John Lee Hooker, 1917(?)-2001
How John Lee Hooker May Still Save the Blues
Bluesman John Lee Hooker, who died quietly in his home on June 21 at the age of 83*, may have drawn the map that will eventually lead the blues to its own salvation.
A little backstory first:
Hooker brought two trademark elements to the blues when he began his recording career over five decades ago: the hypnotic boogie rhythm and his haunting voice.
"Boogie Chillun," (1948) "Walkin' the Boogie" (1952) and "Boom Boom" (1961) utilized rhythms that rockers like ZZ Top and George Thorogood built their entire careers upon. "Crawlin' King Snake" (1949) and "In the Mood" (1951) were more subdued, though equally mesmerizing. Whether getting up or getting down, Hooker tossed the formula out the window, content to abandon traditional changes and patterns.
Hooker was into
feeling, not flying. During the 80s blues resurgence, catalogs were bought and sold, albums and musicians were unearthed, and blues stringers were the rage again (the 60s and 70s had seen similar stretches). The emphasis on blues guitar solos was perhaps a product of who rock axemen like Eric Clapton chose to champion. B.B., Freddie and Albert King were innovative guitarists, but certainly a narrow cross-section of an idiom. Recording only sporadically at that time, Hooker settled into a pattern, almost certainly at his labels' insistence, of putting out albums that featured hot-picking admirers like Carlos Santana noodling over Hooker's grooves. He took the occasional solo, but Hooker was into feeling, not flying.
The fact that the blues transmogrified, largely, into a platform for guitar chicanery is no secret. It's part and parcel of its popularity, and at least partially engineered by record label muckety mucks who intended to capitalize on blues' connections to rock. In the interest of popularity, souls are occasionally sold. But real blues lives on, continuing to evolve in relative isolation from the pyrotechnics. In the northern Mississippi hill country is a vibrant scene, captured largely by Fat Possum Records, that emphasizes groove and feeling. This movement was spearheaded by the late Junior Kimbrough, whose own style was not far-removed from Hooker's: hypnotic, repetitive, electric and eschewing the paradigm. Kimbrough, in fact, covered "Crawlin' King Snake" on '93's Sad Days, Lonely Nights.
So while the Jonny Langs and Kenny Wayne Shepherds of the world wheedle away to domestic-beer soaked crowds, the seeds planted by John Lee Hooker are finding fertile soil on the home ground with names like Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, R.L. Burnside, etc. For this, Hooker may not be appropriately appreciated until many years from now. God bless John Lee Hooker.