The Blues Lesson: Part 1

First time I met the Blues . . .

Johannesburg and the blues. Not a connection everyone would make. I think of a city of concrete and wind, seamed with railway tracks, hot and open to the sky. I think of the smell from abattoirs and men in pork pie hats sidling up with stolen watches. I’ve never been to Chicago but for me this is the landscape that fits the music: urban, harsh and unforgiving.

David Clough UKAt the age of nineteen I was living in a cheap boarding house in Johannesburg. It was east of Hillbrow; an area of the city that is now a hopped up playground for drug dealers and West African entrepreneurs; but in those days was still vaguely cosmopolitan, with German bier-kellers, Viennese coffee bars and hippy markets.

I was nearly twenty, doing my first professional job as an actor. I knew nobody. I had very little money and a lot of time on my hands. My days were spent tramping the hot streets of the city or more frequently drifting around the junk and second hand shops. Eventually I scraped up enough to buy a record player and began collecting albums.

At first these were the usual recordings by the Doors, the Stones and other “progressive” rock bands of that era. The other stuff came later and it came, I admit it, from the same impulse that makes teenagers read Sartre and Rimbaud. It wasn’t easy but it was kind of eclectic and cool.

EMudOne of the first blues records I bought was a 1968 album by Muddy Waters, “Electric Mud”, with a booklet of photographs portraying the legend having his hair done up in an outrageous pompadour. (A blatant attempt by Leonard Chess to re-package the blues for the youth market by adding feedback and fuzz to such classics as “Mannish Boy”). Maybe a purist would have sneered but it wasn’t a bad place to start.

The point is that, for my generation, music was our identity and culture: a mythical America reinterpreted for us by young white bands. It didn’t take long to work out that the “mojo” they were singing about came from an older, more powerful source.

And if it took me longer than most, I always was slow to catch on.

Thinking back now, I can trace the moment to a YMCA in Cape Town. There was a drifter like myself, over-fond of sucking smoke through broken coke bottles. When he was truly stoned, red eyed and dreamy, he would hammer out a basic twelve bar boogie on the untuned piano they had there. This simple skill seemed to be the one thing he was proud of. And strangely that crude sound set off a vibration. It put something in motion – though quite what it was I didn’t know yet.

It was incongrous, sure. But then there’s a built in incongruity in listening to sweaty Chicago bluesmen when the African sun is beating down outside. The distance between the black world and the white one is easily understood though. For someone born in in Newcastle or Richmond, perhaps this is what creates the romance. For a white boy raised in Africa it touches on something deeper: the gulf between you and the other culture you live with and which is part of your daily experience, your life.

During those eight months in Johannesburg, the only black person I spoke more than a few words to was the bartender at the theatre. We would talk about music. When I ran out of money, he would make me sandwiches on credit and once I bought him some guitar strings for a friend.

After several months, George (I hazily remember his name) offered to show me his room on the roof of the building. It was a bare walled brick cell, furnished monastically. A large part of it was taken up by an old fashioned, church style Hammond organ that must have taken him years to save up for. Seated at it, George played for me a halting selection of Wesleyan and Xhosa hymns. I wouldn’t have called him a friend, our relationship was too wary and awkward, but he was the first black person in that country to voluntarily invite me into his home.

A lot of what follows is about this: the attempt to understand. You might call that naive and in a sense you would be right. Some of it it is downright embarassing to remember. I was younger then and I like to think I have matured. But the reason I keep coming back to the blues – even as I get older – is universal. I’m not ashamed of that and I hope I never will be.

© 2004

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