Dulltown, UK/Europe: Today’s giraffe is the the one trying to get down low enough to tie a shoe lace that has come undone.
I remember sitting on the grass in the sunshine in Queen’s Gardens, here in Dulltown with two or three friends, many years ago; I think that’s how it all began. I was probably aged about seventeen or eighteen, I was on a physics and maths course at the technical college – yes, that’s the one, just over the road there.
Another acquaintance sauntered over to say hello; under his arm he had an LP record; on the sleeve was a grainy black and white photo, it showed the lined face of a middle-aged black chap who was looking rather serious.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked.
‘It’s Lightnin’ Hopkins.’ he responded.
‘Oh.’ I said.
‘It’s blues,’ he said, and added, ‘you play a bit of guitar, don’t you? Want to borrow it?’
‘Alright,’ I said.
Well, that was probably the start of it all. I suppose I’d heard of ‘blues’ (often referred to as ‘the blues’, but later we always just called it ‘blues’) but back then I wasn’t really sure what it was. I had a vague idea that it was something to do with jazz, which I had already decided that I didn’t like very much. But on playing the record, I realised that Mr Hopkins didn’t seem to be like jazz at all; happily there were no brash trumpets and relentless saxophones grinding away on the record, it was just Mr Hopkins’s voice, and his guitar, oh, and some tracks had a little bass and tasteful brushed snare drum on them too.
But it was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
It certainly wasn’t rock and roll, or pop music, or anything like those dreary crooners on the radio, or even the by then well established, and not very convincing, cocky upstart Elvis P.
No, Lightnin’ had a resonant (and sometimes rather drunken) commanding passionate voice with a Southern US accent; the sort of voice that a classically trained singer would have a really good sneer at.
It was magic.
It was also a little window into another world a million miles from cosy Britain and Dulltown. I’d heard of course that black people in the US were being treated in a really shitty and appalling manner. Here I was, listening to their music. Mr Presley, mentioned above, had obviously heard it too, taken it, stripped it down, grabbed some of the vital parts and then rehashed it for his nice young white audience.
Lightnin’s guitar playing was monumental; it was simple, filled with subtlety and charm; he didn’t give a toss for verse structure and timing; he was spontaneous and dynamic.
That was it, I loved blues music from then on. I went on to discover: Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Buddy Guy, Memphis Minnie, Elmore James, Skip James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters… well, all those people.
I still have a guitar handy at home. It’s funny, but I never get fed up with playing those blues riffs and tunes that I’ve known for years – you always play them slightly differently, and they are impossible to wear out. There is a lot of pleasure to be had in playing just two or three notes of a blues riff – yes, just two or three, you don’t need to show off and be flashy, doing mad expert runs up and down wearing the fingerboard out. The best ones in blues are short and repeated, but the magic is in how you play them – a little subtle bend up in pitch, a loud note cut short followed by a carefully measured ounce of hanging silence, a note played soft followed by one played viciously, almost breaking the string, a note hammered on from a semitone below to make it jump out and be noticed.
You can go online to find out how to play blues riffs, you can find out what the notes are to play, say Smokestack Lightning – there they are, written for you, there are only five or six of them – see, it’s a piece of cake! There you go, you can play them, that sounds alright doesn’t it?
But then you play the original by Howlin’ Wolf. Ah yes, there goes the riff… Hang on, just a minute, why doesn’t mine sound like that? Then Wolf’s voice comes in, and you immediately feel threatened, and a bit scared, and slightly embarrassed, for even trying…