RE: The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker

The Hook’s original original folk blues classic turns 60

John Lee Hooker The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker, Craft Recordings 1959/2019

The career of blues legend John Lee Hooker, much like his music, took a different tack than most Mississippi Delta bluesmen. Living in Detroit rather than Chicago during the bulk of his career, Hooker’s music was rhythmic, hypnotic, and downright primitive compared to the more sophisticated Chicago blues sound.

Hooker pioneered the rhythmic style of blues that became known as “boogie,” which was based on the boogie-woogie pianists of the 1930s and ’40s and, in doing so, he would greatly influence rock music from the Rolling Stones to the White Stripes.

Born either in Tutwiler, Mississippi or maybe near Clarksdale in either 1917 or 1920 (or any other year…take your pick, as Hooker often did), John Lee was the youngest of eleven children born to a sharecropper and Baptist preacher. Hooker’s parents separated when he was young, and he would be introduced to blues guitar by his stepfather, Will Moore. Hooker’s modal, single-note playing style was influenced by Moore’s friends like Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

After a brief stay in Memphis, Hooker moved to Detroit in 1943, attracted by the availability of work in the auto industry. Becoming a popular draw on the Motor City blues scene, Hooker began recording in 1948, scoring an R&B chart hit with his first single, “Boogie Chillen.” Signed by Modern Records, Hooker continued a string of hits through the rest of the 1940s and well into the ‘50s with songs like “Crawlin’ King Snake” and “I’m In the Mood.” Paid by the song, Hooker recorded dozens of sides under various aliases like “Delta John,” “Texas Slim,” and “John Lee Booker” for a number of labels, making the compilation of a complete Hooker discography nearly impossible.  

Hooker was still enjoying the occasional R&B chart hit in the late ‘50s when white audiences began to get hip to the blues. As African-American musical tastes were beginning to change towards soul and R&B – and spurred on by the rediscovery of long-retired Southern bluesmen like Furry Lewis, Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Mississippi John Hurt – country blues (also known as “folk blues”) found renewed popularity. Traditional bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were marketed as “folk blues” artists and found success on the 1960s-era festival circuit, often making more money than they ever had during their careers.

Back cover of Country Blues

Record labels soon jumped on board the fast-moving trend, urging urban (and urbane) bluesmen like Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Memphis Slim, among others, to pick up an acoustic guitar or harmonica and strum a few songs to be sold to these newfound “folk blues” fans. Chess Records notoriously pushed the envelope as far as possible, releasing a glut of titles under their The Real Folk Blues series well into the late 1960s, far past their “sell-by” date. Hooker was certainly not immune to the trend, with albums like 1961’s The Folk Lore of John Lee Hooker and 1964’s Original Folk Blues released during the early years of the decade.

However, The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker, originally released in 1959, was a good couple of years ahead of the bourgeoning “folk blues” trend. One of three John Lee albums released that year (including House of Blues on Chess and Vee-Jay’s I’m John Lee Hooker), the eclectic and uniquely electric bluesman was an unlikely candidate for “folk blues” stardom. Recently reissued for the first time in decades on 180-gram vinyl by Craft Recordings, this often-overlooked collection of what the late music critic Robert Palmer called “deep blues” presents a stirring set of songs that shows Hooker digging deep into his Mississippi roots to deliver raw-boned and deeply-nuanced performances.  

The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker was originally imagined as an entirely different album. Producer Bill Grauer, the owner of Riverside Records, wanted Hooker to record a collection of Leadbelly songs, Huddie Leadbetter’s “songster” folk blues style popular with white record-buyers at the time. But, as noted music historian and biographer Charles Shaar Murray wrote in his excellent 2000 book Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker In the American Twentieth Century, “this overly literal-minded notion of what was and what wasn’t ‘folk’ rapidly foundered when it became apparent that Hooker had barely heard of Leadbelly.” Left to his own devices (and memory), Hooker nevertheless came up with a solid set of songs, some half-remembered, some obviously improvised, to which he gives each a uniformly dynamic performance, just the singer and his guitar.

The album opens with the old-school Blind Lemon Jefferson song “Black Snake” (a/k/a “Black Snake Moan”). Hooker’s quivering voice rides atop a traditional blues riff, gaining in strength and volume as the recording tape rolls before reaching a subdued conclusion. It’s a shocking performance for fans accustomed to Hooker’s raucous electrified blues, but it’s no less powerful, the singer pouring his heart into the reading. A cover of Leroy Carr’s “How Long Blues,” itself an enduring blues standard, is provided a soulful vocal performance accompanied by Hooker’s casual guitar strum.

Two Hooker “originals” follow; both songs most likely adaptations of long-lost tunes heard by the singer decades previous. “Wobblin’ Baby” offers bawdy lyrics delivered above jaunty, rhythmic guitar, but “She’s Long, She’s Tall, She Weeps Like A Willow Tree” is more interesting, Hooker’s Piedmont blues-styled guitar licks supporting a complex set of lyrics slightly less direct than the previous songs, but no less lusty in nature. Charlie Patton’s “Pea Vine Special” is performed as close to the original in spirit as Hooker remembered, his sonorous vocals humming hypnotically above a Patton-styled circular guitar riff.

Hooker’s “Tupelo Blues” is the album’s true revelation, a potent “talking blues” song that features the singer’s voice roaring above a single mesmerizing chord played behind his memories of the great Delta flood of 1927, an event that inspired Patton’s classic song “High Water Everywhere.” Hooker’s “Tupelo Blues” became one of the bluesman’s signature songs, and he would perform it for years after this recording. The album’s first side closes with Carr’s “I’m Prison Bound,” Hooker’s deft six-string picking and mournful vocals perfectly capturing the despair of the original.

Cover art for the expanded edition of Country Blues

Side two of The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker starts off strong with “I Rowed A Little Boat,” Hooker’s second tale of the 1927 flood, a song inspired by Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.” The song departs from the style of its predecessor, haunted by a spectral recurring guitar riff, Hooker’s wavering voice channeling the spirits of thousands of Mississippians left broke and homeless by the natural disaster. Hooker’s “Water Boy” is a surprisingly wide departure from his signature electric style, the song’s chain-gang chants and staggering rhythmic cadence matched by the force of the singer’s vocals and growled, non-verbal emotional groans.

According to Murray, writing in Boogie Man, Hooker’s “Church Bell Tone” was derived from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Two White Horses.” Hooker changes the words around a bit, it seems, delivering a haunting performance on a tale of life and death accompanied by some fine improvised guitar. Hooker would actually re-record the song a couple years later as “Two White Horses” for his 1961 collection of acoustic performances, Teachin’ the Blues. By contrast, “Bundle Up and Go” is a fleet-fingered and fleet-of-foot story of a man on the run from his responsibilities, Hooker singing some uncharacteristically humorous lyrics atop a spry finger-picked soundtrack. John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s blues standard “Good Morning Lil’ School Girl” is imbued with a reverent acoustic performance, Hooker substituting his raging guitar licks for Williamson’s equally rowdy harmonica runs and providing the song with a confident, resounding vocal reading.

The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker ends with “Behind the Plow,” Hooker’s autobiographical memories of the back-breaking routine of plantation life delivered with energy and no little emotional relief, the subject best looked at in the rear-view mirror. While The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker didn’t light up the R&B charts, neither was it designed to. Writing in Boogie Man, Murray says “the release of Country Blues didn’t so much advance John Lee’s existing career as give him an entirely new one. The album garnered ecstatic reviews in publications ranging from the Washington Post to downbeat; folk and jazz critics striving to outdo each other’s superlatives in praise of a main whose music they had never previously deigned to acknowledge.”

Not all critics were enamored of Hooker’s detour away from his signature electric blues sound, however. Quoted by Murray in Boogie ManGoldmine magazine’s Colin Escott wrote in the early ‘90s, “Hooker’s folk blues albums also featured him playing acoustic guitar. This was the man for whom the electric instrument might almost have been invented, and these stabs at ‘authenticity’ arguably resulted in some of the least authentic music to bear John Lee Hooker’s name.” In his review of the album for All Music Guide, music historian Richie Unterberger wrote, “He plays nothing but acoustic guitar, and seems to have selected a repertoire with old-school country-blues in mind. It’s unimpressive only within the context of Hooker’s body of work; in comparison with other solo outings, the guitar sounds thin, and the approach restrained.”

Nevertheless, as unexpected as Hooker’s turn as a “country” bluesman may have been, given his lengthy recording history, The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker opened heretofore locked doors for the artist. Says Murray, “it was in the wake of Country Blues that John Lee Hooker the acoustic troubadour would be welcomed into places whence John Lee Hooker the raucous city bluesman would have been indignantly turned away.” Hooker would subsequently perform in his new acoustic guise at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, the bluesman appearing before the largest crowd he’d ever played and winning them over. He would be invited to return a week or so later to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival, backed Muddy Waters’ band. Hooker, quoted in Boogie Man, remembers the performances as an important stepping stone for his career, saying “great musicians like Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, and Joan Baez and myself, and many, many more, blazed a trail at Newport.”     

Hooker’s subsequent influence on 1960s-era British blues-rock bands like the Yardbirds, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and the Groundhogs, among many others, was profound. Hooker began touring England, Germany, and France with the annual American Folk Blues Festival in 1962, increasing his popularity in Europe at a time when U.S. audiences for the blues were dwindling. As a result, Hooker’s 1956 single “Dimples” would chart Top 30 in the U.K. some eight years after its stateside release. Although he no longer topped the R&B charts, Hooker toured and recorded prolifically throughout the ‘60s, his trademark boogie-blues sound later picked up by rock bands like Canned Heat and Foghat.

The wildly-successful final chapter of Hooker’s career began with The Healer in 1989, some 30 years after his Country Sounds LP. Recorded with an all-star cast of friends and admirers like Charlie Musselwhite, Robert Cray, Carlos Santana, and Bonnie Raitt as well as members of Los Lobos and Canned Heat, The Healer earned Hooker his first Grammy® Award for his duet on “I’m In the Mood” with Raitt. Subsequent albums followed a similar formula, with 1995’s Chill Out and 1997’s Don’t Look Back earning the bluesman three more Grammy® Awards. Hooker’s 1990s-era albums featured a veritable “who’s who” of contemporary rock and blues talents, with musicians like George Thorogood, Albert Collins, Keith Richards, Nick Lowe, Johnny Winter, Ry Cooder, and John Hammond lining up to record with the blues legend.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, John Lee Hooker was able to enjoy many of the accolades he earned during a career that spanned from the early 1940s until his death in 2001 at the age of 83. Hooker was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. He was awarded the Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Unfortunately, as The New York Times Magazine reported in June 2019, Hooker was among the hundreds of artists whose master recordings were destroyed in the 2008 Universal Music warehouse fire. The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker remains, however, the long-lost album displaying a different and invaluable facet of the legendary bluesman’s immense talents.

 

AUDIO: John Lee Hooker The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (full album)

 

Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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