Delta Blues on the Hudson

John Hammond Jr. impressed me some 20 years ago with his solo blues harp-guitar-vocal act that seemed about as close to the style of Delta blues songster Robert Johnson as exists. He did it again, just last night.


That engagement back when was at Madison Square Garden, and John Lee Hooker was on the bill, too. It was some blues calvalcade — but the detail I recall is that Hammond wore ankle-bells which jingled as his legs bounced in rhythm, and the whole effect was galvanic. Like the greatest Delta blues musicians (and the best of their myriad, far-flung descendants), he kept all elements of his performance in dynamic tension, and performed with rough immediacy that disguised the discipline demonstrated by his fine finger picking, slide ‘n’ strum skills.
Hammond was then, too, deeply committed to the real-time presence, rather than the revivalism, of his all-acoustic, ’20s-’40s material, which is a hard-earned distance from the life he might have had as great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt. He is also the son of John Hammond, one of the most powerful music promoters of the last century, an early jazz journalist who went over to the dark side — record production — and is credited with recording everybody from Bessie Smith to Bruce Springsteen for Columbia, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan along the way.
The senior Hammond was also a major figure in support of racial integration in the U.S., a board member for many years of the NAACP, and a man who lived modestly, sans the airs or luxuries of a Robber Baron’s heir. At Wagner Park, playing on a stool on a simple stage with a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the younger Hammond — a healthy if weathered-looking 64 — said he’d been born in old boho Greenwich Village and it was nice to play his hometown, but he couldn’t afford to live here anymore. Real estate — a subject as devastating as spurned love in NY blues.
Then Hammond kicked off “Come Into My Kitchen,” one of the subtler seductive invitations of the true northern Mississippi repertoire, singing and blowing harmonica (on a shoulder rack) with a lonely, hopeful ache. He told more stories: of trying to get as far from his childhood home as possible early on, of pumping gas in L.A. where he was discovered by country ‘n’ western star Hoyt Axton, of escaping imminent coffeehouse success by heading to Chicago, where he was befriended by 17-year-old blues guitar whiz Mike Bloomfield (Hammond himself was 18) and hence Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes — some of whom he gigged with, all of whom he learned from. And he learned good.
Hammond has had peaks and valleys of popular profile over his career: he debut on classy Vanguard Records in 1962, did the soundtrack for Dustin Hoffman’s Little Big Man in ’70, had a semi-hit album Triumverate in with his buddy Bloomfield and Dr. John in ’73, has played with members of the Stones, the Band, Duane Allman, Victoria Spivey, Dylan, and in 2001 had a commercial breakthrough with Tom Waits songs on Wicked Grin. He played one of those which he said had become, much to his surprise, his best-selling ever number at Wagner park — a dog-free field with a stunning river-to-ocean view — and it was ok, though I couldn’t get all the lyrics out of Hammond’s expressive, throaty groan. Waits’ lyrics are the thing, unless its his own wino voice, Harry Partch-like arrangements and soloists such as Marc Ribot. The guitar part didn’t seem distinctly different than the rest of what Hammond played.
However, every syllable of Hammond’s vocal on “Fattening Frogs for Snakes”

SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON II lyrics

was comprehensible, and so was the message of the Tampa Red song and the one by Blind WIllie McTell and Estes and Wolf. He sang everything with conviction, and seemed to love what he was doing.
This entranced a lot of us who were sitting around, mostly likely easier of mind than, say, plantation hands after a hard summer’s day – but other listeners were unmoved, Recognizing their indifference, I thought what Hammond exemplified has perhaps become so specialized, so ritualized a style, that though it’s bedrock to much subsequent American music (including foreign adaptations starting with John Mayall and ending who knows where?) it may be inaccessible to urban sophisticates lacking lessons in the tradition. These Delta blues were to smart New Yorkers as foreign as if they were sung in a ancient language by opaque but impassioned soloists, clutching exotic instruments, from some distant culture.
There was another concert going on in Castle Clinton, a hundred yards away, by the southern rock band Driveby Truckers. They should have been far enough off to ignore, but their amplified mix richocheted off a nearby glass-clad highrise and was amplified by a brick walk-through leading to the Wagner lawn. Which was annoying, though when Hammond played he wiped out that echo, and there was no indication he was the slightest distracted or the spell that he was casting broken. He was one with his blues, living them as fully as any of the legends he told of, comfortable in Silvio’s bar on the south side of Chicago, which when he first entered it struck Hammond as “the most dangerous place on earth.” He’s how the blues survive.

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Comments

  1. Thomas Farrelly says

    I have always had a problem with Hammond’s voice. Partly, it’s because, especially earlier in his career, he seemed to adopt that tired white guy trying to sound black thing that was big in the sixties. But beyond that, even his “normal” voice is not very engaging. I like his more recent stuff a lot more than his earlier material.

  2. Howard says

    Hammond’s background, as I tried to write, is that of the whitest boy singin’ the blues — and he took a lot of grief for that in the ’60s, as did Bloomfield, Butterfield (less) and Charlie Musselwhite (less still — maybe Musselwhite’s southern roots made more sense to some audience/critics at the time). But after all these years I’ve come to believe his sound, in total. His singing voice was of a piece with his speaking voice; when he told stories, the cadences were akin to his lyric phrasing. I didn’t expect to hear the sweetest singer — that’s not the blues vocal tradition — but I did hope to hear some truthful expression, and that’s what it seemed like he delivered.
    Who’s the man with the best voice in the blues today? I’ve recommended the upcoming Bobby Blue Bland show — I haven’t heard him in 15 years, either, but last I did he held up well. Otis Rush, now sidelined with health problems. Jr. Wells, now gone. Same with Luther Allison, Charles Brown and of course T-Bone Walker. I omit Al Green out of genre considerations (though he’s very bluesy). Buddy Guy is a merely serviceable singer (however ferocious his guitar playing). Dr. John? Nah. B.B.? — great natural deliver, but great voice? Anyone else have nominations?

  3. Jon Foley says

    The one and only believable male white blues singer, for me, (because he doesn’t put on any fake accents or use any other tricks – he’s just himself): Mose Allison. His female counterpart is probably Bonnie Raitt.

  4. Howard says

    In the early ’90s then-music editor of the Village Voice Doug Simmons fired me from freelancing after a 10-year-run because I brought up what he called the oldest cliche in rock criticism by noting in Paul Butterfield’s obit that he had answered that burning question of the ’60s: Can a white man sing the blues?
    In the ’60s I was doctrinaire about this issue: Hell, no. I dissed Mose Allison (John Hammond sang one of his songs at Wagner Park) as too mellow and sophisticated, and though I sort of liked some of the music I found reasons to scoff at other white blues people, too (such purist objections asserted no-to-mixed effects on the careers of Butter, the Stones, Led Zepplin, Canned Heat, and myriad others, compentent or otherwise).
    But as an attendee of the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Fest, where Bonnie Raitt lovingly introduced ancient Sippie Wallace and similar events where white musicians eagerly credited and featured black blues artists, devoting themselves to, if anything, mastering the genre with respect for the elders, such attitudes were hard to maintain. Many of these applicant bluesmen were quite listenable, and seemed no more self-conscious about their adaptations than, oh, Nina Simone or Taj Mahal.
    With Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley obviously courting white audiences, Jimi Hendrix turning blues and r&b into Carnaby St. r&roll, Dr. John psychedelicizing the already exotic swamp thang, Frank Zappa revealaing himself as an ace electric blues guitarist a la Clapton, Beck, Bloomfield, Plant, Bob Margolin, Duke Robilliard, George Thorogood, et al, and especially (convincing me) Janis Joplin wailing from the core of her being – celebratory and anguished, clear dictums about how can and can’t have the real blues became too meaningless to support.
    At a a local level: In the ’70s white and black Chicago blues musicians hung out together, rehearsing in different combinations, shifting by skill-set, esthetic and personal accord rather than (though not without reference to) racial identity. Such fraternization was evident across blues styles — pianists Little Brother Montgomery, Jimmy Walker and Sunnyland Slim, for instance, had no problem embracing Erwin Helfer, for instance; pianist Kenny Sadjak among other sidemen was much in demand for Alligator Records dates by Albert Collins, et al., Steve Cushing (before his brilliant radio show Blues Before Sunrise) was a drummer on the scene, etc.
    In subsequent studies, I’ve learned how much background musical influences blacks and whites shared, especially in the south pre WWII. One tochstone: country music progenitor Jimmie Rogers, the lonesome’ brakeman, and his blue yodels. He didn’t claim to be a white negro (pace Norman Mailer), though some who did (i.e., Johnny Otis) were proud of their self-identification and this is America, right? We can be who we wanna be.
    There is plenty of good reason to acknowledge and respect and enjoy blues as black music that captured Americans’ attentions as soon as Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1921, if not before (pre-recordings). The blues is near the root of African-American culture and hence American culture, from which the A-A experience can not be removed. It seems to me that over a century, some white people have been among those who’ve found the blues to be the genuine compatible medium of their expression. Lots of white people from the ’60s through the present have listened to the blues for their own enrichment — why shouldn’t they be able to credibly make it themselves?
    Their “authenticity” (now, I understand, a non-category in ethnomusigraphical considerations of folk arts situated as the blues is) or artistic power may stem from immersion and association with the traditional blues culture — surely that’s how John Hammond has become who he is, having chosen it and followed it seen his late teens. What most impressed me about his performance was his lack of pretention and affectation, a performance of who he is, trying to entertain.
    Today I realize that goes for Mose Allison, too. There is, after all, no segregation of musical genres or abilities on the basis of race or ethnicity. To posit that whites can’t sing the blues (though I know that’s not what my correspondent said, just that the one for him is Mose) is to also say there’s no black rock ‘n’ roll (refuted by the Black Rock Coalition), to question if anyone but African-Americans can play jazz, to deny people of all backgrounds complete access to Western classical music performance, and so on.
    The truth of the performance is there for us to hear and see, not to be prejudged. I listen much more broadly than I did in the ’60s — heard ethnically Italian Felix Caviliere last night play an awesomely soulful set of his hits from the ’60s Rascals with a pickup rock band — and believe everybody can play everything if they are committed to the arts and values of a chosen style or genre, have talent and insight, and mean what they say.
    Blues as a song form — like fado, tango, flamenco, morna, reggae, rai, rap, American cabaret and jazzed standard interpretations at the highest level, Scots/Irish balladry – is a musical response to life. Blues offers some metaphors and imagery profoundly adaptable for depicting basic, maybe universal human experiences. Whether those metaphors and imagery are gained from birth or by adoption doesn’t matter as much as the depth and empathy those who know the feeling conjure to give voice to it. Strong blues from whomsoever offers them helps some of us face our troubles, whatever they may be and whoever else has ‘em.

  5. says

    The blues I hear in John Hammond’s voice transcends black and white. It goes to a more universal feeling of the condition of humanity, the condition of feeling bad and expressing it in the hopes of relief, of perspective.
    I’ve always found — even in the early years, when he was clearly stretching to sound at least Southern if not actually African American — that Hammond’s voice has a warm humanity, like Jimi Hendrix’s, that makes “what makes a good voice” moot. It’s also interesting to note that Hammond’s singing voice frees him from the stutter that used to dominate his speaking voice. Singing allowed him to be more articulate as a young man, and given the circumstances he came from, you could go into a lot of psychological analysis from there.

  6. says

    The blues I hear in John Hammond’s voice transcends black and white. It goes to a more universal feeling of the condition of humanity, the condition of feeling bad and expressing it in the hopes of relief, of perspective.
    I’ve always found — even in the early years, when he was clearly stretching to sound at least Southern if not actually African American — that Hammond’s voice has a warm humanity, like Jimi Hendrix’s, that makes “what makes a good voice” moot. It’s also interesting to note that Hammond’s singing voice frees him from the stutter that used to dominate his speaking voice. Singing allowed him to be more articulate as a young man, and given the circumstances he came from, you could go into a lot of psychological analysis from there.

  7. says

    The blues I hear in John Hammond’s voice transcends black and white. It goes to a more universal feeling of the condition of humanity, the condition of feeling bad and expressing it in the hopes of relief, of perspective.
    I’ve always found — even in the early years, when he was clearly stretching to sound at least Southern if not actually African American — that Hammond’s voice has a warm humanity, like Jimi Hendrix’s, that makes “what makes a good voice” moot. It’s also interesting to note that Hammond’s singing voice frees him from the stutter that used to dominate his speaking voice. Singing allowed him to be more articulate as a young man, and given the circumstances he came from, you could go into a lot of psychological analysis from there.

  8. Jon Hammond (no relation) says

    Nice blog, Howard-
    Just wanted to comment on your original post on Mr. Hammond- I’ve seen him many times, and I find nobody in the world of Blues who can equate to his level of Intensity when performing. It’s too bad his performance was lost on some of your fellow audience members- he is a national treasure in my opinion, anyone fortunate enough to catch this great bluesman live should revel in the experience.