Monday, May 24, 2010

Ry Cooder – Talking Country Blues and Gospel

Sometimes the most memorable interviews happen unexpectedly. Researching Blind Willie Johnson, the sublime prewar gospel-blues slide guitarist from Texas, I was struck by how magnificently Ry Cooder had used Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” in his Paris, Texas soundtrack. I sent Cooder a note asking if he’d give me a quote. A few days later, on February 25, 1990, the phone rang and it was the man himself. After talking about Blind Willie Johnson, Ry suddenly moved on to another Johnson – Robert – and unraveled one of the great myths surrounding the legendary Mississippi Delta bluesman. Read on.


You come closer to sounding like Blind Willie Johnson than anyone I’ve ever heard.
God almighty!

How do you think he physically played the instrument?
Well, I’m playing his music the way I know how to play bottleneck, which is to hold the guitar upright, wear a bottleneck on your finger, and fingerpick the thing, and play in the tuning that I’m certain that he used. But I have no idea how he played what he played. I mean, who knows? It’s so far back into the distant past that anything is possible. I’ve seen this guy, Rev. Leon Pinson – he’s a blind preacher from Mississippi – play holding a bar in his finger and thumb on his left hand, reaching around underneath like you would, and fingering the thing that way. And getting a very similar vibrato to Blind Willie Johnson. He has the quality of never quite coming up to the note and hitting it. In other words, that’s a very inexact technique that I just described, but it does give you the quarter tones and all of the strange nuances. When I’m playing, I’m so used to playing the very note. Look, it’s sad that no one ever thought to take a picture of the guy while he was playing, because he played in two styles. He played normal guitar, just strumming and rhythm, which you can hear him doing with his thumb. I don’t have any idea how he played, and I don’t know what he looked like when he played. You know, two seconds of observation would answer every question you could ever have.

People who saw him playing on the streets of Beaumont in the 1940s said that he played with the guitar on his lap and used a pocketknife.
Played flat?

Like a Hawaiian guitarist.
I can’t imagine how he could have played what he played doing that. There is one thing about when you play that way – the same with this guy Pinson, who’s playing not flat, but holding the thing, rather than wearing it – there’s something that happens when you wear it, and there’s something else that happens when you hold it. Now, Blind Willie Johnson had great dexterity. He could play all of these sparking little melody lines. There’s fabulous syncopation. He’d keep his thumb going real strong. But when I saw this guy Pinson down South last summer – even though he’s nowhere near the guitar player Johnson was – I had an ear to what he was doing that sounded like Johnson. I don’t know, it’s just a different sound, and I can’t quite say why. But I have a feeling when you play bottleneck and you’re wearing the thing, your hand is there on the strings, either damping them or not damping them. It’s more of a controlling sound when you hold the guitar and nothing but the bar or the knife blade, maybe, touches the string. The guitar tends to ring more. It tends to keep the strings released and open, see. And more sound is happening. Because Johnson’s sound is very active.

I never could figure out how in the world he got such a busy sound playing so little. I used to think, why are all the strings going all the time? Because the recording is so horrible – the quality of the recording is the worst in the world, on one of those horrendous little machines which is eliminating all but the most spikey sound that the guy is producing. You’re not hearing any of the real aural ambient effect at all. I’m sure that in person, this guy sounds a thousand percent different. All the recording is showing us is the lowest-common-denominator type of sound, the most direct thing. The struck notes are all that you’re hearing. But even through that, you can hear that the strings are moving all the time. And I used to think that he’s making a lot of work to move all these strings around. And I know that old, primitive players, street guys and blues players, do nothing to work too hard. It seems like, to me, when I met these guys, the few that I’ve met, they’re very efficient in the style. If it takes too much effort and physical work, then you’re doing something wrong. So when I was young, I didn’t know. I used to go to tremendous efforts to try to do this stuff, only to realize later that I was probably barking up the wrong tree.

Are you suggesting that he didn’t damp behind the slide?

Oh, I know he didn’t. Now, he could have used his picking hand. Because if you’re playing flat, you can, with the side of your hand in the manner of steel players, stop resonance just by approaching the strings, barely touching them. But you can do a lot that way. But I personally cannot see how . . . Of course, I don’t play flat.

Another account says he held his guitar normally and used a jackknife for his slide.
I don’t know, because I haven’t researched or read – I’m sure you’ve looked into this way further than I have – but I have a feeling that all of the primitive players who were not in Mississippi and who played slide played flat. Lead Belly played flat. Guys from Texas did play flat. Because when the Hawaiians came through in an early World’s Fair [1893’s Columbia Exposition], everybody saw these guys and everybody was influenced. There was tremendous impact. And they all played flat. So most people would have said, “Right, I play flat.” Now we know Blind Willie played regular, because there’s that one picture of him. And you know that that’s the way that the guitar was used. But then when you go to play the sliding style, why, then you’re playing flat. It’s just natural that everybody would have done what the Hawaiians did. It’s just human nature – except in Mississippi, where for some crazy reason they didn’t. In Mississippi they seemed to play regular, but with bottlenecks and bones and things. Some people held a jackknife between the fingers, as though it were another finger. But outside of Mississippi – and I don’t know about any scholarship or historical investigation that bears this out – but you can hear the difference. And you can hear when people are playing flat. It’s probably true that Blind Willie Johnson played all that stuff flat, and it is quite amazing, but it would account for how he gets around on the strings.

Of course, I’ve tried all my life -- worked very hard and every day of my life, practically – to play in that style. Not consciously saying, “Today is Tuesday, I will again try to play like Blind Willie Johnson,” but that sound is in my head. And really when you come right down to it, you can sit down and play some of his tunes, and the single-string melody thing that he did, which is so great. He’s so good – I mean, he’s just so good! Beyond a guitar player. I think the guy is one of these interplanetary world musicians, the kind of person they talk about in that Nada Brahma book, where the world is sound and everything is resonating. He’s one of those guys. There’s only a few. Being blind and all, maybe he asked what’s going on, maybe somebody described it to him.

I wish we had some notion what people thought of these Hawaiians – they must have looked like Martians coming through with their grass skirts and things. And God knows they’re good players. Because they were so good at what they were doing, why, Mexicans picked it up, and the South Americans picked it up. We know that they sold steel guitar from then on, and the stuff was made to be done that way. And along comes a guy like, say, Robert Johnson, whom I hope didn’t play flat!

Johnny Shines told me recently that he did not.
It’s just unthinkable, because there’s too much going on. When you play flat, you can’t do so much. Well, that accounts for some of the simplicity and purity of Blind Willie’s thing, and I cannot do it. I cannot play flat to save my life. I can’t coordinate my body that way. It’s fine with me that he did. When I saw this guy Leon Pinson down in Mississippi, I went home and I found me a metal bar like he had and started trying to do it. It was awkward for me, but after a couple of days I started to see where you could play all this Blind Willie stuff that way. It didn’t occur to me to think, “Therefore he must have played flat.” It’s just what Pinson has gone and done. But if you did, you’d even be closer to that sound. I can see that it’s probably the case.

Was Pinson’s hand coming around the neck of the guitar the way you normally would?

Yes, because he plays regular too, like they all do. They all make a clear distinction between slide playing and regular playing. They don’t mix them together. Very few people did in those days, or do now. So he says, “I’m now gonna play slide,” and he takes out his bar, tunes the guitar down to a chord – same one as Johnson, same D tuning – and goes on doing this thing, not fretting at all. If you wear the slide, you can fret, but he’s not. He’s just playing the note and very few chords. Now, Blind Willie played hardly any chords. It was years before I realized that my brain was imagining the chords – he wasn’t playing them. He was just playing two or three notes and getting a suggestion of a chord once in a while. He was playing in that modal feel, not wanting to disturb that tonic drone. He didn’t need to. He was doing a different thing. And when you hear this old guy Pinson, you hear him strictly playing quarter notes and not playing the notes straight up and not wanting to create these stacked-up triads and regular harmonic intervals. It’s dissonant all the time. Now, that’s what these old recordings of Blind Willie Johnson don’t show us because you can’t hear anything. You don’t know to what extent this was dissonant or polytonal in that way.

Didn’t Johnson have a remarkable left-hand vibrato?

Oh, the best! The absolute best. Very light touch – real light and really fast. It’s just a thing that you can’t talk about, almost, because it’s just so perfect. But that vibrato, you can go and do it by wiggling that bar just right. I’m trying to do it these days. I hate doing it – it feels terrible – but I can see that you get a different sound, and that’s the only explanation that I can think of. I’d also like to know what kind of damn guitar he had. He probably used a little guitar. They didn’t have big guitars in those days. Hillbillies did, later in the ’30s when Gibson started making those big jumbos, but back in those days, all those players had smaller instruments.

What’s your attraction to “Dark Was the Ground – Cold Was the Night”?
That’s the most transcendent piece in all American music, the way he used his voice and the guitar. This other tune that I love so much is “God Moves on the Water.” Oh, that thing is like a roller coaster, man. He’s got an energy wave in there that he’s surfing across the face of that tune so mighty! He hits the chorus, and to me it’s like ice skating or downhill racing – it’s an awesome physical thing that happens. But “Dark Was the Night” is the cut – everybody knows that lick. You can throw that lick at anybody nowadays. I threw it up inside Paris, Texas, you know, and everybody relates. And now you play that lick, and everybody knows what it is. It’s like an unspoken word. It’s really amazing. [Legally download these tracks at]

I’ll really tell you, Blind Willie Johnson is in the ether somewhere. He’s up there in the zone somewhere. But if he played flat . . . And at this point, after talking with you, I’m starting to feel that really would account for it. Because I know that if it was regular, I could be doing it. I can do what he did – I can play those notes now. I mean, I have learned. My co-ordination and understanding have developed to the point where I am capable of executing those passages, but it sounds really different when you play flat.

Which of the first-generation bluesmen did you observe first hand?

Skip James I barely got to see, because he was sick all of a sudden. But I saw him, and I didn’t know what to make of him because his records really impressed me. When I saw him, he was having such physical trouble and he was so strange as a person that I recoiled from him. I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty young, and the vibe really killed me. But his records I listened to quite a lot. We used to see John Hurt, of course. And then, for me, the big deal was to see Sleepy John [Estes] because I liked his records so much. When I got mobile, I got a little older, I went down South to see him, and we used to sit with him. I’d go see him in his house up in Brownsville, Tennessee. Take him money and things. By that time I was kind of doing things. But as a teenager, I used to see him come through here.

Well, the whole thing about guys like that was you weren’t ready for them as citizens of the world. You know, for middle-class white kids in Santa Monica, sad to say, you don’t really know any people like that. Or Rev. Gary Davis – you just don’t know what’s going on. I had these records, although they weren’t easy to get in those days, but people had given me tapes or some 78s. I used to listen to these things and think, “Well, what could this all be about? Who are these people? What are they saying?” It’s a mysterious journey here, like Alice in Wonderland. And then, not understanding anything about the historical, social, economic conditions that produces music – there again, being pretty young and all – all of a sudden, in the folk boom, on the scene in Hollywood, in this folk music club, appears these guys. And they walk to the stage, walk through the audience. I was thunderstruck! I couldn’t breathe, you know. They got up onstage, sat down, and commenced to do whatever it was they were able to do. And of course that really killed me, because I thought, “This is beyond my understanding.”

After a while I began to gather up courage and go up and talk once in a while. You could sit down and say, “Can I understand this?” or “Can you show me this or that?” It was hard for me, but I did. And then I found out it was good, because they didn’t mind. They liked talking; it was not unpleasant for them. I didn’t bother anybody or badger them, like people do these days. But I was always curious and always trying to understand. Then it became obvious that it wasn’t so much the music as it was the people. If you could figure out where the people were and how they were as beings, why when the music was very clarified. Because what’s totally mysterious on record and inexplicable, why, in five minutes of watching a guy play, you got it. You understand body rhythm and how the instrument is approached, which is entirely different than how I’d seen it done. It was not linear, it was not patterns – they’d play out of patterns. They don’t play the horrible boom-chicka-boom thumb-finger, thumb-finger thing, you know. Everybody I knew did. That mad adherence to a mechanical thing that you set yourself up like a robot and play and think that’s what it is. I don’t know how that ever got started – banjo, maybe. But these guys didn’t play patterns, they didn’t play tuned. They were probably mostly out of tune. The whole thing was a revelation in what the instrument really could do in terms of personal expression. It’s a great gift to be able to have seen those people. Poor people today can’t see anybody.

Back in the earlier days, there wasn’t the attention to Western musical traditions of timing and tuning.
Not at all.

This is evident on the Bristol Sessions and other early country recordings – no studio sync-up here.
Oh, forget it. They’re coming from an entirely different way of life, an entirely different background. It’s just so radically different. If you go to Mississippi today, even, it’s a different place. You feel it’s a Third World country, a whole other scene. And back then, think of what it must have been like.

What impressed you about Sleepy John Estes on record?

Well, he had a great group – that piano player and the jug and the harmonica and him, all playing in different rhythmic emphasis. Everybody has a different take on what the rhythm is. Some of it’s half-time, some of it’s double-time. But the jug band idea, I think, is the greatest idea in terms of ensemble, applied in whatever way you want to apply it. In other words, primitive guys playing what they think is right and what they probably heard on somebody’s uptown record and trying to do it themselves. Or just what they hear music as sounding like, see, because they all listen to records too. Robert Johnson trying to sound like Lonnie Johnson makes perfect sense. And then saying, “Well, this is my version of Lonnie Johnson. This is what I think’s going on.”

Sleepy John Estes, of course, was a natural. He just put his hands on the instrument and opened his mouth. And then somebody would play piano and make it up out of nothing. I mean, out of nothing at all. Having no education, musically. It’s not like New Orleans, where everybody was schooled and there was a standard of reference. God almighty, down in the country, there is not standard of reference. You just did whatever your body would do. That’s the beauty of it. And Yank Rachel on mandolin – the whole thing is just fabulously interesting to me. From the sound point of view, I just used to bathe in those records. It’s like sit down and let it wash all through you. Pretty fascinating. Jesse Fuller – same thing with him. He used to come in, set that stuff up, and then sit down and play it and just wind it up. It would just unspool at you. It would take you away from your environment, that’s for sure.

Did Rev. Gary Davis ever give you playing tips?
Oh, I used to sit with him. He was a guy who gave lessons, actually. Now, how he got started and what made him turn to doing that in his age, I don’t know. But it was known that if you wanted to pick up from him, why, all you had to do was give him five or six dollars and go sit with him. So I used to go to where they put him up in some little house down here in L.A., someplace near Hollywood, when he’d come into town. And I’d sit there and say “I like this song” and name one of his tunes – because he had songs. He wasn’t just playing 12-bar blues, he was playing songs, and they had structure and all. Of course, he had this bizarre chordal sense and crazy right hand, and that was interesting. So we’d sit there for an hour or however long he wanted to stay – because when you’re in the company of a master, time is not a thing of the clock. The clock is not ticking, necessarily. If you want to stay all day, that’s okay. If you get tired, you leave. It’s kind of that sort of a thing. So we used to sit there. I never could play it back to him. A month later, it would come to me, what he had shown me or what he had done. He would just play, and then you would try to remember. I’d stare at his hands and try to figure it out. But I couldn’t make anything sound like that, and I never could play his way. I found that it was beyond my ability to do the thing that he was doing.

From a physical standpoint, what made it so difficult?

I don’t know. I mean, he had a bizarre technique. And you had to commit to it. It’s not a technique that flows into another person’s technique. In other words, Gary Davis is all by himself, in my experience, and if you committed to learning and being a student of his and a follower of his guitar mannerisms, you had to do that regardless, and everything else was secondary. I didn’t want to do that. I was really interested in something else at the time, and I felt that this was out of my range. I used to love to play his tunes, but I didn’t play them with any deep satisfaction because I realized it wasn’t working. This is not doing what he is doing. This is turning out like something else, and I’m not really crazy about it. Although he had some nice chord changes that used to thrill me, and I used to like to play the tunes just to hear those chord changes go down. But it was impossible.

In the prewar blues genre, do any other people stand out as being transcendental?

Gosh, sure. I mean, so many people. Blind Blake is a great player, a great musical figure. He’s another mysterious figure. In the years where he was on top of his thing, I think he was fabulous.

I think Lonnie Johnson has never been recognized as one of the transcendental people who influenced everybody. You can recognize Lonnie Johnson in just about anybody, with his voice and his elegant style. The stuff he did with Louis Armstrong was just incredible. So there he was. And he recorded with guys like Eddie Lang and all that. What he must have sounded like to country black people – they must have thought, “Well, this is somebody else!” You know, he’s up in town, getting this fabulous tone, and he’s real elegant and real top-hatted. It’s a whole other thing. It’s pop music, really. You can see people copying him right and left. Oh, it’s amazing. When I was very young, I heard some of that stuff, and it came through and really killed me. I used to sit and try to do that all the time. Still do. If I want to warm up, get my hands working and discipline my body, I will try to play some of his instrumentals. I can’t imagine what the hell he was doing, but I’m trying for it all the time. It’s just a way of using the instrument, right?

Did you hear many influences in the music of John Hurt?

That he had heard? Well, who knows? There’s a guy from Mississippi who’s playing in an un-Mississippi style. Very linear, melodic style. What did he hear? He must have heard Geechie music, maybe. Maybe he heard stuff from the Piedmont area. Maybe he thought it up all by himself.

Explain what you mean by Geechie music.
You know, the way the Sea Island people sound. That island thing all in the Piedmont area where Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, and a lot of those people sort of are from. It’s a very melodic style, syncopated in a different way. They play major chords and things, unlike a guy like Skip James, who plays crazy polymodal things and it’s a more open sound. Then Furry Lewis and John Hurt are far apart – maybe that’s Memphis. I don’t know what that is.

Now, Furry Lewis was in medicine shows. Medicine shows were interesting because they took music all around. They would leave regional areas, which were so distinct in those days. The musicians in the minstrel shows would travel to other areas and influence and be influenced. They were like a rock and roll tour is today, you might say. I mean, the fact that Joseph Spence travelled through the South in ’20s in medicine shows is mind boggling! I mean, that’s just absolutely amazing to me. And God knows what people thought of him, and yet if he went in the Piedmont area, there must have been places where he recognized music like his own. That’s a real interesting thing to think about, because guys like Furry Lewis were on medicine shows most of their early life. Jesse Fuller was travelling in medicine shows. That’s one of the things you could do to make money.

Were these shows designed to sell snake oil liniment?

Oh, yeah. You know, they would come into town on a truck, depending on how prosperous and how big they were. We’re talking about a countrified version of a minstrel show when minstrelsy had already either died out or was unknown in the countryside where there wasn’t a theater. Out in the countryside, in these little bitty towns – which was most of the Deep South – these damn guys, these quack doctors, would come in with a show and go ahead and do it. They would have a musical interlude, like Blind Peg Leg so-and-so would do his thing. Can you imagine what some of those shows must have been like?

Have you ever seen this film called Louis Bluie? There’s a little piece of footage about the jug band that’s in there, from like about 1910. That’s your medicine show. That’s hotter than fire. That one guy with the hat plays so much jug, he looks like he’s about ready to blow up! It’s awesome looking. That kind of thing just kills me, because I know they were out there and they were doing this, and it was hot. We think of the old men who could barely do it, but this was not so back in the ’20s and before. This stuff must have been cosmic! All we know is what we’ve got on records and a few still photographs. It’s really a shame. But I think to myself, “Well, that guy [director Terry Zwigoff] found that piece of film footage. I wonder what else is out there?” We’ll never know what it’s like. Or in the alleys off Beale Street. And just everywhere. I mean, music was all over the place. Country suppers and parties and picnics, and then there’s all that piano music, and then these guys get together. Blind Blake played all over the place with all kinds of people, including Johnny Dodds. It’s just really something. Or the zither player who played with Lead Belly.

But as far as old Blind Willie Johnson is concerned, he just missed the media, even when he died. If somebody would have been paying attention, but nobody thought about it much in those days, I guess.

It’s just like nobody thought about Robert Johnson. What happened was the engineer who made those records died, and no one ever asked him what kind of guitar did he play. And I’ll tell you something else about this. You know how they talk about how he was nervous and wouldn’t face the room [during his recording sessions]? I don’t believe that. You think that man is nervous? I’ll tell you what he was doing. They say he sat in the corner.

Well, find yourself a plaster corner sometime – all those hotel rooms [where early blues sessions were recorded] were plaster. And I don’t mean wallpaper or curtains. But you go and sit in a corner, with your guitar tight up against a corner. Face the corner and play, and see what it sounds like. Now, what you get there is a thing they call “corner loading.” This is an acoustic principal. What that does is it eliminates most of the top end and most of the bottom end and amplifies the middle. The same thing that a metal guitar does or an electric guitar – it mostly amplifies the midrange, which is where that metallic, kind of piercing sound is what’s left. Now, you take and record that way, and you’ll sound different. Because Robert Johnson sounds funny – let’s face it. It doesn’t sound like anybody playing an acoustic wooden guitar. But it’s not a metal guitar. But if you sit in a corner and stick your face up into the corner and listen, you’ll hear that sound. It ties the notes together. It compresses the sound too, and his sound is very compressed. See?

Look at Robert Johnson’s picture and listen to his singing and his forceful personality. This is a guy who was afraid of the audience?! Hell, no! This is chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out kind of a guy. I think he was sitting in the corner to achieve a certain sound that he liked. In other words, if you’d have said, “Robert, I’m gonna boost the midrange, take off . . .” – because it’s a dry sound, the acoustic guitar, finally. It’s a boring sound for Robert. He wants to hear wang! He wants to hear the electric. He wants to hear that boosted midrange. And I’ll bet you that if you could have done that for him with equalizing and headphones in the modern era, he’d have been very glad. I’ll bet you if you’d have given him a Marshall amp to play it through, he’d have been extremely glad! But sitting in the corner, he could achieve something like that.

And with the sound on those records, the voice and guitar is being mooshed together. It sounds like it’s being compressed – and early field recording did compress a lot. If you look at some of that primitive equipment, being tube and having a lot of headroom, it does tend to compress. I’ve never fiddled with that. I wanted to try it for the movie. We found the machine that they were gonna use to shoot the scene with – they got it out of a museum. I said, “Alright, let me take the machine into the room and load up the corner and see if we get that sound.” As interested as Walter Hill, the director, was in that idea historically, he didn’t have time to mess around. Someday I’m gonna try it, because I just know in my heart it will work. Because I have done it – I have sat in the corner, with earphones, and listened to the sound, and it sounds like that. And it’s a great thing, because all of a sudden the whole projection of the instrument is changed radically by a simple thing like that. [See the Epilogue at the end of this blog.]

I mean, these are the things that Don Law or whoever made those damn records could have answered in two seconds, for Christ’s sake. But nobody asked him. And if you weren’t there, you don’t know. How big was Robert Johnson’s guitar? Somebody said it was big, a Kalamazoo or Gibson – I’ve heard that said. Those are large-bodied guitars. They push some air around. And his hands look funny, bending at the top joint like that. I’m starting to believe that’s him in the photo.

Were you a fan of Tampa Red?
Oh, yeah! Love Tampa Red, of course. Now, if you were to say, “Do you think you sound like any of these people?” I would say it’s easier for me to sound like Tampa Red. I think I’ve got that wired. I don’t think I’m so good at these earlier guys, because they’re so idiosyncratic, but Tampa Red ironed out all the kinks and made it a little more accessible. He played it with a little more of a modern, big-band feeling, like a soloist, almost. Very linear and really, really good. He put it all together, as far as I’m concerned. He got the songs, he had the vocal styling, he had the beat. I really think that it’s a straight line from Tampa Red to Louis Jordan to Check Berry, without a shadow of a doubt – a straight line through those three guys. You really can feel it. And he wrote some songs – or assembled them in the manner of traditional music, where you don’t write so much as you assemble or reassemble – like “It’s Tight Like That” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” That’s a mind who sees how to refine and flesh-out, drawing from all sources. He’s drawing from sources like the Chatmon brothers and the Mississippi Sheiks, Papa Charley Jackson.

Tampa Red put it all together, he really did. He changed it from rural music to commercial music, and he was very popular as a result. Look how successful the guy was – he made hundreds of records, and they’re all good. Some of them are incredibly good, with Washboard Sam and whoever was on piano – that stuff is fabulous! You gotta say, “Okay, that’s where it starts to become almost pop.” It’s a very straight line – him, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry. The development is clear in my mind when I listen to that stuff. It’s good. And he had a great guitar technique too, for sure. Ooh! Non-threatening. I mean, everything about him was fun-sounding. He wasn’t scaring anybody. He didn’t sound like he was gonna eat you alive. He just sounded like we’re all having fun here, like Jim Jackson’s Jamboree and all that stuff. I really love all that.

What did you think of Robert Wilkins?

Well, he’s a great player, a songwriter. That “Prodigal Son” song is a hell of a song. [In 1929, Wilkins recorded his first version as “That’s No Way to Get Along” and later renamed the song “Prodigal Son.” It's at under its original title.] When you get these guys who write from a spiritual reference or point of view, it’s really interesting – like Washington Phillips and all that. Washington Phillips played Doceola [a small keyboard instrument] – different bag, but he had some pretty scary tunes too. Oh, there’s so much. The list goes on and on – it’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s a one- or two-generational thing, coming from almost nowhere. There’s no background for the blues to even exist.

There’s no reference to real blues before 1900.

Yeah. And where would it have come from, unless it’s that cane-fife stuff, wherever that came from. You know, fife-and-drum bands down in Mississippi, like that guy Napoleon Strickland. That stuff seems pre-blues to me. And that seems to be the only thing that I can think of that is.

In parts of antebellum Mississippi, Black Codes forbade the playing of drums after they had been used to spread messages among slaves during a revolt. Maybe this helps account for the differences between the development of black music in New Orleans and Mississippi.

Sure. They had a whole schooled musical tradition in New Orleans. Up until a certain point, the kids all learned regular serious music. They learned how to read music. They also had country bands, like in the South Carolina area, those jump bands playing on broken Confederate horns they found in the field, playing hymns and things. That’s a whole other bag. Do you know The Music from the South series that Frederick Ramsey put together on Folkways? One of the volumes was called Country Brass Bands. He went down there and he recorded two country brass bands, which were kind of loose organizations of guys who knew each other and would play on the weekends or for dances.

Apparently, this started after the Civil War. The Confederate armies all had brass bands and marching bands as part of the morale building. And when they lost, these guys just laid their instruments down in the field and left them. Then after the war goes by and the black people return to the field or their homes, and they actually found these horns in the dirt or left in sheds or I don’t where. In time, they became handed down in families, broken, full of holes, tied together with tape. And they didn’t learn to play like the guys in New Orleans, with proper fingering. They knew only the bugle mouth and a little fingering, all wrong, but they liked these things and so they started playing in bands. You gotta get that record. He found two of these bands – there are about ten guys in each group, and they play some kind of hymns that they know in this style, on broken instruments. They have no chops, they’ve got no mouth embouchure at all. But they play this so it’s strictly from the guts. It’s the life vibration that they live in, a pure expression through a horn rather than, say, a guitar.

Also, in those days when Ramsey was doing this work, in the ’50s, he did an early news magazine show on CBS called Omnibus. You must see this – it’s strictly important. Ramsey did one called something like, “They Took a Blue Note.” It was an hour show of jazz. They came to Ramsey, being the expert at the time, and he put it together for them. It shows him going down into Alabama. You see a little of New Orleans – that’s a really nice funeral there. Then you’re out there and there’s Horace Sprott, who was one of his discoveries, playing the harmonica and plowing the field – that’s kind of stagey and dumb. But all of a sudden, around the corner come five guys behind a barn, and they have these beat-up horns. They stand up and play this stuff, and you just fall on your knees. I’m telling you, you will have a transcendent experience, because it’s right in front of your face. It’s a thing that you can barely believe, but it’s one of the great documents of pure soul. These guys are field hands in the 1950s, they’re all middle-aged men, hard-working guys, and they play these horns in some crazy way. The sound that comes out is utterly mind-boggling. It’s just too good.

I had given up all hope of ever seeing this – I figured, well, that’s gone – but there are still some of these jump bands, as they’re now called, down in the South. I heard one at the Atlanta Blues Festival, called the Old Morrisville Brass Band, from South Carolina, and they play this way. They can’t finger these horns and they can’t change keys, but they’ll blow you right out of your seat. It is good.

Try to make the effort to get a hold of the CBS footage – you won’t be sorry. It belongs in everybody’s collection. It is something else to see. You’re talking deep country here, where some of these scenes were filmed – now it’s probably a mall. Man, that thing with the brass players is hot! It’s riveting. You need to see that, because that’s a pre-blues instrumental expression from the countryside, and that’s Civil War-vintage type of understanding on your instruments. [If any readers find or post this footage, please send a link.]

Besides the fife-and-drum tradition, do other pre-blues forms still survive in the country?

I think that the marching band music is one, because it’s all based on 19th-century music. I think the cane-fife thing is a voice there. And then, of course, we have Joseph Spence, who was a voice from the 19th century – he’s dead now. He was in medicine shows, and he was playing hymns. And have you heard this [1920s] group called the Norfolk Jubilee Quartette with Jimmy Bryant on bass? [Sample track:] Well, I believe they are Geechie, Piedmont-area guys. If they don’t sound like Joseph Spence, then I’ll eat my hat. He does the same thing with his voice. And I know in my heart he heard that group, because that group was hugely popular. And Jimmy Bryant on lead bass was a unique expression [Cooder sings one of Bryant’s deep bass parts] – that’s what Spence is doing all the time. He’s singing that part.

Apparently Jimmy Bryant used to make women fall out and they’d throw their handbags at him and the rest. And he got out in the audience and did the number. So I have a feeling that that minstrel-type gospel shout thing, which we now refer to as quartet style, is a 19th-century style as well. And it sort of survives in pockets down there. There are a few people who still relate to that, but it’s hard to hear anymore. It’s really died out since the era of the soloist kind of wiped it out. But that was a thing that you found in minstrel and church styles way early – I mean, some of those gospel quartet records are way, way early records. So I figure that sort of survives, because church things tend to change slower. People keep their church traditions. And if you went down in the Sea Islands today, where a lot of that music came from, and down around the Norfolk area, you’d hear some of that stuff. I just know you would. It isn’t blues, but there’s blues in it.

And the blues singers listened to church music too, because almost every black was raised up in church. I don’t care if they end up the meanest, nastiest blues singer, they were raised in church. So they were hearing this stuff as a youth, and it’s got to mean something, especially to country people. What else do they have to do but go to church? There’s a strong musical voice in all black music that comes from their experience in church, whatever that may have been. In the case of country people it’s the singing – they didn’t have anything else. That’s why a lot of early records were of preachers.

Around 1902, the Dinwiddie Colored Quartette made some of the first recordings of African-American spiritual music. Have you heard these?
Yes, I have. They sound like a quartet – it’s quartet style. It’s typical church music. [Sample track:] Look, it was the simplest thing for the recording scouts to say, “Well, we know there’s music in the church. We’ll go down the road to find the church, and we’ll ask who’s good and have them come in and sing.” They did that all the time.

Why do you think it took so long for record companies to seriously focus on black musicians?

Nobody thought of them as a market, because they didn’t have any money. They’re poor. You don’t count them. This is a technological thing, and technology is linked to affluence. And then somebody was smart. Ralph Peer was one smart guy who went into the hillbilly hills and figured that these people will but their own music. That’s really a leap of genius. First, you had to sell them the record player. What’s the point of having the records unless you’ve got the record player? So it became a product that furniture stores sold – that’s a known fact. And they actually used to make the records in the back of furniture stores. It was a very concentrated idea. Later on, you had centers of recording, and that’s a whole other story. But I don’t think it was until they began to realize if you can sell something to somebody, go and make it, go and do it. But naturally, technology on any level is linked to where they think they can make money off of it.

Do you think liquor was commonly supplied at country blues sessions?

Yeah, because first of all, you do take people into strange, problem-ridden situations, which is to say, “Mr. Charley says sing, I guess I better sing.” And there’s plenty of that that went on. I can only imagine that these records, on up into modern blues, were made under the most nervous, uncomfortable circumstances imaginable. Because these damn guys weren’t psychologists, they were businessmen. They said, “Boy, you sing.” “Oh, well, alright, sir.” And unless the guy was drunk, maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he was too god-damned scared of white people. Who wouldn’t be? “If I don’t sing, they’ll cut my hands off.” I could believe that, so I figure booze was a way of dealing with a primitive person – get him drunk. Not so much in the case of the church people, who have their religion to kind of shield them, but with blues singers it apparently was true. It’s a thing that’s puzzled me – you know, why liquor was such a deal. Is it because their life is oppressing and hard and they’re unhappy and they drink? I just don’t know why people drink like they do, because I don’t like it myself. So I have a hard time understanding that. But on the other hand, they sing about it and talk about it so much of the time that it must have been about the only fun thing that you could do. That’s why in the modern scene, when you go down to the ghetto, what do you got? You got liquor stores. So that’s obvious. So yeah, they probably used it freely, said “Here, drink this and play.”

I heard that they frequently put pillows under blues guitarists’ feet . . .
To have them stop stomping their foot, because that pushed so much air around. I’m sure they did. They went to lengths to kind of balance it out – that must have been hard too. But the genius of some of those records is beautiful. Some of them are terrible. It’s a question of the engineering capability – where they were, what kind of room.

Plus what kind of 78s survive.
Yeah, man. The 78 is a high-fidelity medium, in a way. It’s going around so fast that it does sound good, except that when they get scratched, they don’t sound not so good!

This interview has been a great help, Ry.
Well, good. Do what you want with it.


Epilogue: We ran the Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson parts of this interview in the July 1990 issue of Guitar Player magazine. Then, in its April 1991 issue, Progressive Architecture magazine responded to Cooder’s theory about why Robert Johnson recorded facing a corner. After four full pages of charts, diagrams, and technological analysis, Technics Editor Kenneth Labs concluded: “Cooder is probably right.” The article’s lead graphic featured the cover of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, with its artist’s rendering of Johnson in the hotel room. I’ve also tried recording acoustic guitarists and spoken word artists this way, and it works.

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  1. Absolutely fascinating stuff, great that you've made this available.

  2. Great. Kudos to you Jas!!

  3. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time reading this interview. Full of revelations.