Lady plays the blues

Lady plays the blues
November 16, 2011
by Jim Beal, Jr.

When Mississippi-born Robert Johnson sat down in front of producer Don Law's microphone and recording gear in the Gunter Hotel in November 1936, it's unlikely either man thought about making music that would reverberate through the decades.

But they did. Rambling guitarist, singer and songwriter Johnson made an indelible mark on music in general and blues in particular with songs such as “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Terraplane Blues,” recorded over three days at the downtown hotel.

In June 1937, Johnson returned to Texas — to Dallas this time — to lay down 13 more songs, including “Hell Hound on My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Love in Vain Blues.”

A couple years later, Johnson was dead. But his songs continue to be among the most influential ever recorded.

In 2001, the San Antonio Blues Society placed a historical marker in the lobby of the Gunter and kicked off an annual “Robert Johnson SA Sessions” celebration. Saturday, roots blues ace Rory Block, a noted guitarist, singer, songwriter, author and educator will headline that celebration, with Houston blues mandolinist Rich DelGrosso and guitarist John Del Toro Richardson opening.

“Robert Johnson was an extremely sophisticated player,” Block said via cellphone en route to a Michigan gig. “I loved blues always. I loved a lot of kinds of music. I heard Muddy Waters' early recordings before he had a band. I was immersed in early American music of all styles.

“When I heard country blues, it was powerful. Robert Johnson magnified, amplified it into superpowerful music. His was the highest form of playing and singing I had ever heard. I was captivated by the emotional intensity, the spiritual elements. His music was the top of the mountain.”

Block was born in New Jersey and grew up in Manhattan. Her father owned a Greenwich Village sandal shop, so Block was around the original folk and blues players as well as Maria Muldaur, John Sebastian and Bob Dylan. Block learned from Reverend Gary Davis, Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt.

“It just happened,” Block said about getting into music. “My mother and my father played guitar, so there was always a guitar around. Everybody I knew played. I'd go to school, then I'd come home and play guitar. I never saw into the future.

“I stopped for a while. When I was in my 20s, it appeared I had to make a decision. That's when I decided I needed to get a record company and tour. That's when it became a career.”

It has been quite a career. Block started recording in the '70s. Though she's made some detours into contemporary folk and some music that veered toward pop, it's as a blues woman, working solo, that she's an impact.

Albums such as “When a Woman Gets the Blues,” “High Heeled Blues,” “Last Fair Deal” and the latest, a series of tribute albums, “The Lady and Mr. Johnson” for Robert Johnson; “Blues Walkin' Like a Man: A Tribute to Son House” and “Shake 'Em on Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell” are powerful collections. Block also has released a series of instructional discs plus her autobiography, “When a Women Gets the Blues.”

“Organically is a good word to use,” Block said about how she developed her repertoire. “I've gravitated to the songs I liked. I pick out songs that jump out at me. I pick out something that sounds great to me. I have never yet come up against a song I love that I felt I just couldn't do. I approach songs as a whole package, vocal and guitar.”

She also has added to the book with original compositions.

“I write when I'm inspired to write,” she said. “I have no issue doing a whole tribute album like the Son House album. For the Fred McDowell album, I wrote four songs. That's where my writing is right now. If I feel compelled, I write.”

Block learned directly from some of the masters. She strives to keep the roots music alive and thriving.

“I think it's extremely important and I like the fact I can have a role in it,” she said. “I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. I don't want us to forget where the music came from. Take Robert Johnson's ‘Ramblin' on My Mind.' We still use the identical format for today's rock and blues music. You can't make it better than Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters made it.”

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