by Michael Goldberg
Monday, August 12, 2002
Finding Rock's Future In The Blues Of The Past
The coolest underground rockers are recording the songs of Son House and the Rev. Gary Davis
The Newport Folk Festival, held each year in Newport, R.I., is not where you expect to hear the future, and yet today, in 2002, it seems that those who booked the festival at least during the first half of the '60s were on to more than even they knew.
Consider Young People, an edgy L.A.-based trio with a debut album, Young People out on Kill Rock Stars' experimental 5. R. C. label, who sound like they were birthed by the early, noisy Lou Reed/John Cale-led Velvet Underground. But that's not what's most interesting about them. Rather, it's their haunting interpretation of "Death Don't Have No Mercy," a traditional song the Rev. Gary Davis performed at the Newport fest in 1965 (and which later appeared on the album of live recordings, Great Bluesmen/Newport). Or the White Stripes, the currently in-vogue Detroit blues-rock duo who cover Son House's "Death Letter," a song the late bluesman recorded in 1965, the same year he appeared at Newport.
"Death don't" pause "have no" pause "mercy" pause, a sparse snare drum beat (played by Jarrett Silberman) begins "in this land," sings Katie Eastburn, in a deadpan voice. "Death don't have no" her voice breaks "mercy in this land." Now an electric guitar (played by Jeff Rosenberg) is playing quietly, ominously, behind her. The song is a dirge, a dark cloud, an abandoned graveyard at dusk. I can imagine it playing in a movie over scenes of a funeral. It is one of those miraculous recordings that you can't quite believe could have been made within the past year. How did these kids find this song? Why did they choose to record it? How can someone so young sound so wise?
I emailed the band, curious to get answers to my questions, and Eastburn replied: "I decided to learn how to play guitar and Jeff was teaching me some chords. My next door neighbor had some old labor songs on sheet music she'd gotten from the library, so I went downtown and picked stuff off the shelves that was familiar and/or simple enough for me to follow with my four-chord vocabulary. The Rev. Gary Davis book was a combo biography/ songbook, and I was totally floored by his lyrics. I messed around with a few of the songs. I couldn't read the melody line, so I would play the chords I could read and improvise a vocal line. 'Death Dont Have No Mercy' stood way, way out. No one cannot relate to that song. It was one of the simplest chord-wise, and the words wrote the tune. I love that song. Live like you're ready to die, because there's no time to get ready."
Bringing It All Back Home
It was also in 1965 that Bob Dylan turned Newport upside down when he showed up in a black leather jacket (Greil Marcus has written that someone called it a "sellout jacket"), playing an electric guitar.
The 1965 Newport fest took place at the tail end of the '60s folk and blues revival; American college students had embraced both the new, young folksingers such as Joan Baez and Dylan, and also veteran folkies such as Pete Seeger and the duo Flatt and Scruggs. Dylan created a stir at Newport that has become near-myth. Instead of performing a set of folk songs, he came onstage with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and assaulted the folkies with tough, loud and electric blues-based rock.
Though most of the audience didn't know it, they were hearing both the sound of the future and the past. Dylan and his backup musicians played three songs: "Maggie's Farm," "Like a Rolling Stone" and an early version of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." "Let's go, man, that's it," Dylan said to the band, according to Marcus, reacting to boos he heard from the crowd. He was convinced to return to the stage to perform one more song, solo, on acoustic guitar. That song, fittingly enough, was "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."
On Sunday, Aug. 4, 2002, after a 37-year absence, Dylan returned to the Newport Folk Festival stage looking like a grizzled Country & Western prophet. A striking photo in the Aug. 5 New York Times showed him wearing a white cowboy hat, a longhair wig and fake beard. He played both acoustic and electric guitars, and was backed by his seasoned four-man touring band. This time, the music he played didn't cause any controversy. As Jon Pareles wrote in the Times: "To Mr. Dylan and his band, it [the songs that he played from across his 40-plus year career] was all folk music, all deep-rooted mongrel Americana; they were a folk festival in themselves, with no distinction necessary between unplugged and plugged-in, folk and rock."
In the years before 1965, Dylan had played the festival performing his songs solo, on acoustic guitar, sharing the stage with historic figures who in many cases had been recently rescued from obscurity. By the end of the '50s, blues, including Delta blues, had long since slipped from popularity. Rock 'n' roll the music of Elvis and Carl Perkins, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets and Jerry Lee Lewis was the pop music of the day. It had pushed aside the electric blues and country music it was based on.
The late-'50s/ early-'60s folk revival coincided with expeditions by Sam and Ann Charters and others in search of musicians who had recorded in the '20s, '30s and '40s and in some cases became quite popular, but had then vanished from sight as electric Chicago blues, R&B, jazz and middle-of-the-road pop took center stage.
Sam and Ann Charters found the blind guitarist/singer/songwriter Sleepy John Estes in 1962, living in poverty in a rundown shack on a "rutted, dusty dirt lane" outside Brownsville, Tenn. Dr. Harry Oster, who taught at Louisiana State University, sought out and recorded the great Robert Pete Williams while he was still in prison for killing a man (Williams said it was in self-defense), then got him released in time to play Newport in '64. Skip James, whose spooky blues recorded in the '30s included "Devil Got My Woman" (featured last year in "Ghost World") was convinced to come out of retirement to play Newport and record two stunning albums for Vanguard. All performed at the Newport Folk Festival in '64 or '65, as did Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House (a heavy influence on both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters), the Rev. Gary Davis and others.
Reinventing The Blues
What I find most surprising, all these years later, about the reaction to Dylan's electric set in '65 is that by then the electric blues that came out of Chicago, hard-driving music by Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (the second), Little Walter, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and, of course, Muddy Waters, should have been seen as "folk" music, just like the music of the Delta bluesmen who were presented on the Newport stage. In fact, Muddy Waters, whose drummer Sam Lay was in Dylan's backup band for that appearance, had played the Newport fest in '64.
Clearly though, it was the crowd's expectations they expected Dylan to carry on their idea of the "folk tradition" and the context a "folk" festival dedicated to keeping the music of the past alive that caused the booing.
How would they have reacted this year, I couldn't help but wonder, if Young People had come on stage, summoned up a hurricane of howlin' electric noise, then delivered "Death Don't Have No Mercy"?