Music Collecting – The Blues

A long time ago, I wrote this piece about collecting classical music. It was so long ago that it was on a different blog. I’m still working on the project of cataloging my record collection. After I finished classical, I moved on to blues. It’s taken me a while to get everything in, but now I’ve finished blues and am ready to move on to something else.

Blues took a lot longer to catalogue, partly because it’s bigger than my classical collection. I know I’m missing some, but I put 675 blues albums into the catalogue. It’s funny, that doesn’t even sound like a big number to me. It also took a long time because the database is woefully incomplete when it comes to blues. Probably a third of my collection was not even listed and I had to add the releases to the database. And more than half that were in there were incomplete, bare bones entries that I had to update. I know that no one was making me do it, but it takes a long time to add a complete entry.

Like classical, it was fun going through my blues collection. There were some that I distinctly remembered where, when and why I got them. There were others that I had completely forgotten about. Mostly, it gave me a good excuse to listen to a bunch of things that I haven’t listened to in a while. It reaffirmed that blues is my favorite style of music.

My taste in blues pretty much runs the gamut. I’m not a big fan of blues rock. Otherwise, East Coast, West Coast, Delta, Chicago, Texas, New Orleans and even some British are all good with me. I’m definitely not a purist or a snob about it. I tend to think of all worthwhile American music as being a type of blues. Good country is just blues by white people. Jazz is blues with a different set of instruments. Rock is non-country blues by white people. But for this project, I pretty much stuck to what is typically labeled as blues. I kept what most people call rock, R&B, country, zydeco and jazz out of it.

Blues is a really misunderstood genre. People have this image of it being depressing. But, like any other type of music, it covers all the emotions. There are plenty of songs about heartbreak, but there are also songs about being in love, about partying, about traveling, about politics and anything else you can think of. Some of it is for listening, but a ton of it is for dancing.

For me, it all started with John Lee Hooker. I didn’t know anything about the blues as a kid. It wasn’t exactly pop music in the 80s. I had heard some blues from guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton, but I didn’t even really recognize it as blues. Then, I read an interview with Keith Richards where he said something to the effect that if he inspired one person to check out John Lee Hooker, his career has been worthwhile. That got me curious, so the next time I gathered my paper route money and went to the record store, I blindly grabbed a John Lee Hooker album, 20 Greatest Hits. It was a bargain bin collection. There were no liner notes, no credits. It just had a picture of him on the cover and a list of songs on the back. I had never heard anything like it. The guitar was so idiosyncratically personal. The voice was so deep (not in the pitch sense, but in the profound sense). If this was the blues, I had to learn more.

Since the album I had didn’t give me anything to go on, I started with the famous artists, the B.B. Kings and Muddy Waters and whatnot. When I turned sixteen, I also started looking for blues artists who were playing nearby. Through that I rediscovered B.B. King and discovered Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Etta James, Robert Cray and such. I also started reading the liner notes on every new album I got. I noticed that Junior Wells kept showing up on Buddy Guy releases, so I checked him out. I also paid close attention whenever the notes mentioned an influence and bought those, guys like T-Bone Walker and Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. Finally, I started reading magazines, Living Blues and Blues Review, and became familiar with all of the new artists. It’s funny, what took me years of study and trial and error as a kid could be done in an afternoon now with the internet.

It’s hard to pick, but I think Muddy Waters has to be my favorite. I didn’t even discover him in the normal way. The first record of his I got was I’m Ready from 1978 on the Blue Sky label. I loved it. It was only after that that I found his classic, famous records from the fifties and sixties on Chess. I think if I were stuck listening to only one album for the rest of my life, I would want that album to be Folk Singer. It’s from 1964 and features Muddy on guitar and vocals, Buddy Guy on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums.

Muddy Waters’ stiffest competition may come from Mississippi John Hurt. Their styles couldn’t be more different. While Mud is all swagger and usually played with a full, electric band, John Hurt is gentle and played by himself. It’s just him and a finger-picked acoustic guitar. And it’s brilliant. He made his first recordings in 1928. Then the depression hit. He didn’t make another recording until the sixties during the folk boom. Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me is basically perfect. I’ve often had the thought that if you’re not listening to Mississippi John Hurt right now, there’s something better you could be doing.

Willie Dixon is the most credited person in my collection. Between his songwriting, producing, bass playing and singing, he’s on nearly a quarter of all the releases I have. If you’re not a blues fan, there’s a good chance you aren’t familiar with him, but you know his songs. He wrote Seventh Son, I Just Want To Make Love To You, Spoonful, Hoochie Coochie Man, You Shook Me and probably a thousand others. He was also a fascinating person. He sat out World War II as a conscientious objector. He said that until black people were treated like citizens in America, he couldn’t justify joining the army and fighting for the country. He worked tirelessly later in his career to recover money that had been stolen from black artists by their white producers and managers. He’s really worth learning about.

While going through my collection, I couldn’t help but notice how the music has changed. Now, blues is a guitarist’s genre. That wasn’t always the case. In the early days, there were cornets and clarinets, banjos and accordions, harmonicas and mandolins, washboards and pianos and fiddles and kazoos. Those instruments still exist, but they are mostly used in other genres now. It really bums me out that blues piano and blues harmonica are lost art forms now.

Like Keith Richards, I’d like to think that maybe this will get someone to check out the blues. With YouTube, Spotify and Pandora, it’s really easy to do. The music is truly wonderful. If you check it out, I promise you won’t be sorry. And if you want any guidance, I’d be happy to help.

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