Modern blues singing has not, until recently, received the attention it deserves. The few records which have been released in this country have had a mixed reception. Although improved technique and a constructive command of increased instrumental resources have often enriched their music, modern blues singers are still accused of debasing their art by avoiding ‘serious’ issues and of being preoccupied with sexual themes. In this context it is worth recalling the observations of Muddy Waters during his first visit to Britain (Jazz Journal, February 1959): ‘People should hear the pure blues—Alan Beckettthe blues we used to have when we had no money. I’m talking about when you couldn’t even buy moonshine, a hot dog even, when you were making thirty-five cents a day. But how can I have that kind of blues with this in my pocket?’

Although a number of critics have tried to stimulate a general appreciation of modern blues, the impetus behind the present boom has come from the world of popular music. Chuck Berry has recently had enormous influence on popular trends. Thoroughly deserving his success, Berry is an artiste who always performs with great vitality and swing and he is a superb anecdotal lyricist—though his songs sometimes reek of glorification of the American Way of Life. He is not a blues singer—his voice has none of the power and intensity of great artists in this idiom—but his playing is grounded in the blues tradition. Those who have heard Elmore James’ Blues After Hours (Crown clp 5618) or any other of his songs will know how much Berry has drawn from him in his guitar playing and techniques of orchestration. Berry’s music, diffused as it has been through thousands of beat groups, has brought rhythm-and-blues to the attention of a wider audience than ever before. Here, also, credit must be given to The Rolling Stones. Though they leave much to be desired musically, they include many rhythm-and-blues numbers in their repertoire and often express themselves polemically in favour of this kind of music.

As part of the boom many new rhythm-and-blues groups have recently been formed—their playing often being aesthetically more satisfying than the trad bands they have replaced—and many more records are now available. Readers who want a good introduction to this style of music should listen to the sampler album The Blues: Volume 1 (Pye International npl 28030). More important still, modern blues singers have been visiting Britain more frequently: Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and Sonny Boy Williamson earlier this year; and even more recently John Lee Hooker who played here for several weeks in early summer. The latter’s tour was successful enough to warrant a return this month for a longer stay, and the following remarks, based on three records which are available here, are intended as an introduction to his tour.

John Lee Hooker was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, 47 years ago. At the age of 14 he left home and led an itinerant life, first round Memphis and later round Cincinnatti, until he arrived in Detroit in 1947. A year later, after working in steel mills and car factories, he started to record. He has lived in Detroit ever since, working as a singer.

Like many blues singers Hooker started singing and playing when he was still very young. It is interesting to note that he says his early influences were ‘just local boys’, all of whom are unknown to blues collectors, and his stepfather who taught him a unique method of tuning his guitar. On the other hand his great contemporary Muddy Waters claims Son House and Robert Johnson, two of the greatest of the Mississippi singers, as his first models, and many of his solo recordings, for example I Feel Like Going Home (Vogue epv 1046), show Robert Johnson’s influence in the agonizing way in which the vocal line is broken in surprising places and punctuated with falsetto whoops and sliding notes from his guitar. Hooker does not show these classic influences to the same extent and seems to arise from a more anonymous stratum of Mississippi folk music.