When Muddy Waters said some years ago, “Ain’t too many left that play the real deep blues,” it wasn’t even half as true then as it is now. The one-way arrow of time takes us ever further from the Delta stomping grounds of the wronged, restless black sharecroppers who forged the Delta Blues, men who were still commodities in the eyes of their bosses decades after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Eventually the Delta flooded and the soulful muddy blues flowed north with the hobos on the Illinois Central to Chicago, where the music of dirt roads, mule work and shotgun shacks was electrified and urbanized. Many of the deepest bluesmen were “discovered” late in life. They shined their muddy torches into the creative core of Robert Johnson, Taj Mahal, and Rory Block, before they died.
Rory Block was born in Princeton, N.J. and raised in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Consequently, Block grew up on a steady diet of the finest American roots music at a time when the city was a hotbed of rediscovered legends. Apprenticing directly with the likes of Son House, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Fred McDowell and countless others instilled a musical authenticity in Block that would have been impossible for her to develop in any other setting.
To get a hint of what I’m talking about, dig this Rory Block quote: “I remember sitting in the living room with Son House (he looked like he was in his 50s but he had to be in his 70s), and playing ‘Future Blues’ and ‘Walkin’ Blues’ for him. He got this strange look on his face and he just kept looking around saying, ‘Where’d she learn to play these songs?’ I’ll never forget watching him play ‘Preachin’ Blues’ on stage with his hands shaking and his eyes rolled back in his head. His passion was awesome. He told me that he taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar. Robert Johnson’s style and delivery were closer to Son House’s than any other player—he played a lot of the same songs. I could see clearly that Robert Johnson had emulated this man with a few touches of Willie Brown’s snapping and thumping. I loved Son House because of who he was and because he had known Robert Johnson, but I couldn’t find a way to express this to him other than playing the old songs for him. I was 15 at the time.”
Could Block have known at the time that she was so hot that she was destined to become a bearer of that same torch? Taj Mahal sums up her talent this way: “I love it, I love it! She’s simply the best there is!” So how is it that the music of disenfranchised black men can incubate in such a seemingly unlikely place as in a white woman?
“It’s not your skin” says Block. “It’s your soul.”
Consider the parallels between the female and black experience; look no further than the sexism and racism in the music industry. Dig the singing, dancing, belly button Britney Barbie Dolls marketed by cynical men. Sexploitation. Blaxploitation. The voices of the marginalized and exploited have a lot in common. Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside once said, “The way people was treated back in the olden days, that’s what the blues is all about. Working for the man, you couldn’t say nothing, but you could sing about it.”
The blues belong to the ranks of outlaw art, along with reggae and jazz. And the blues reserve the right to fully inhabit their local environment, be it geographical spiritual, or sexual. Thus, there is plenty of room for a white woman to play the Delta Blues.
Just remember, as Dana Jennings of The New York Times pointed out: “Squeaky-voiced pseudo-vixens with hyperactive breasts need not apply.”
As well as mastering the Delta Blues and writing bottomless songs, Block is a natural at R&B, from Marvin Gaye to Chaka Khan.
Says Art Tipaldi of Blues Revue: “Listening to her sing Al Green’s ‘I’m so tired of being alone,’ is a plea from the dark end of the street.”
Rory Block is as big as she can be without surrendering her authenticity. To see her live is to be in the presence of greatness, a chance to dip your cup into the Big Easy.