Deep blues

Aurora “Rory” Block’s music has been known to literally save lives.

“A guy said he decided not to kill himself after hearing my music,” she recalls, describing one particularly poignant fan letter she received.

“Life is short, and it’s fragile,” warns Block. “Don’t forget that it’s a great privilege to be in this miraculous place — and that, if you’re here, you’re chosen.”

Clearly, Block was chosen by the blues. As a young woman, she received the tools of her craft face-to-face and personal from blues performers who were so powerful that they outgrew their own legends. They were the mythic musicians of Mississippi Delta folklore; Block became their unlikely protege and effulgent heir apparent.

Block is one of the most acclaimed and accomplished acoustic-blues guitarists in the world and a poetic, frightfully engaging songwriter. The forceful beauty of her singing seems to summon angels and hellcats to the same crossroads, her voice a lightning bolt ripping the sky on a blue-moon night, connecting this world with the next.

Son House Jr., the co-founder (with Charlie Patton) of the Delta blues, was the teenage Block’s most important mentor. Decades before, House — then in his ’70s — had schooled another youngster, Robert Johnson, who went on to become the most celebrated blues player in history.

Block spent her adolescence prepossessed by blues music, and further inspired by such deities as the Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Bukka White and Fred McDowell. She attended their concerts, visited them in their homes, made music with them in their living rooms. Meanwhile, she developed her individual artistry within the most vibrant vortex of music New York City has ever known. Greenwich Village denizens including John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez hung out in her neighborhood or visited her dad’s Greenwich Village sandal shop — which, by the way, hosted some of the most vital and star-studded “ole timey music” jam sessions of the seminal ’60s. And while others tried to hallucinate themselves away from the furious musical stimulation using drugs, ego, or a destructive combination of the two, Block simply devoured the sounds around her.

Folks have often wondered at the irony of Block’s rich embodiment of the blues. How did a teenage white girl from New York City become inextricably drawn to the music of the black rural South? “How can you explain love?” Block responds poetically: “The music resonated inside me, felt real, beautiful, spoke to what was in my heart, moved my soul. It cried out as I cried out, it wept as I wept, it haunted me and rolled and wandered as I did.

“There had been little or no support while I was growing up for actually having a career,” she continues. “It was all part of being trained that there was something inherently wrong with being female and driven, female and talented. Girls weren’t obsessed with music; that was masculine.”

But Block ignored the naysayers. “I always say that before I’m white, black, male or female, I’m human,” she proclaims. “Inspiration was born in the deepest part of the soul, where boundaries don’t exist. If you live with your soul extending beyond the boundaries of your body, you never see boundaries.”

For Block, the blues are gospel: “[It’s] curative, therapeutic, healing music,” she notes, adding, “My own personal feeling is that … all music is spiritual.”

Block’s whole approach to music is alive. She even learns her songs during live performances, not at home or in the studio — a risky venture, to say the least.

“When I go onstage, that’s where I learn [the music],” she explains. “All of a sudden, it’s a whole new ballgame [when] I realize I don’t know the song — I’ve just got to start playing it live.”

Block’s most recent CD, Confessions of a Blues Singer (Rounder Records, 1998) — her tribute to those past blues masters, on which she covers songs by artists like Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Furry Lewis and Bukka White, as well as unveiling three new originals — was inspired by a vivid dream in which she heard a soaring Charlie Patton slide-guitar riff from his tune “Bo Weevil Blues” … although she hadn’t heard the song for some 30 years.

On Confessions, Block says she wanted to capture the urgency of a live performance, in the rawest form possible. “The technology thing is so intense now, you can really create an artist out of very marginal amounts of material,” she grouses. “You overlap the notes and you cross-fade them and you do this and you do that. … Listening to old records, I realized that the spirit of the music is just not captured by doing that. You really need to just get with that same spirit. There’s a joy there.”

And though Block says she never gives much thought to making her records a commercial success, “they [have] a weird way of doing well.” The music world concurs: She’s recorded or performed with such diverse artists as Stevie Wonder, The Band, Koko Taylor, Bruce Hornsby and her loyally enthusiastic fan Bonnie Raitt — who appears on the new CD.

For the past three years, Block has won W.C. Handy Awards (she was 1998’s Female Artist of the Year) — the highest honor within the international blues community. That recognition nurtures her artistic self-confidence.

“I feel ever so much more secure now, musically,” she confides. “I feel really centered now. I feel like [getting] down to the business of really having the joy with the music.

“When I make a record, I make it for myself first, I really do,” continues Block. “I absolutely know that I love what I’m doing. … It’s very emotional when I make a record.”

That seems to be equally true for her fans.

She explained that an English teacher played Confessions (her 13th Rounder release) to his students. They listened to her autobiographical “Life Song” track, in perfect silence. “And they wanted to hear it again, and they listened to it again, in silence, for 10 minutes,” she explains.

“[The teacher] wrote me and said, ‘Anything that can keep their attention for that period of time is a miracle,'” Block remembers. “And they hauled off and wrote me letters. They wrote and said, ‘I thought my life was the worst, and then I heard your song and I realized I’m going to make it, because you made it. And you didn’t take drugs, and you’re a role model.’

“That’s inspiring,” says Block. “These are really personal letters, and deep letters, revealing that 17-year-olds are adults. … I was blown away. I started crying, reading the letters, and I realized that something in that song was actually inspiring to other people. This is such a reward to me: Words can’t say.”

Indeed, for Block, inspiring her fans in a positive way seems to be the ultimate reward. “The feeling that I get from [my] audiences, the feedback I got from those 17-year-olds … that means more to me than money. I’d probably be rich if I didn’t feel that way, but that satisfaction means way more to me. Money means nothing to me, compared to that.”

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