Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009


Chris Thomas King and Art Levine talk deep Blues History / Audio

By OMN National Editor ART LEVINE // Chris Thomas King, blues trailblazer and iconoclast, hits nation's capital this week. Guitar hotshot also challenges Blues scholars and purists: Everything you know about the Blues is wrong

The motto coined years ago by the Art Ensemble of Chicago was "Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future." If a comparable vision and range applies to anyone in the blues field, it's doubtless Chris Thomas King, the restlessly inventive and eclectic bluesman who was a headliner a while ago at the Waterfront Blues Festival and is coming this week, starting Thursday, with his full band for a four-night stand at the prestigious Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.  He's perhaps best known for playing  Delta blues icon Tommy Johnson in the prize-winning film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- and his haunting version of the Skip James song "Hard Times Killing Floor" that was featured in the film and the Grammy-winning "O Brother" soundtrack album that put roots music on the map in a way not seen since the folk  revival of the 1960s.

 Yet even though King's rise to national fame came as a powerful interpreter of traditional acoustic blues, he initially was well known in blues circles both for being hailed  in the mid-1980s as the last great folk-blues discovery of the 20th Century -- and then, by the 1990s,  infuriating blues traditionalists by daring to drag blues into the future by blending hip-hop and blues in a few albums. The album that really outraged blues purists was his pioneering 21st Century Blues...from da 'Hood with a searing opening track excoriating racism.

 In an exclusive interview for Oregon Music News [listen to the full audio here], cross-posted  at Medium,  King, now 57, recalls, " I am hip-hop -- that's my generation's music. Whenever I went to parties or hung out with my friends or the circles that I traveled in, that was the music people listened to." His friends, he adds, "had no references for Son House or Tommy Johnson or the blues, and they still haven't gravitated there ." The mostly white blues critics, club bookers and festival organizers didn't take to the new sound he was forging in the early 1990s, either, wanting to keep him boxed into the original folk-blues mold of his 1986 first album with Arhoolie, Beginning, after he was discovered by a Smithsonian musicologist and touted to the label.

 King, the son of Louisiana blues  great  Tabby Thomas,  had to leave the US to blaze his path forward and, like earlier generations of bluesmen and jazz artists without honor in their own country, found an eager audience and opportunities to record in Europe before returning to the states a few years later. By the late 1990s, after he came back, he released a series of well-received albums -- he's released 16 in all -- that mixed and varied  all the wide-ranging sounds and musical genres he has mastered, from funk to electric and rural blues to soul, periodically spiced with some of his hip-hop flavorings, including sampling blues legends such as Son House.

 At a recent solo show I saw in DC's Westminster Church, a haven for Friday and Monday night jazz and blues, he demonstrated that his championship of digital wizardry in a few  -- but hardly most -- of the old blues numbers he plays  could make converts  of even  Delta blues fanatics like me to the hip-hop techniques  he occasionally ads to his music.  In a stunning medley incorporating Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" and Son House's bone-chilling   "John the Revelator," King augmented his stinging slide guitar with amplified foot stomps,  his Mac's software and assorted sound pedals to  multi-track his voice live. He even joined in a call-and-response with repeated samples of Son House's rumbling opening line, "Who's that writing?...," until King answered this old voice from the past with the chorus's rejoinder, "John the Revelator!" sounding as new and powerful today as when Son House  recorded it after being rediscovered in the 1960s.

 One of the greatest ironies of Chris Thomas King's career has been that he's done as much as anyone since that folk-blues boom of the 1960's to draw attention as both a singer and actor (he also played Blind Willie Johnson as part of Martin Scorcese's PBS blues series)  to the stirring majesty of  Delta blues, yet he's been largely ostracized by blues purists. That's in part because he's done everything from genre-hopping to persuasively arguing that the blues's roots lie more with sophisticated New Orleans  musicians in the 1890's (even giving a TED talk on the topic) than among impoverished field hands in the Delta who didn't start recording until the late 1920s. 

 That confounding, iconoclastic  perspective has been echoed in Elijah Wald's challenge to the paternalistic myths about Robert Johnson in his book Escaping the DeltaSide note:  Johnson, whose life story will finally be coming to the big screen with King as an an executive producer although he won't be playing the icon, was  a musician so sophisticated -- and who spent some of his early years in Memphis getting music lessons from a stepbrother and learning to read and write in grade school -- that Eric Clapton still can't figure out how to match Johnson's arcane open tunings and simultaneous guitar runs. (Chris and Rory Block can, though.)  

 Meanwhile,  Bob Dylan recounts in   Chronicles how he changed his entire approach to lyric writing after hearing the  1961 reissue, King of the Delta Blues, copying out Johnson's lyrics by hand the way aspiring novelists once wrote out Hemingway and Fitzgerald so they could absorb great writing in their bones.  Robert Johnson also played the pop music of the day, including hits by Bing Crosby he could recreate after just one listen on the radio -- an eclecticism matched by Chris Thomas King today, although his club show this week focuses on the blues; he's especially showcasing his electric guitar  prowess, filled with emotion and warmth, that's been overlooked in the wake of his O Brother fame playing a rural bluesman.

 So it's perhaps not surprising that nothing angers Chris Thomas King quite as much as  what he calls the mostly white "Blues Mafia" defining how "authentic" black blues musicians are by how closely they hew to the stereotype of the "primitive," illiterate bluesman. "People wanted me to play the role of this primitive," he notes, as if that would somehow make him a more authentic bluesman. But Chris Thomas King had other ideas for his career while rejecting myths about the blues and its origins: "I was going to be my real self and live an authentic life."

 Surprisingly, as he blended genres as a working musician, he was launched into stardom by winning the role loosely based on  Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson in the 2000  O Brother, Where Art Thou? film, even though his mastery of rural blues was only one aspect of his actual performance and recordings. 

 After his newfound fame, he dug further into the history of the blues and became a blues scholar himself who uncovered what he calls the "false narrative" of the blues in the writings of such chroniclers of the country blues  as Samuel Charters and Alan Lomax. His conclusion: "It's all bullshit," he says. Ironically, he has even "reverse engineered" the research of those scholars who interviewed  elderly black bluesmen in their dotage by interviewing elderly white blues musicologists about their findings. "I went to their home and interviewed and recorded conversations with them  before they croaked and died. I brought along some liquor to to try get them drunk and to try to get them to talk plainly,  without all this academic stuff -- just like they did with the old blues guys," he says with wry amusement.

 In fact, he just finished his own book that blends his memoir of growing up in the blues with a deep dive into blues histories and scholarship that challenges their conventional wisdom. He even points out that a more likely root of the word blues is the French  term sacre bleu used in Louisiana for describing all that's profane, including the ecstatic , rhythmic music that emerged from blacks playing together in  Congo Square in New Orleans long before the Civil War --  and its musical tributaries in early jazz and blues. The book he  wrote is called  Sacre Bleu: The Authentic Narrative  of My Music and Its Culture Therewith.  His playful, skeptical attitude towards blues traditionalists and historians was underscored when he crafted a parody of scholarly liner notes for his first post-O Brother album, The Legend of Tommy Johnson, Act I: Genesis 1900s-1990s, displaying in its grooves his authority in all forms of blues.

 So it came as a shock to him when his effort last year to nominate his latest album, Hotel Voodoo, in the best contemporary blues album was rejected altogether -- and the (white) chair of the Grammy's roots music committee had the gall to tell Chris Thomas King that they didn't consider him a bluesman at all. That would be the the equivalent of telling Miles Davis after he released Bitches Brew that adding rock sounds to the mix meant that Miles Davis was no longer viewed as a jazzman. "He was trying to tell me what the blues was and why I wasn't the blues and telling me about W.C. Handy," he recalls, barely containing his continuing resentment.

 "This is 2018, what are we talking about here?" Chris Thomas King retorted. 

 "His ignorance was impenetrable  and I was highly offended just from the conversation," he says. "He was reading to me definitions written by people like Alan Lomax. It was just maddening because he had taken control of my cultural experience and expression." He adds, "What gives him the right to tell me -- someone who's been been born and raised in a culture in Louisiana -- that I can't express my culture the way I'm expressing it." He wrote a blistering attack on the decision in his personal blog and on Facebook, and it's well worth reading in full. He opens the essay by pointing out: "It's official. The blues is no longer an African-American music genre."

But his live show that begins this week at the legendary nightclub Blues Alley isn't about scoring points against blues traditionalists or delving into blues scholarship. It's about creating real joy by keeping the blues alive and very well in the hands of a uniquely talented musician who is unveiling all the rich blues styles at his command. "I have a wide palette, you know, and lots of colors to paint with," he says. All that makes for a performance that shouldn't be missed. 



Post a comment:

Your Name:

Your Email Address:


2000 characters remaining



Web Design and Web Development by Buildable