I used to never completely understand why the blues was called "the devil's music." Sure, I could see how the church folk might shake their heads and kiss their teeth at the lifestyle that accompanied the music, what with all the rollickin' and the frolickin' with the liquor and loose wimmins and all that, but the music itself? While the syncopated rhythms of the 12-bar form popularized by W.C. Handy were certainly sufficiently "hot" and sexy to qualify as "wicked," it was always hard for me to hear them as downright macabre.
That was before I experienced the music of Otis Taylor.
Otis Taylor's rough-hewn blues is raw, spooky and entrancing. Really, calling it "blues" at all is for me almost a perfunctory classification: it hearkens back to something older, something deeper, darker and more mystical than the blues as we know it.
"First, we know that West Africans, who are the peoples most modern scholarship has cited as contributing almost 85 per cent of the slaves finally brought to the United States, did not sing blues," writer LeRoi Jones noted in the introduction to his seminal Blues People: The Negro Experience in America and the Music That Developed From It. "Undoubtedly, none of the African prisoners broke out into 'St. James Infirmary' the minute the first of them was herded off the ship."
Taylor explores that space between the acrid purgatory of the slave ship and the osmosis of English and Scots-Irish folk ballads into the African-American musical lexicon.
Drums were not permitted for those early American Negroes and you won't hear any in Taylor's music, either. What you will hear, though, are the original instruments on which the blues were played: the harmonica, the mandolin, and the African-derived stringed instrument known as the banjo. When Taylor picks up the guitar, he often coaxes from it the loping, mellifluous tones of the ancient African kora--or plays muscular, hypnotic riffs evoking the chug of locomotives and other fearsome engines that drive the relentless progress of the New World.
Taylor eschews "my woman done left me" blues cliches, instead weaving narratives drawn from folklore, legend and true history to conjure a long-ago age when violence and loss were commonplace features of the American landscape and the blues was not yet a sophisticated pop music style but a form of sorcery.
The tracks below are plucked from the albums White African and Respect The Dead, but I recommend you also check out Taylor's When Negroes Walked The Earth, Truth Is Not Fiction, Double V, Below The Fold and Definition of a Circle, as well as his website at OtisTaylor dot com.
I've prefaced each track with the elliptical descriptions Taylor introduces the songs with on stage and in his liner notes.
"My Soul's In Louisiana"
A black hobo in the 1930s is accused of a murder he did not commit and has no chance for justice.
"Jump Jelly Belly"
Retired General Jack Watson shared his memories with me. In World War II he was the Captain of Division 629, Port Company, African American Troops. The troops unloaded cargo on the open seas and had to jump between two ships with waves up to six feet high. Falling would mean being crushed between the ships. A soldier nicknamed Jelly Belly who was afraid to jump inspired yells of "Jump Jelly Belly."
Some loves aren't ever going to be what you want them to be, and you love them anyway.
"Ten Million Slaves"
The man now is in the fallout shelter from something that happened across the sea. He thinks about the slaves two hundred years ago. His ancestors were forced to live in very small places, as they were African slaves on the Middle Passage.
"Lost My Horse"
A Navajo man drank so much he lost his horse. He feels he will surely lose his mind.
"Momma Don't You Do It"
A man is too proud to cry when his mother is sick and dying.