10 December 2008

Rounding out the Collection: Barbecue Bob

So, how do I feel about the blues? My wife is sewing tonight, making a doll for a friend whose wife is having a baby soon. She’s basing it on a piece we saw at an exhibition in a museum here in Madison—made up of tiny rings of fabric that will be linked together (kind of like a cloth Slinky™) to make the doll’s legs and body.

While she was sewing, almost absentmindedly, I started pitching the little rings into a plastic box across the room. After a few repetitions (to account for the weight and flight properties of the rings), I started to hit my mark—after about 15 minutes I was putting 9 of 10 into the box from about 5 feet.

(not me - Google Images for "pitching Cards into a hat" were a tad slim)

This is special.

When I was in high school, I pitched cards into a hat. It was rather more than a hobby. I was quite good at it. Card-pitching was a harsh mistress, though. She demanded a lot of time. I did it a lot on weekends. There were days when my friends would call me to go out, and I would turn them down so as to practice my card pitching.

Mostly, this happened around the time I bought my first Muddy Waters record. I had a Sony boombox, and I would plug in my long headphone cord (so I didn’t have to take off the headphones when I got up to collect the cards from around the hat). I played the almighty shit out of that CD—the Chess Records Best of (1947-54) comp, with “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Muddy was my gateway—not the original (and most white suburban blues fans have a similar story) gateway, but the credible, actual-blues one.

I’ve gone a lot deeper into the blues now, but I can’t shake the idea that I don’t know enough—that I don’t get the nuances of the regional differences, or know enough of the players. I don’t think I could put together a credible introduction-to the-genre mix for someone who asked (not that anyone’s asking—I realize that this is ridiculous). I’m working on getting further into that second tier of bluesmen—the people who are foundational, but not as widely known. And thanks to great blogs like El Diablo Tun Tun and Blues Town, I’ve made some progress.

Yesterday, I downloaded a Barbecue Bob comp off of the Bluestown blog. He’s one of the Altanta-based bluesmen crucial to the “Piedmont” or Georgia blues style. There’s not much I can tell you about him (and all of it is readily available elsewhere), but here are the highlights:

He was born Robert Hicks in 1902, in Walnut Grove, Georgia. His recording career began in early 1927 (a shade earlier than his more famous Atlanta counterpart, Blind Willie McTell), after being discovered by a Columbia records rep while singing in Tildwell’s Barbecue Place in Atlanta, where he worked (thus, BBQ Bob). He played mostly 12 string guitar. He died at 29 of pneumonia. There are two surviving photos, one of which shows him holding his guitar while dressed in his cook’s apron.

While he sometimes played with a slide, the songs I have lack the kinds of knifing solos I associate with the Delta Blues I’m far more familiar with. I also find his voice less distinctive than Blind Willie McTell’s, but
he’s an expressive singer with a fine tenor. His music covers the expected range—from the bawdy to the diluvian (see Patton, Charlie).

This isn’t much of a review, but two songs:


are really fabulous additions to my blues rotations (“Motherless Chile” in Bob’s version has been very influential—Eric Clapton’s cover being the most famous).

So, where would I file this (assuming I had a physical copy)? The Piedmont/Georgia blues is something I hope will grow on me—what I know of it is less sinister, less ominous to my ears than the Delta music I first encountered, but I like it. This slips in between Blind Willie McTell and some of that string band music I like so well (Mississippi Sheiks, perhaps)—at least until I flesh out my collection some more.

Posted by Brandon

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