"Acoustic blues," said the gent at the door of Buddy Guy's Legends a few Wednesdays ago when a prospective customer asked him what Rory Block's show was going to be like. "It's just a girl singing."
That was hardly fair. Vocalist-guitarist Rory Block grew up in the folk-drenched Greenwich Village of the early 60s. She cut her first sessions for Yazoo when she was about 15 years old. Since then she's become known among folk and blues aficionados as one of the leading purveyors of traditional Delta stylings. Her recorded legacy includes LPs on both collectors' labels (Yazoo, Rounder) and a major label (RCA), and she's recently released an instructional videotape for Homespun Video that displays her talents as well as her encyclopedic knowledge of the old blues masters' repertoire and musical personalities.
Block is a favorite on the U.S. folk circuit; she's also got a surprisingly large following in Europe--Europeans often look askance at Caucasian American blues artists. She's relatively unknown, however, among U.S. blues fans. She's an anomaly in amost every way, and American promoters seem to have no idea where to put her.
Even in its heyday, in the 1920s and '30s, Delta blues was largely the province of men. The violent, percussive guitar technique and fierce vocals pioneered by Charlie Patton and his contemporaries seemed to stamp the music early on as masculine, given the cultural constraints of the time. Most of the women who've gained reputations as blues instrumentalists have been pianists; the major exception--singer-guitarist Memphis Minnie--was a more urban stylist than the Delta and Piedmont artists who have provided Block with the bulk of her blues repertoire.
Block has said that since being introduced to the blues at age 14 she's felt that "the spirit of the music is in me," and she doesn't try to be anything she isn't--no posing, no red-hot-mama histrionics or theatrical affectations. Her dedication to the music is palpable, but it's not the stereotypical hard-bitten emotional surrender of the hard-traveling blues player. Watching Block perform is akin to watching a classical pianist immersed in the majesty of tradition. She's a passionate, living repository of a canon that's not her own.
At Buddy Guy's she launched immediately into some of her less well known material. "Hawkins Blues," a fusion of three tunes originally recorded by guitarist Walter ("Buddy Boy") Hawkins in the late 20s, featured a rhythmic pattern favored by several of the Delta blues pioneers--chords laid together in patterns of three, used as a jazz soloist uses triplets to give the song an infectious, almost swinging impetus.
Tommy Johnson, who was based in Mississippi and recorded between 1928 and 1930, is somewhat better known to modern audiences than Hawkins--partly because of Johnson's association with the music of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, and partly because some of his themes have survived into the present day in songs such as Floyd Jones's "Dark Road." Johnson's music distilled Patton's complex polyrhythmic intensity and combined it with an elusive mournfulness. Block's rendition of his "Maggie Campbell Blues" caught perfectly the loping, propulsive rhythm that made the original one of the most widely copied of its day. Block flailed and pounded at her guitar with appropriate intensity, although listeners familiar with the declamatory singing of Johnson and Patton might have found that her clear voice took some getting used to.
On the songs' endings Block's unerring fidelity to the originals became a liability. In the old days singers would stretch out in performance, goading and "worrying" a single phrase or verse to provide a consistent rhythm for dancers. Many times they never bothered to work out endings beyond a final chord or two, even in the studio; some of the most famous recorded blues just dwindle to nothing at their conclusion. In a juke, that was hardly an issue; record buyers in the 20s and 30s seem not have minded; and modern collectors have gotten used to it. But when a performer like Block, who's sophisticated in contemporary musical language, grinds down to such sudden endings one is left with a strange feeling of incompleteness. On a dynamic tune like "Maggie Campbell" especially, modern audiences expect to be released from the music's spell more gradually. What feels authentic to the performer can come off as arrogant or lazy to a listener.
That may seem like a small point, but it's indicative of the difficulties faced by an artist like Block who's trying to keep her music relevant. Her version of Robert Johnson's difficult "Terraplane Blues" admirably caught his complex rhythmic changes and string-pulling intensity, but she was unable to give the tune the claustrophobic desperation that lay beneath the erotic charge and fueled Johnson's rendition. Without that, "Terraplane" remained an unusually well played double-entendre blues, but the spark of genius was missing.
Although she's best known as a purveyor of Delta blues, Block's guitar talents shone most brightly when she switched to the light, complex finger-picking styles of the Piedmont region, which rely more on nuance than stark intensity. The music of the Piedmont artists--Blind Willie McTell, Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake, and others--doesn't seem as wedded to a particular time and place as the heavy, portentously emotional Delta blues, and perhaps for that reason the Piedmont styles have long been favored by white folk-blues guitarists.
Block's offerings in this genre were delightful: she interspersed her willowy picking with strategically placed minor chords and fleet bass runs, occasionally returning to more percussive chords, then laying lithe finger-picked patterns beneath them. Her rendering of McTell's "Statesboro Blues" was especially impressive--the song's lyrics are wistful, laced with haunting images of departure and loss, and she combined this mournfulness with a rollicking sense of fun as she fired off perfect replications of McTell's complex, multilayered melodic runs.
That's not to say Block didn't achieve moments of riveting immediacy in the Delta style. She combined two Robert Johnson numbers--"When You Got a Good Friend" and "Me and the Devil Blues"--into a medley that eloquently showcased his talents as lyricist and revolutionary musical stylist. Again her reproduction of Johnson's guitar wizardry was astounding; this time she also managed to retain some of his tormented urgency, although her understandable desire to modify his macho excesses removed a good deal of the darkness from "Me and the Devil." While walking side by side with the devil, Johnson threatens to "beat my woman until I get satisfied"; at the same point in the song Block promised to "love my baby"--Old Scratch must be losing his touch.
As the evening wore on Block seemed to relax a bit, performing a little less like an archivist and more like a living musical personality. She surprised with an a cappella version of Bessie Smith's "Do Your Duty," a rowdy protofeminist demand for sexual satisfaction. Block's spoken introduction to Smith's classic took playful but sharp aim at modern psychobabble: "Bessie doesn't say, 'We're codependent and you'll have to spend ten years in therapy.' She just says, 'Do your duty!'" Here Block showed more vocal versatility than elsewhere; her voice modulated from a gravelly rasp to a full-bodied shout, then back to a trembling murmur of smoldering anger. This was a refreshingly personal alternative to the earnest, note-for-note reproductions that had gone before.
In fact "Do Your Duty" represented a kind of turning point in Block's performance. From then on both music and presentation became increasingly intimate. She delved into her repertoire of original compositions, mostly country-folk ballads; like Bonnie Raitt, Block finds a soulfulness in this kind of material similar to what she finds in blues. "Lovin' Whiskey," an aching tale of love lost to alcoholism, was exquisite. Block's bluesy pipes gave it just the right combination of gritty longing and steely determination.
Unfortunately Block seemed unable to let this music speak for itself. It's one thing to augment the passionate intensity of Delta blues with heartfelt balladry, and quite another to try to transform a blues club into a confessional. The audience grew increasingly distracted as Block's spoken intros became longer, filled with references to bonding and relationships and new-age philosophizing.
"You're never a fool for loving somebody," she murmured at one point. "You're never wrong, love is never wrong." That's not how Bessie Smith--let alone Charlie Patton--would have put it. Nonetheless the music remained exemplary: "Silver Wings," despite its irritating new-age sheen, was a moving tribute to a friend who's died; "Road to Mexico" was an up-tempo, almost Joplinesque country-blues rocker. Block is definitely a songwriter of vision and insight; one wishes, however, that she'd go easier on the spoken sensitivity.
She's also a technical virtuoso whose passion for the traditional blues--some of the most seminal music of the 20th century--has made her one of our most important archivists, along with a handful of other younger players: John Hammond, Taj Mahal. It's revealing, though, that her own most moving compositions are usually outside the blues idiom. Block's ballads are infused with passionate longing and deep personal conviction--the same elements that made the Delta blues so compelling in the hands of the original masters. Meanwhile her blues, for all the conviction she brings to them, are impeccably performed museum pieces, frozen in time and perserved in ice.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.