Country-Blues Confessional

Rory Block has been summoning ghosts of the blues for the past 40 years

Like every artist who works with the sometimes fragile, sometimes unwieldy stuff of real life, Block somehow endows her personal stories with a representative quality. The woman at the center of "Mother Marian," for instance, becomes a figure for Block's own connection to the blues and for the unexpected intimacies that define what it means to be alive. "I met Marian," Block says, "and I thought she was the greatest lady. She was just a walking piece of history. There was this choir in a church in Chatham (not far from Block's home). I went down and joined the choir, and there was Marian, 92 years old, and she would sit in back. We became a part of each other's lives. She became my grandmother, and I became her granddaughter. And I became her guardian."

Block is indeed a guardian of the blues, a genre that, despite all the attempts to dilute it with gutless imitation and vapid posturing, retains a white-hot core of human truth. But as a contemporary artist, Block knows the difference history can make: "I often say, 'It's good to try to play Robert Johnson covers; it's good to put the energy and love into those songs.' But let's get one thing straight: No one is going to be Robert Johnson. When a new artist does a song, it's something new. You have to say, 'I love this because of what it is now.' Nothing has the ring of historic beauty when it's first created."

For all the torture of Robert Johnson's music and the anguish of her own songs, Block remains convinced that the power of blues lies not in its very real desolation but in its promise of communion. "Anytime people know that other people are going through something similar, it's healing," she says. "If you think you're the only person on earth going through a problem, that's the definition of crazy. You think, 'I'm totally isolated; this has never happened to anyone else.' But everybody has pain, flaws and difficulties. If you listen to a song and it hits on exactly what you went through, it's totally comforting. That's the healing element in writing about difficult, painful subjects. When you listen to Robert Johnson's songs, you may feel like you know this man. When you hear someone sing the nitty-gritty, you wonder, 'How did they know?' That's what blues does. It touches another person."

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