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This is why in blues songs there is immense weight, but even more than that – especially in Hill Country – there is a feeling of celebration, of praise. These are songs that move people from their seats, songs not only about lost love, but about the glory of love returning. When Junior Kimbrough sings “Stay All Night” the tongue is dripping with pain, but the pain is not sadness. It’s the exhaustion of joyous desire, the same thing that takes hold of Marvin Gaye’s voice at the end of “Let’s Get It On”, when he’s pushed his advocacy to its limits and he’s out of breath. of desire. Kimbrough, at the gates of desire and searching for the keys to the kingdom, moans, “Love me baby, love me girl.” And it’s not a song about sadness, but about celebrating the potential of what might come, what might rest on the other side of a long night. These are the great blues songs. Suffering is the marathon; fun is the short sprint that occurs during the intervening moments.
I have known elders or friends who would drop the needle on old blues records at the start of a party, to warm people up. Because you can dance to the blues as well as you can immerse yourself in the thick, unchanging nature of it. You can sob to the beat of the blues, but you can also take a happier path, peppered with laughter or hugs, or swing on a porch swing with your legs pushing against the night air. The logic, as I’ve always understood, is that the blues is something you go through first to get to everything else. He lives inside of you, so you might have the chance to see the world better, more honestly, with more dexterity. It’s also why so many great blues songs are about leaving one place and arriving somewhere else. About seeing something that in a moment seems impossible to see and carrying it with you for the rest of your life.
When people talk about the spontaneity of the blues, or how it has a kind of freedom underneath, it’s partly because the blues had a long history before recorded music. He had a history of traveling from person to person, like good gossip, leaning along the way. “It’s like diamonds never lose their value,” Auerbach told me, still twirling the lighter on his fingers. “Because all these musicians – the very good ones – are never the same. They always put their own mark on everything. “
It was a sound and a tradition forged by working class players, playing songs after their days at work, supported by people showing up and nothing else. RL Burnside was a farmer, a fisherman. He would have continued to play the music whether someone came to record it or not, content to maintain a tradition in a place he loved. Most of the earliest recordings of Hill Country blues musicians were made by musicologists who had heard stories of jukes bursting with sound well beyond normal closing hours and wanted to come and see what it was about. Artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell have managed to capitalize on some of these field recordings, land record deals, and tours. But even modest commercial success was rare, and it often struck late in the life and careers of artists, who fell ill or died soon after becoming better known. McDowell’s first album was released in 1964 and he was dead in 1972.
When Fat Possum was trained and sought out bluesmen who hadn’t been properly recorded for decades – like Kimbrough, Burnside, and versatile Greenville player T-Model Ford, among others – it seemed like a record correction. The Hill Country and Delta blues mini-revival swept through the 1990s and held until the early 2000s, resulting in record sales, documentaries, festivals, and touring juke-joint reviews. This revival allowed living legends to record and release music later in life. But he also raised the question of the value of an American archive. Next to the Fat Possum recordings – which were adopted by listeners across the country – is another archive that lives in the people who were there, whatever the beginning for them, listening to these songs and talking to people. . This archive is less glamorous but still precious.
When Dan Auerbach was 17, he took a road trip to Mississippi with his father, around that time in the 90s when the blues scene was gaining more and more attention, in part because of Fat Possum’s work. They started in Akron, stopped in Nashville and then Memphis, where they got a little Mississippi blues guide, and then they drove straight to the heart of Hill Country to see some of the players and places they didn’t. had only heard stories. . Auerbach went straight to Junior Kimbrough’s joint juke. Kimbrough was known for his concerts, which lasted for a long time and had people dancing for hours on end (Fat Possum’s release of his 1992 album, “All Night Long,” took him to the national stage). But by the time Auerbach went to Mississippi, Kimbrough was at the end of his life. Kinney Kimbrough, Junior’s son, told Auerbach that Junior wouldn’t be at the club and wouldn’t play that night, which presented an entirely different issue: Kinney’s brother played, but was locked up for the moment. He needed a loan to get him out. “He told my dad that they would pay him back once they sold some drinks that night,” Dan says. “It was like $ 24 or something.”