If blues were really easy to create, more people who do it would get it right. In plain fact, make a blues record is extraordinarily difficult. The artist is handed a range of rudiments-lyric tropes, rhythms, instrumentation, vocal approach-and asked to use and them to achieve the most intensely personal expression, which can only be achieved by extending and bending the rules without quite breaking them apart. When you hear someone who knows how to put this stuff together in such a fashion - whether that person is Blind Willie McTell or Robert Bradley, Son House or Alvin Youngblood-Hart, Howlin' Wolf or Stevie Ray Vaughan - an utterly singular personality emerges from a stereotype. Think of it as the shock of the unique.
Otis Taylor has been making blues music for a long time, since he was a teenager, and with only intermittent support, since he's based out in the Rocky Mountains around Denver. But he nailed down a solid blues personality with his first album, When Negroes Walked the Earth, and on his new one, White African, he comes pretty close to going the distance.
Taylor has a singular instrumental presence. Mostly, he's about heavily strummed hollow body guitar, somewhat in the Lightnin' Hopkins mode, but he also plays electric banjo ("Banjocaster"), mandolin, harp and regular banjo. He uses train track rhythm commandingly and he uses stark runs and John Lee Hooker basslines (some provided by Kenny Passarelli) to provide a bed for his meditative lyrics.
Mostly, he's singing about death. In the opening song, a black hobo is accused of murder in 1930s Louisiana; in the next, Jesus is about to be crucified or else a man with a terminal illness that might be AIDS thinks he is; in the next, a man begs his mother not to expire; in the next, a father without health insurance tries to think of ways to protect his dying baby, who is heard crying in the cardboard box that is their home. In the album's most exhilarating track, the son of a Navajo woman and a runaway slave loses his horse, gets drunk and imagines that he's dying. In "Hungry People," which concludes the set, a homeless woman in contemporary time tells of a world full of hungry people-it's quite literally a song about mass starvation.
The album's greatest song, by far, is "Saint Martha Blues." It's based on a true account of Taylor's great-grandfather being lynched and his grandmother's heroic response. Its bitterly explicit opening verses, which feature Martha going to collect a body hung and then torn to pieces blow away any other song about lynching, including "Strange Fruit." Taylor sent me a preliminary copy way last summer and I've been listening to it ever since. It stuns me that something so nakedly cruel can also be so captivating, that within a tragedy that still does drive some folks mad, Taylor has found beauty, even if it is a very savage beauty.
That is what blues music is all about. It is why the blues is the supreme artistic accomplishment of the American people, and it is why every other significant music form to emerge from this continent can trace either a line straight back to blues or a lineage exactly parallel to it.
"Taylor sent me a preliminary copy way last summer and I've been listening to it ever since. It stuns me that something so nakedly cruel can also be so captivating...Taylor has found beauty, even if it is a very savage beauty."