Vantage Points

A Blues Note

Oct. 27, 2014

by Kippy Myers

The King Biscuit Blues Festival

I have been attending the “King Biscuit Blues Festival” for many years. It gets its name and location from a flour company and a radio program that began in 1941 and continues today. The festival website claims that “King Biscuit Time” is the longest running radio show ever. In its early days, it featured blues acts like Sonny Boy Williamson (aka Sonny Boy Williamson II), Robert Lockwood Jr. and other talented blues acts. In doing so, the broadcast not only helped to spread the influence of blues music, it also assisted in defining the nature of blues music. The King Biscuit Flour Company sponsored the weekly production from Helena, Arkansas, (now home to the annual music festival each October). For more information about the festival see their website.

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Sonny Boy Williamson II, a regular performer on “King Biscuit Time.” Turn down your volume before you play this video because it is recorded LOUD.

The King Biscuit Blues Festival has several stages where bands and individuals are performing. For years, all of the music on all of the stages was free. Nowadays, however, you must pay a fee in order to watch the acts that perform on the main stage (where the more famous musicians play), so I haven’t even seen any of the “big acts” in several years. But I don’t miss them. For me, it’s all about the street performers and maybe one of the smaller stages. From Big Mack to Tyrannosaurus Chicken to Trainreck [sic], these folks have their own unique style and add their distinctive flavors to the blues mixture of the festival. Sometimes it’s just a guy with a guitar.  Sometimes two individual street performers team up for several songs and then go their separate ways. Sometimes a blues band will play in the street, electric and loud. Lots of festival-goers stand and watch and listen to these grass roots performers.  

My favorite moments are when I am just sitting on the curb or leaning back against an old storefront eating a turkey leg, sipping some sweet tea, listening to live music ten feet away, and taking it all in. Then I might step over to a vendor for a fried Twinkie or a funnel cake and enjoy it in the key of blues. As I saunter along the street (blocked off for the festival) and examine the vendors’ wares, live music is always in the air, emanating from a sidewalk or the ever-present main stage performers whom (happily) you can hear from quite a distance even if you never see them.

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Two street performers at the Biscuit Festival.  They had only just met and excellently performed several songs together before the younger man decided to move on.

Clarksdale, Mississippi

Just 30 minutes down the road from Helena, Arkansas, is another major delta blues center:  Clarksdale, Mississippi. Delta bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Brown, Ike Turner, and others came from that area. Highways 61 and 49 intersect there and some claim that this intersection is the “crossroads” of Robert Johnson’s famed deal with the devil and the resulting song written and recorded by Johnson, and more recently popularized by Eric Clapton (and Cream). Here is Johnson’s recording of “Crossroad Blues” recorded in 1936.

My first stop in Clarksdale is usually the little guitar store, Bluestown Music. It’s a different kind of music store. The owner can tell you the history of every old guitar and amp in the cramped restrictions of this guitarist’s heaven. Next stop, Cat Head Delta Blues and Art Store, just a block away. They have blues books, cd’s, local blues related primitive art, posters, t-shirts, and more. I met Robert Gordon there and he signed a copy of his book about Muddy Waters, Can’t Be Satisfied (the title of a Muddy song).  About three blocks away stands the Delta Blues Museum. The museum has permanent features (like instruments and clothing from famous blues stars and a full sized reproduction of the cabin where Muddy Waters once lived) as well as temporary exhibits that come and go. There is also a small gift shop with blues cd’s, poster, and memorabilia. You might even see young people playing the blues. They are participating in the museum’s Arts and Education Program.  I’ve heard several of this young folks and they were awesome.

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Looking through the front door of Cat Head in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Notice the encouragement, “Please sing.”

What’s So Great About the Blues?

Why the blues? Like lots of folks, I enjoy several musical genres. But there are two things that attract me to the blues: its simplicity and its ability to dig deeply. There is a simplicity to blues that I love and it is that beautifully stark simplicity that allows open access to a reservoir of emotion that captivates so many of us. Naturally, the blues can be played as technically as you want, or as basic and “down home in the delta” as you want, and anywhere in between. But no matter how you prefer your blues, the reservoir remains the same.

The blues has a quality that is raw, rough edged, flawed in a way that makes it a clearinghouse for free expression of a deep seated and almost primitive emotional connection, even in the hands of an untrained performer. In fact, being technically proficient and hitting every note and chord “clean and pretty” can actually detract from what I’m looking for in the blues. I want to experience an authentic music that deals out a refreshingly honest and sometimes disturbing sort of depth, and a “not always pretty” expression of heartfelt visceral truth.  Here is a version of “My Home is a Prison” from Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters.

Other brands of music obviously deal very well with emotion too. I dearly love Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. It is thrilling and emotionally charged. I love his "Moonlight Sonata" as well, though it takes my emotions in the other direction. But when I hear BB King's "Why I Sing the Blues" or Otis Rush's "As the Years Go Passing By," their music flips a switch inside me that nothing else does. They don’t do what Ludwig does, and Ludwig doesn’t do what the bluesmen do. There is something in the blues that combines a one of a kind deep-rooted appeal with an utter simplicity and openness that is so pure, so true, so honest, so right that it draws me in very close to that special experience of feelings that I immediately identify with and is so cathartic and therapeutic for me. Here is one of my favorite BB King songs: “How Blue Can You Get?” performed live at Cook County Jail, 1971.

It seems only right (given the niche that it has carved out and the work that it undertakes so expertly) that many of the notes and the chords that comprise blues music are pretty easy to play in one sense of the word “easy.” But as someone once told me, “The blues is easy to play, but it’s hard to play RIGHT.” Lots of people play it. But lots of those people can’t do it right. Or, as legendary guitarist, Jimi Hendrix said, “The blues is easy to play but hard to feel.” The authentic feel of the blues expressed so straightforwardly that it just seems to be something intangible, indescribable. So I am unable to sufficiently portray in words the brutal honesty that comes across to me via the avenue of blues music and somehow caresses my soul like nothing else does. Maybe you just have to feel it for yourself.

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BB King and his guitar, Lucille.  You might want to check out “The Thrill is Gone,” one of the best selling blues songs ever.