / Nobody loved me like Henrietta done / In your lonely room, in your darkest hour, honey, call on me.” The situation’s even bleaker on “My Road Lies in Darkness.”

He wrote eight of the 14 songs himself, and it’s as a songwriter that the 78-year-old musician has most improved with the years. On “Blues Gave Me a Ride,” he personifies the musical genre as a Cadillac that pulls over to pick up a stranded hitchhiker on Highway 61. “Stingaree” is a witty variation on the long tradition of double-entendre honeybee blues songs, only this time it’s the woman who’s doing the stinging. “When the Frisco Left the Shed” is the tale of a man fleeing down the road from a woman’s “big, cold, iron bed.” When he sings of walking down the highway in the cold rain, the guitar notes fall like icy droplets.

Paul Butterfield, a year older than Musselwhite, was another young blues harmonica player in Chicago at the same time. Butterfield sat in with the Muddy Waters Blues Band, later recorded with Waters and eventually formed his own Paul Butterfield Blues Band with guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, and Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section. Legendary performances at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and the 1969 Woodstock Festival made the band famous and broadened the audience for authentic blues.

When Butterfield moved to Woodstock in 1972 and formed a new band called Better Days, he hired a singer named Geoff Muldaur, also a year older than Musselwhite. Muldaur had grown up in the New York suburbs, but he too was eager to find the sources of folk and blues musics that were being rediscovered in the late 1950s. That quest led him to the jug band music of Memphis and from there to Boston’s Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Banjo player Bill Keith had left Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys to join Kweskin, and so had a terrific singer named Maria D’Amato. Singing and playing guitar, Muldaur helped the group lead a revival of the delightful but largely forgotten jug band music of the 1920s.

Muldaur and D’Amato married in 1964, released two albums as Geoff & Maria Muldaur (including the version of “Brazil” that became the theme song of Terry Gilliam’s film of the same name) before divorcing in 1972. Maria’s first solo album yielded a top-10 hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” in 1973, and Geoff joined Better Days—all of which is to say that Geoff Muldaur was part of that 1960s crusade to track down the roots of the blues and rescue them from neglect.

Muldaur is still at it. His latest recording, The Last Letter: The Amsterdam Project, features 16 songs on two CDs encased in a hardback book filled with photos and Muldaur’s extensive notes on every song. This is far from a traditional country blues or jug band album; these are his chamber-music arrangements of early blues and jazz numbers, plus his musical settings of three different poems by Tennessee Williams. Kweskin shows up to sing harmony on “Boll Weevil Holler.”

This works better than you’d think. As Muldaur explains in the book, his inspiration came from early jazz bands who would adapt blues and folk songs on clarinet, fiddle and banjo, with an emphasis on swing and counterpointed parts. To this recipe, Muldaur added cello, bassoon, French horn, accordion, guitarrón and/or his own vocals, creating showcases for these pre-World War II songs that bring out their elegant beauty without any clutter or overstatement. Despite the unusual instrumentation, the material never loses its working-class roots. That’s due as much to Muldaur’s off-handed, laconic singing as it is to the Netherlands musicians backing him.

It works, because Muldaur had contact with older musicians who were playing this stuff before it became tourist music. In the book Last Letter, he writes of living in New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1961, listening to early-jazz giants such as George Lewis and Paul Barbarin, drinking at the same bar as Williams and at the bar where newcomer Clarence “Frogman” Henry was playing piano.

Muldaur writes about seeing Dock Boggs at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival: “Boggs, banjo in hand, walked out across the stage and took his chair. The lights dimmed to a soft blue. Just then a fog rolled in from the bay and drifted across the stage. Boggs began his invocation: ‘Oh, Death, oh, Death, please spare me over till another year.’” Experiences like that will change your music forever.

Another member of the Woodstock roots-music community is Happy Traum. He was half of a folk-blues duo with his older brother Artie for five albums; together and separately they recorded with such artists as Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, John Sebastian and Maria Muldaur. Happy Traum, in fact, was Dylan’s duo-mate on the latter’s first released version of “I Shall Be Released.”

Traum has just released his first album in seven years. There’s a Bright Side Somewhere is less ambitious than the Musselwhite and Muldaur albums. Lacking bold songwriting or arrangements, it’s a congenial gathering of some old pals to sing some favorite old songs in a congenial atmosphere. That those songs include rarities by Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie McTell, while the friends include Sebastian, Geoff Muldaur, Larry Campbell and Amy Helm, is a measure of the project’s quality. Traum’s 84-year-old voice is frailer than it used to be, but the feeling is convincing.

And Traum’s connection to an earlier generation of blues and folk legends is telling. “I was fortunate to have learned my fingerpicking guitar style directly from one of the masters, Brownie McGhee,” Traum writes in the liner notes. “Along with his warm, rich singing voice and forceful Piedmont style guitar playing, Brownie was an accomplished and prolific songwriter.”

McGhee wrote or co-wrote four of the 11 songs on the new album by Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder, Get on Board. Cooder and Mahal had formed a blues-rock band called The Rising Sons in 1965, when Cooder was 17 and Mahal 22. Columbia Records signed them but didn’t release their one album, overseen by Byrds producer Terry Melcher, until 1992. By that time, Cooder and Mahal had gone on to successful solo careers. First drummer Ed Cassidy had co-founded Spirit; second drummer Kevin Kelley had played on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and bassist Gary Marker had played on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica.

Cooder and Mahal were members of the same generation as Musselwhite, Butterfield, Muldaur and Traum, with the same impulse to search out the living legends of American roots music and reinterpret that tradition for a new generation. Cooder and Mahal have each made better records than Musselwhite, Muldaur or Traum ever have, but unfortunately Get on Board is not one of them. Under-rehearsed, badly recorded and over-sung, it’s a jam session that never gels.

Trudy Lynn is the same age as Cooder and Holmes, and she got to know several pre-Motown blues legends, because they lived and performed in her hometown of Houston. Lightnin’ Hopkins was a cousin, and another cousin wrote songs for Bobby “Blue” Bland. Lynn made her singing debut by sitting in with Albert Collins as a teenager and later recorded with producer Huey Meaux. Thanks to being the home base for Don Robey’s Duke/Peacock Records, Houston had become ground zero for Gulf Coast blues, and the young Lee Audrey Nelms soaked it all up before adopting the stage name of Trudy Lynn.

She never had much of a national reputation, but she became a fixture on the Gulf circuit and among hardcore blues fans. She has just released her 18th album, Golden Girl, an unexpected triumph of the Houston sound half a century after its peak. Lynn’s 75-year-old voice is in great shape, blending the melodic pleasure of an Irma Thomas with the muscular aggression of a Koko Taylor. Backing Lynn is a crackerjack band featuring guitarist Anson Funderburgh, the McKendrees (father Kevin on keys and son Yates on guitar), Lynn’s longtime harmonica specialist Steve Krase, and producer/bassist Terry Wilson, who co-wrote four of the 11 songs.

Lynn wrote six of the songs by herself, and the lyrics’ combination of sharp wit and memorable catchphrases bring a necessary focus to the punchy, hooky music. “Either you will,” she warns one indecisive lover over a snappy groove, “either you won’t / Be for real or somebody else will.” Over another song’s push-and-pull drum motif, she knowingly tells a girlfriend, “A man is what he does, not what he says / I ain’t trying to tell you what to do / I’m just saying.”

Maybe Lynn could have come up with these songs and performances without those direct contacts with an older generation of blues greats. But I doubt it. There’s a depth to her music—and to that of Holmes, Musselwhite and Muldaur—that comes from more than listening to records. How many in the coming generation will have the same advantage?

Watch Musselwhite’s 2018 Paste Studio session alongside Ben Harper below.