More than almost any other genre of music, the blues is caught in the trap of authenticity.
To the purist, for something to be truly blues it must sound like the blues, meeting technical standards of chords and rhythms; feel like the blues, with themes of sex, drugs, death and redemption elaborated by a singer who has “the blues”; and come from a certain group of people — namely, poor African-Americans (mostly men) in the South — the only ones qualified to sing the blues.
Blues purists, as Terry Zwigoff’s recent film Ghost World made clear, aren’t very much fun. They might be able to identify an artist by the opening guitar lick on a scratchy 78 and name every “Blind Willy” that ever put his name to vinyl — but when it comes to accepting new music, especially if it calls itself blues, they’d much rather dig up a record made in 1928 and give it yet another listen.
Blues music, perhaps the 20th century’s most organic art form, has been all but killed by people so intent on preserving it they’ve suffocated the folks who still play it.
For most of her career, Rory Block has tried to bridge the gap between blues purists and the people who’d rather hear the blues at a club instead of out of a Victrola. Guitar World calls her acoustic blues “so true to Delta tradition that they might have been honed on the banks of the Mississippi,” and it seems that Block has built her somewhat uneven career on the fact that she can impeccably duplicate the blues of Son House and other “real” blues musicians (many of whom she met in the ’60s). Place a Block recording next to the original and it sounds almost identical, with the added benefit of better recording technology. Even the timbre of Block’s voice nicely matches the falsetto many blues singers used in their songs.
But Block is a woman, a child of the ’60s, a native of New Jersey — and, if you’re a purist, unqualified to sing the blues. The quality of her guitar-playing and the power of her voice have always been ignored by those who refuse to acknowledge what they hear — a blues singer who manages to breathe life into songs that have long lain dormant in record collections.
The blues comes from a people burdened by poverty, racism and hard luck. Block and other white blues singers are also burdened by the circumstance of their birth — she’s spent a career not only playing the blues but justifying her right to do so. Her efforts have paid off, and now Block is getting the recognition she richly deserves for her technique.
The sticking point with Block, and with blues music, is how much one should try to duplicate and how much one should try to make new. Other modern women blues singers (Susan Tedeschi, for example) face some of the same pressures Block does, with one notable exception: They are not, like Block, trying to emulate note-for-note the songs of the Delta bluesmen. Block does try to work in other genres and occasionally writes her own songs, but her recent albums prove that her talent largely seems to be playing other people’s songs.
Block can sing a line like Robert Johnson’s “If I had possession over judgment day/Lord, the little woman I’m lovin’ wouldn’t have no right to pray” with fiery conviction — but when she sings of her own life her music, especially the lyrics, drop off considerably. On her 1998 album, Confessions of a Blues Singer (Rounder), we hear such tepid lines as “I dropped out of the music to raise a family/I knew I’d never make it, I was told repeatedly” (from “Life Song”). The dullness of her own songwriting raises questions about her duplication of blues music, no matter how soulful she sounds summoning the ghosts of Robert Johnson, Furry Lewis and Blind Willie McTell.
With her new album, I’m Every Woman (Rounder, 2002), Block turns her talents to soul music, attacking songs such as the title track and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” with mixed results. Block has the voice for it and even manages to transform the songs in ways she doesn’t attempt with her blues covers. But when Block returns to the blues — here, she does best with “Sea Lion Woman” and “Rock Island Line” — her talent emerges again. The best moments on the album — Block’s cover of the mountain standard “Pretty Polly” proves her equally adept with ballads — come when she’s just trying to show how much she loves a song by playing it as she imagines it would have been played.
In a way, if blues purists gave Block a chance, they might find less to offend them than they do in most other blues singers of our generation.
Now that we’re in phase three of the blues — the first being the 1930s discovery of the music, then the 1960s rediscovery of many of the same performers — it’s becoming clear that we have to decide what blues is, and whether that question matters.
Block, like many of her generation, has defined blues music as the foundation of everything that followed, and she plays to remind us of the richness of the songs put to vinyl in the 1920s and ’30s. She doesn’t offer the same pleasure as “authentic” bluesman R.L. Burnside — but she does make clear why people like herself were so drawn to the blues in the first place. By playing the blues so well, Block makes the tired debate of what the blues really is irrelevant. All we need to know is this — Block plays the blues and plays them well. We don’t need to know if she has them to have a good time.