Country-Blues Confessional

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

Mar 21, 2001 at 4:00 am
I shared the stage with Fred McDowell, I was his biggest fan
Someone jumped up shouting, "She plays just like a man!" ... she plays just like a man
Whatever that might be
-- from "Life Story" by Rory Block

"Over what seems like zillions of years," Rory Block says from her home in upstate New York, "it feels like pieces are falling into place. It's a privilege to do what I love. Don't get me wrong; it's hard work. But the joy of performing balances the stresses of being on the road."

Block doesn't recall the last time she played St. Louis, but that's understandable. She has been on the road for more than three decades and has seen the country blues -- the genre for which she is the finest contemporary avatar and advocate -- emerge from the margins of popular culture to a place of unassailable influence and acclaim.

"When I started," Block says, "the most minute number of people were interested in roots country blues. It was the most eclectic, unknown field of music to be in. Even folk music was more, quote, commercial than country blues. It wasn't even rock & roll blues, like the various big rock/blues artists played. The lowest spot on the rung was country blues. In the early '70s, no record company even wanted to consider signing a country-blues artist, unless it was 'Kicking Mule Records,' somebody's basement label run by fans who were reissuing blues albums. But the major labels didn't want to hear about that. Either you did rock & roll or you were a songwriter, and that gave some legitimacy, but you couldn't really do it in the country-blues style. You had to do it in the pop style."

Over the course of some 17 albums, Block has become an original American artist, one of the most intense, multifaceted and electric nonelectric performers on the landscape of American vernacular music. It is perhaps too easy (and more than a little patronizing) to note that she has become a master of the blues despite being a white woman, born and raised in New York City. What matters, finally, is the force of her music. You hear the way she transforms a simple blues phrase into an animal moan, the way she attacks her guitar like an avenging angel -- and all questions of authenticity and legitimacy vanish in the blaze of her sound.

In the early '60s, surrounded by the Greenwich Village folk-and-blues revival, Block took to the deep-country blues like lightning to a kite-strung key. She befriended such blues artists as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House and Mississippi John Hurt and devoured the obscure recordings dug up by every blues collector she knew. Many of her contemporaries copped the licks, imitated the accents, stole the structures; some, like Van Ronk and Dylan, made the music of the Rev. Gary Davis and Lightnin' Hopkins their own. Block's connection, though, has always seemed more visceral and immediate, as though she weren't merely digging into a demanding style but surrendering to its every ecstasy.

"There's something so eclectic and different about country blues," Block says, "that I don't think about whether I wrote the song or whether I'm interpreting it. I just do it. When I do 'People Get Ready' or a Van Morrison tune, I feel like I am interpreting. With country blues, I have such a personal connection to it. I can't explain that to anyone. People always ask me why was I so connected to it. I don't know. My heart was there. It felt like I was there. I'm not saying, 'I wrote that.' That would be crazy. But I don't think of it as being an interpretation. I think of it as being inside the music."

As a songwriter, Block has fused the open-ended, autobiographical style of Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan with an almost journalistic simplicity of language, which is also the transparency of the blues. "My dad is a writer, and he has the same approach," Block says, "Just tell it; don't worry about the rhymes. It's more important to me to just tell the story." When she details the end of an affair, her images are as brutal and direct as the experience itself: "As I held your hand so tightly, I felt the closing of the door/In your eyes I saw that you were gone, a mask and nothing more." The two self-penned narratives on her most recent album, Confessions of a Blues Singer, are both remarkable for the unaffected art that emerges from a take-it-straight reflection on concrete events.

I left home at 15, I struck out on the road
There were three of us to start with, driving through the dawn
We lost control and spun out in a field at 2 a.m.
The police looked us up and down but they did not take us in
-- from "Life Story"

When she was four years old her mother died of fever
They just closed the bedroom door and said your mama's gone forever
They stripped her of her clothes and shaved her head while she cried
Said that hair wasn't clean but she couldn't understand
-- from "Mother Marian"

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."