Vinyl Renewal

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Robert Johnson

ImageRobert Johnson was born over one hundred years ago in Mississippi; no one could have predicted this boy would grow up, learn to sing and play the blues and eventually achieve worldwide fame. Since his death, he has become known as ‘King of the Delta Blues’ and his music is known to influence some of the biggest names in the business – the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers – all sing his praise and have recorded his songs. Image

Johnson was an itinerant blues singer and guitarist who lived from 1911 to 1938. He recorded 29 songs between 1936 and ‘37 for the American Record Corporation, which released eleven 78rpm records on their Vocalion label during Johnson¹s lifetime, and one after his death.

Most of these songs have been ordained with a canonical status, and are now considered enduring anthems of the genre: “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “Hellhound On My Trail,” “I Believe I¹ll Dust My Broom,” “Walking Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Like many bluesmen of his day, Johnson plied his craft on street corners and in jook joints, ever rambling and ever lonely – and writing songs that romanticized that existence. What set Johnston apart, however, was his intensity, his mastery of the guitar and his expressive vocals. His music has, as a result, endured long after his own short life.

ImageJohnson put into artistic form the reality of struggle and oppression faced by African Americans. He gave these fears an emotional depth, especially characterising what it was like to live in the South during the Great Depression and transformed and transformed that specific and very personal experience into music of universal relevance and global reach. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” Keith Richards once asked, answering his own question: “Well, this is it.” Eric Clapton put it more plainly: “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.” 

The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by the fact that so little about him is known and what little biographical information we now have only revealed itself at an almost glacial pace. Myths surrounding his life took over: that he was a country boy turned ladies’ man; that he only achieved his uncanny musical mastery after selling his soul to the devil. Even the tragedy of his death seemed to grow to mythic proportion: being poisoned by a jealous boyfriend then taking three days to expire, even as the legendary talent scout John Hammond was searching him out to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City. 

In 1990, Sony Legacy produced and released the 2-CD box set Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings to widespread critical acclaim and, for a country blues reissue, unprecedented sales. The Complete Recordings proved the existence of a potential market for music from the deepest reaches of Sony¹s catalog, especially if buoyed by a strong story with mainstream appeal. Johnson¹s legend continues to attract an ever-widening audience, with no sign of abating. If, in today¹s world of hip-hop and heavy metal, a person knows of only one country blues artist, odds are it is Robert Johnson.

Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village

On a snowy, crisp day in February 1963, in the heart of Greenwich Village, photographer Don Hunstein set up on West 4th Street and shot down Jones Street as Bob Dylan and his then girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, walked towards the camera. The resultant image is one of music’s most famous album covers: Dylan’s second LP, the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In fact, this photo embodies a remarkable time and place: a buzz and creative energy that appealed to Dylan’s artistic sensibility. He recalls:  “The air was bitter cold, always below zero, but the fire in my mind was never out.”

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Bob arrived in the city that would ‘shape’ his ‘destiny’ with a readymade back catalogue of tall stories about himself, and what he believed to be a mind that ‘was strong like a trap.’ Although the Village is a different place today, there still remains an architectural mixture of tenements and grander, a spirit of the ‘original vagabond’ who set up camp in January 1961.

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White Horse Tavern: Hudson St at West 11th

This old longshoremen’s dive has an impeccable bohemian pedigree: in the 1950s Dylan Thomas (rumour has it the inspiration for Robert Zimmerman’s – AKA Bob Dylan name change) drank his last at the bar before dying a few days later; Norman Mailer purportedly conceived the radical Village Voice newspaper here; and it was a Beat poet hangout. It was also where Dylan listened to the Clancy Brothers singing “rousing rebel songs that would lift the roof”.

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Dave Van Ronk

The folk singer Dave Van Ronk, whom Dylan described as “king of the street”, lived several blocks north-east on Waverly Place. In his autobiography, Bob talked about staying on the couch there.

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Gerde’s Folk City

Bob played a prolific set here in 1961. Journalist Bob Shelton wrote a review in the New York Times review that catapulted Bob’s career. Unfortunately, Gerde’s no longer exists.Image

“Basket Houses” and other venues

Plenty of venues still exist from those days. Known as “basket houses” where performers passed around a hat. Principle among them is Café Wha? On Macdougal St, which Dylan sought out when he arrived in New York. Here, to an audience of “lunch-hour secretaries, sailors and tourists” he played harmonica for Freddy Neil, who later wrote Everybody’s Talkin’, popularised in the film Midnight Cowboy. Then, Macdougal St was lined with coffee Houses. At 116, in the basement, was the Gaslight (now a lounge bar called Alibi), the ultimate destination for aspiring musician’s in Dylan’s time.

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Hotel Earle

Former residential Hotel where he lived for a while and which Joan Baez, in her bittersweet love song about Dylan, Diamonds and Rust, refers to as “that crummy hotel over Washington Square.”

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Dylan wrote in Chronicles: “Everything was always new, always changing. It was never the same crowd upon the streets.”

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The Beat Generation

You’re sitting in a coffeehouse in New York – Greenwich Village to be precise. To your left sits a cup of what you hope will fuel a productive afternoon of writing, with the spread of papers, pens and books that adorn the small, round table. As the sun rears its head through the misty window, your senses are aroused by the plumes of smoke and rumblings of music, your ears prick to the excited conversation – it’s the 1950s and you’re part of something, something vaguely resembling a counter-culture revolution (or at least that’s what you like to think.) Throngs of dissidents, poets, artists, writers, social explorers fill the joint. Creative anarchists reacting against the ugly bloat of materialism induced by World War II, experiencing the mysticism of drugs to the Beat.

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“Beat” was a condition, a radical removal from the mindless conformity fraught by consumerism. A common theme that linked them all together was a rejection of the prevailing American middle-class values, the purposelessness of modern society and the need for withdrawal and protest. In its advent in the late 1940s, a Beat Generation was generally centred in New York City and San Francisco, where it spun its web in Greenwich Village, North Beach, and the fringes of university neighbourhoods across the country. The Beat learned how to transform the lonely countryside as well as dismal flats in cities: otherness flowed in the movement’s veins. Wandering the pavements in Greenwich Village, to the San Remo all the way to the White Horse Tavern, you could smell change in the air.

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The neighbourhood started life as a prosperous residential area during colonial times and had become a tenement district in the nineteenth century. However, artists and bohemians from across the country started to gravitate towards the village’s warm glow – not to mention the affordable rent for struggling artists. The Village provided ample opportunity for artists to express themselves, with an array of vaudeville theatres. One of the first venues was the Greenwich Village Follows, where dancers and musicians such as Martha Graham and Cole Porter started out. By the 1940s, the Village became an International meeting ground for writers spanning every genre.

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Slipping into the 1950s, the Village had become the hub of musicians, poets and artists flocked to discuss and cultivate ideas. For example, two of the most prolific American movements set up home in Greenwich village: nearly all of the Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko lived in the neighbourhood. Similarly, the New York School of Poets was sharing the same bars, restaurants, and lofts. In the next decade, Greenich Village attracted the furthest stretches of diverse creative minds, including: composer John Cage, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and dancers Merce Cunningham, to name a few.

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Among its most influential members were Gary Sunder, the radical poet Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was the acknowledged leader and spokesman for the Beat Generation. The major Beat writings include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Both Howl and Naked Lunch became the focus of obscenity trials in the United States that helped to liberalize what could be legally published.

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Allen Ginsberg said some essential effects of Beat Generation artistic movement could be characterized in the following terms:

  1. Spiritual liberation, sexual “revolution” or “liberation,” i.e., gay liberation, somewhat catalyzing women’s liberation, black liberation, Gray Panther activism.
  2. Liberation of the word from censorship.
  3. Demystification and/or decriminalization of some laws against marijuana and other drugs.
  4. The evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll as a high art form, as evidenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other popular musicians influenced in the later fifties and sixties by Beat generation poets’ and writers’ works.
  5. The spread of ecological consciousness, emphasized early on by Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, the notion of a “Fresh Planet.”
  6. Opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization, as emphasized in writings of Burroughs, Huncke, Ginsberg, and Kerouac.
  7. Attention to what Kerouac called (after Spengler) a “second religiousness” developing within an advanced civilization.
  8. Return to an appreciation of idiosyncrasy as against state regimentation.
  9. Respect for land and indigenous peoples and creatures, as proclaimed by Kerouac in his slogan from On the Road ‘The Earth is an Indian thing.’
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So, as you can see, the Beat generation provoked changes in artistic thought and creation and one of the most important changes was in music. Bob Dylan, The Beatles were heavily influenced by the Beat Generation. Members like Allen Ginsberg were influential in the anti-war movement. Others who were influenced include: Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, Crosby Stills Nash and Young.

Joan Baez singing to Bob Dylan whilst he writes.

Joan and Bob duet

As the Beat Movement was getting underway, bebop was already going strong, especially in New York City, where 52nd Street was bustling with activity in jazz clubs up and down its length. Bebop was an innovative style of jazz which saw its heyday in the ’40s, characterized by smaller combos as opposed to big bands and a larger focus on virtuosity. Bebop’s renaissance came about in the heart of New York City, where musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis were ushering in a new era for jazz music.

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Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and and friends spent much of their time in New York clubs such as the Red Drum, Minton’s, the Open Door and other hangouts, shooting the breeze and digging the music. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis rapidly became what Allen Ginsberg dubbed “Secret Heroes” to this group of aesthetes.

Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker

“The word ‘beat’ was primarily in use after World War II by jazz musicians and hustlers as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted”. Kerouac went on to twist the meaning of the term “beat” to serve his own purposes, explaining that it meant “beatitude, not beat up. You feel this. You feel it in a beat, in jazz real cool jazz”.

The Beat authors borrowed many other terms from the jazz slang of the ’40s, peppering their works with words such as “square,” “cats,” “nowhere,” and “dig.” But jazz meant much more than just a vocabulary to the Beat writers. To them, jazz was a way of life, a completely different way to approach the creative process. In his book ‘Venice West’, John Arthur Maynard writes:

“Jazz served as the ultimate point of reference, even though, or perhaps even because, few among them played it. From it they adopted the mythos of the brooding, tortured, solitary artist, performing with others but always alone. They talked the talk of jazz, built communal rites around using the jazzman’s drugs, and worshipped the dead jazz musicians most fervently. The musician whose music was fatal represented pure spontaneity.”

John Coltrane – BEBOP JAZZ

The rhythm, meter and length of verse was also distinctly more similar to jazz music than it was to traditionally European styles. Ted Joans, a poet and friend of the Beat authors, once said, “I could see that [Ginsberg] was picking up the language and rhythm of jazz, that he wasn’t following the European tradition”. Beat poetry has a much looser, more syncopated rhythm, similar to jazz.

Candid footage from the 1950s

In the late 1960s personalities like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed increased the publicity of this already popular neighbourhood, making it increasingly desirable and expensive. As many began the transition to the less expensive Lower East Side, Greenwich Village went through its final phase with the influx of major artists organizations such as Negro Ensemble Company. Today, however, rising rent has made it nearly impossible for young artists to live in lower Manhattan, ending the reign of one of the most culturally impressive neighbourhoods in American history.

The Influence of the Beat Generation on Modern Music

Muddy Waters

Who? Muddy Waters AKA McKinley Morganfield

When? 04/08/1913 – 30/4/1983

What? American blues musician; ‘father of modern Chicago blues’; major inspiration for British blues exposion in 1960s;

Legacy? Tremendous influence over all things blues, rock n’ roll, hard rock, folk, jazz, country — you name it, Muddy did it. He also helped Chuck Berry get his first record contract. Not to mention he brought modern urban blues to our shores for the very first time in 1958. Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin are huge fans. Has been parodied in Family Guy.

If you like… Robert Johnston, B.B. King, Eric Clapton.

The low-down:

If I was writing this a couple of years ago and told you when Muddy Waters was born: I’d be guessing. Whilst a 1955 interview in the Chicago Defender suggested he was born in 1915, the 1920 census listed him as five years old on March 6th 1920, suggesting he might have been born in 1914. All quibbling aside, it was his marriage license and musicians’ union card that silenced the guessing: Muddy Waters was born at Jug’s Corner, Mississippi in 1913. The ample supplies of mud at Jug’s Corner and his tendency to play in it earned him the nickname “Muddy” and it stuck, some might say, like Mud.

In the early 1940s, Muddy ran a juke point, complete with gambling, moonshine and a jukebox; it also provided the unique opportunity for him to play music to an audience regularly. Muddy soon gravitated towards Chicago in 1943 to fulfil his dreams of becoming a musician. He balanced a factory day job with nighttime performances – something of a chameleon, Muddy started to make his mark in the rowdy clubs of Chicago.

1946 saw Muddy record some music for Mayo Williams at Columbia, but to little avail. Later in the year, however, he began recording for Aristocrat Records, a newly-formed label run by two brothers, Leonard and Phill Chess. In 1947, he played guitar with Sunnyland Slim on piano on the cuts “Gypsy Woman” and “Little Anna Mae.” These were also shelved, but in 1948 “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” became big hits and his popularity in clubs began to rocket. Soon after, Aristocrat changed their label name to Chess Records and Muddy’s signature tune “Rollin’ Stone” also became a smash hit.

Muddy Waters – I Feel Like Goin’ Home

Initially, the Chess brothers restricted Muddy on who he could record with. However, they gradually relented and by September 1953, he was recording with one of the most acclaimed ensembles of blues musicians in history: Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica; Jimmy Rogers on guitar; Elga Edmonds (a.k.a. Elgin Evans) on drums; Otis Spann on piano. The band recorded a series of blues classics during the early 1950s, some with the help of bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, including “Hoochie Coochie Man”  and “I Just Want to Make Love to You.”

Muddy Waters – I Just Want to Make Love to You

Muddy, along with his former harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs and recent southern transplant Howlin’ Wolf reigned over the early 1950s Chicago blues scene, his band becoming a proving ground for some of the city’s best blues talent. While Little Walter continued a collaborative relationship long after he left Muddy’s band in 1952, appearing on most of Muddy’s classic recordings throughout the 1950s, Muddy developed a long running, generally good-natured rivalry with Wolf.

 Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf

Muddy hit England’s shores in 1958 to find an enthralled audience, whose ears were accustomed to folk/blues sounds from acts such as Big Bill Broonzy. This was a historical moment – it was the first time England heard the rich, amplified urban blues Muddy headed. Two years later at the Newport Jazz Festival, Muddy recorded and released his first live album, which marked the advent of a new generation to Muddy’s sound.

Muddy Waters Live Manchester 1958 – Blues Before Sunrise

Muddy’s sound was like no other:  “When I play on the stage with my band, I have to get in there with my guitar and try to bring the sound down to me. But no sooner than I quit playing, it goes back to another, different sound. My blues look so simple, so easy to do, but it’s not. They say my blues is the hardest blues in the world to play.”

Following a string of successes, Muddy was struck by personal tragedy in 1973 when his long-time wife Geneva died of cancer. A few years later, he mustered the strength to return to what he did best: the blues. On November 25, 1976, Muddy Waters performed at The Band’s farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco. Over the next decade, Muddy spun a web of infectious blues and rhythm wherever he went, releasing LPs such as ‘Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live and performing at prestigious events like ChicagoFest in 1981.

Muddy Live in 1981

However, in 1982, Muddy’s health dramatically curtailed his performance schedule. Muddy Waters’ last public performance took place when he sat in with Eric Clapton’s band at a Clapton concert in Florida in autumn of 1982.

On April 30, 1983 Muddy Waters died in his sleep from heart failure, at his home in Westmont, Illinois.  At his funeral at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, throngs of blues musicians and fans showed up to pay tribute to one of the true originals of the art form.

“Muddy was a master of just the right notes,” John P. Hammond told Guitar World magazine. “It was profound guitar playing, deep and simple… more country blues transposed to the electric guitar, the kind of playing that enhanced the lyrics, gave profundity to the words themselves.”

Two years after his death, Chicago honored him by designating the one-block section between 900 and 1000 E. 43rd Street near his former home on the south side “Honorary Muddy Waters Drive” The Chicago suburb of Westmont, where Waters lived the last decade of his life, named a section of Cass Avenue near his home “Honorary Muddy Waters Way”.

Miles Davis

Who? Miles Davis (Miles Dewey Davis III)

When? 26/05/1926 – 28/9/1991)

What? American jazz musician, trumpeter, band leader and composer.

Legacy? Widely considered to be one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century, for he was at the forefront in several major changes in the face of jazz music. These include: bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, and jazz fusion. In his memory, on 05/10/2009, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan sponsored a measure in the U.S. House of Representatives to recognise and commemorate the album ‘Kind of Blue’ on its 50th anniversary. The measure affirmed jazz as a national treasure and is purported to encourage ‘United States government to preserve and advance the art form of jazz music.’

If you like…: jazz, r n’ b, soul.

What you need to know:

  • Key figure in the history of jazz.
  • Davis’ was acutely attuned to his environment and he once remarked, “We play what the day recommends.”

1942: joined Eddie Randle’s Blue Devils and played with them throughout high school.

1945: Davis joined Parker’s quintet and made his recording debut as a bandleader two years later.

1949 and 1950: With The Birth of the Cool, a series of sessions cut with a nine-piece band, Davis tempered bop’s heat with a more supple, serene lyricism.

Mid-Fifties: Formed a legendary quintet that included pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Philly Joe Jones and a young saxophonist named John Coltrane. Davis followed this with the ambitious Miles Ahead (1957), credited to “Miles Davis + 19.”

1960s: Davis worked in a sextet that included pianist Bill Evans and saxophonists Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. He recorded the famous Kind of Blue in the spring of 1959.

Davis also led a quintet that included tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drumming prodigy Tony Williams (who was only seventeen when he first performed with Davis).

Davis expressed a desire to form “the world’s baddest rock band.” He didn’t literally do that, but he did bring a fiery, rock-inspired sensibility to Bitches Brew (1969), Jack Johnson (1971) and Live-Evil (1972).

Mid-Eighties: Davis continued to push the envelope with such albums as Tutu (1986) and Siesta (1986). In 1989, Davis published a frank, uncensored memoir entitled Miles: The Autobiography, which made the best-seller lists. Davis’ final studio project, Doo Bop, found him collaborating with Brooklyn rapper Easy Mo Bee on a synthesis of hip-hop, doo-wop and be-bop. Unsurprisingly, he was still forging new connections and avenues of expression until the very end of his life.

Davis succumbed to a combination of pneumonia, stroke and respiratory failure at a hospital in Santa Monica, California, in 1991. In the flood of tributes that followed, Vernon Reid (of Living Colour) perhaps stated it best: “Miles shares with a handful of artists of this century the ineffable mystery of creation at its highest level.”

“The way you change and help music is by tryin’ to invent new ways to play.”

Welcome

Welcome to Vinyl Renewal: a blog aiming to dive deep and unearth musical treasures and brush the dust off those records hiding at the back of the cupboard – some you might remember and others you might not.

Music is a constantly evolving industry and in this day and age, where a band can make an entire album on garage band, I think it is vital to remember music in its earlier forms, whether it be from Civil War America or 1970s London. All music has played a crucial role in shaping modern creativity and this blog aims to serve as a reminder of the timeless significance of many artists, whilst renewing an interest in all things old.