Monday, June 13, 2016

Book: Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock 'n' Roll by Peter Guralnick

When this book came out in 1971, it was widely heralded and one of the first of its kind. Guralnick begins by writing a deeply personal history of his engagement with rock and roll which is interesting, since he was in it from the beginning, hearing Little Richard and Elvis as a child and then witnessing its whitewashing as corporate America tried to replace Chuck Berry with Pat Boone (as if.) He wanders through the wilderness of folk and jazz, reads Mailer's self-conscious essay "The White Negro" with much hand-wringing before the Beatles and Rolling Stones burst on the scene and the author discovers the blues. Being a true snob at first it is only acoustic folk blues that matter (more authentic, you know.) Dylan was a mystery, but James Brown was a revelation. After this Guralnick moves even more deeply into the blues of all kinds, first with a chapter that tries to place the music into a historical context beginning with a brief discussion of the format and pre-history before settling on Charlie Patton, one of the major figures of the pre-war blues. He is able to secure interviews with men who played with Patton at country parties who talked about what a natural entertainer he was compared to another legendary contemporary, the more taciturn Son House. House had a much longer career, though recording in the 1930' and 40's and then participating in the folk revival of the 1960's. This in turn leads him to another legend - Robert Johnson. He relates what little is known of Johnson, thankfully leaving out the devil at the crossroads nonsense. What comes through is a loner, who worked at his craft, particularly slide guitar that could almost "talk" to you and repertoire filled with original and imaginative songs. The book shifts gears now and goes into biographical articles, beginning with an entry on Muddy Waters who was recovering from a serious automobile accident when Guralnick interviewed him in 1970. He relays Muddy's history, moving from Rolling Fork, Mississippi to Chicago connecting with the Chess Record Company and having a strong of hits from the late 1940's to the mid-1950's. At the time of the interview, Muddy hadn't had a hit in a while, though he was still a regular concert draw, especially in Europe and on college campuses, but times had changed. Chess is stumped on how to market him, trying all types of gimmicks that might appeal to a rock/funk audience, and even the once prosperous neighborhood he lives in is starting to crumble. Guralnick is really hitting his stride with these slice of life interviews, and his next one was with the immensely talented but often overlooked guitarist and singer Johnny Shines. He is a direct link to the near-mythical Johnson, having travelled with him in the 30's and retaining quite a bit of his repertoire. He scuffled after Johnson died but then made it to Chicago after the war, recording for JOB and Chess, but things got so hard that he dropped out of music all together in the late fifties and early 1960's. There's a very interesting section of the book where Shines is part of a Chicago Blues package tour and they travel city to city and he becomes increasingly annoyed about having to answer the same Johnson related questions instead of being able to talk about his own music, and he was making some great records in this period. The "rediscovery" of Skip James by musicologists in the 1960's was unexpected, and he presents a problem for the author because you get the sense that Guralnick felt that James was a bit of a buffoon because he includes large blocks of James stilted speech and reiterates that James felt himself to be a self-proclaimed genius. On the contrary, he has great affection for Louisiana bluesman Robert Pete Williams, who had shot a man in self-defense and wound up in the notorious Angola prison farm. Finally securing release years later, Williams writes no-holds barred lyrics about life in prison and he is trying to renew himself by learning bottleneck slide to add to his arsenal. The force of nature that was Howlin' Wolf had begun to diminish by the time the author interviewed him, back in the hospital for an infection. He'd had a heart attack but refused to stop working, performing against doctors orders. He tells Wolf fascinating story, learning the harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and little guitar, before leaving the farming life to get a radio show and cut some records with Sun in Memphis and then moving on to Chess Records in Chicago. When Wolf was well, the show he could put on was overpowering - Guralnick relates one of his last ones here. Wolf is a distrustful skeptical man, probably rightfully so, but when the spirit moved him there were none like him. The book shifts gears again, moving back to rock and roll and a riotous interview with Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis smugly claims to have been uniquely formed and influenced by no one, and at this point was riding high in the country charts after dynamiting his rock and roll career by marrying his thirteen year old cousin in 1958. There is a very interesting chapter on Chess Records after the label had been sold to the GRT tape corporation, and after the death of Leonard Chess. The surviving brother Phil Chess and his nephew Marshall run the day to day operations, but the family atmosphere of the 1950's heyday are long gone. The generation gap between Phil and Marshall is clear as is the gap between the new employees and the legendary holdovers like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf who don't stop by as much as they used to. Guralnick gives a nice thumbnail history of the label, which grew out of a nightclub and a few off the books nod & wink transactions. They got Muddy and Wolf, but missed signing James Brown, but watched as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley changed the face of music. The book ends with men talking about the old days with a wary eye on the future. Those interested in the history of American vernacular music should definitely check this book out, the interviews in particular make for fascinating reading as the subjects let their guard down for the most part and speak honestly about what their lives in music has been like. Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock 'n' Roll -

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