Magazine article The Spectator

Crying Strings

Magazine article The Spectator

Crying Strings

Article excerpt

Olden but golden

Got your mojo working all right? Is your lemon being satisfactorily squeezed? Right, then we'll begin. One of the great curiosities of popular culture is the way a bunch of skinny, white, English suburban kids seized on the work of the vintage black American bluesmen. Music which had its roots in the American plantations of the deep South, and before that in Africa, suddenly became de rigueur if you were a hip young art student in Kingston-upon-Thames.

With breathtaking cheek, the English boys didn't just collect the records coming out of Chicago, the home of electrified urban blues, they also tried to play the music themselves. What's more the best of them played it remarkably well.

`They sure ain't got no real good blues singers in England,' Muddy Waters once observed, apparently endorsing the view that white men can't sing the blues, `but they got some heck of a players there guitars, everything.'

What strikes me as remarkable, and moving, is that the black veterans don't seem to have resented the white upstarts, even when they were shamelessly nicking their licks. `They were always encouraging,' Keith Richards of the Stones observed recently. `You'd think it wouldn't be a million miles away to think "these white fucking English creeps, they should cut their hair". No, none of that. There was positive support from all of them, even though some of them were as mean as motherfuckers.'

Part of the reason for this is that the success of the English blues boys often helped revive the careers of the black originals and introduced them to a far wider audience. It was thanks to the insistence of the Stones, for instance, that Howlin' Wolf appeared on national US television for the first time, while Sonny Boy Williamson actually came over to Blighty to work with the Animals. More recently, the septuagenarian bluesman BB King (of whom more later) enjoyed the biggest success of his 50-year career with his duets album with Eric Clapton, Riding with the King.

The strange and exciting story of British Blues and R&B is brilliantly told on a superb new four CD set, Hoochie Coochie Men, on the Indigo label. With informative and entertaining notes by Roy Bainton and a host of evocative photographs and gig advertisements, it kicks off with Lonnie Donegan, complaining that he's got rocks in his bed, in 1956, and ends with Gary Moore singing that he's had `Enough of the Blues', in 2001. …

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