In 1979, twenty year old Alan Harper packed his bags, hopped a transatlantic flight from London to the US and by way of Newark, Manhattan and Bloomington, Illinois, made his way to Chicago. Armed with a work visa, a camera, and a doctored British student ID, Harper quickly found work, a place to stay and access to the bars—“the only places I would find what I came for: the Chicago blues.”
What transpired over the next two months at various gigs and locales across the city became the first leg of Harper’s blues odyssey. Live performances that summer by blues legends Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, Son Seals, Snooky Pryor, Magic Slim, Billy Branch, Big Walter Horton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Albert Collins and dozens of others—put him front row to what many consider the golden era of Chicago blues. An inspired Harper returned to England to finish his degree then back to Chicago three years later in ’82 for another extended listen and to write what he believed at the time would be an epitaph to the Chicago blues.
The chronicles of Harper’s visit are now available in Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads (University of Illinois Press). The book offers many anecdotes and firsthand accounts of the shows, events and players that defined the Chicago scene—combining personal accounts with finely combed historical content, offering not only a “good read” for music fans, but an important historical documentation of the people and places of this seminal era. The timelines, biographical notes and index are comprehensive enough to serve as a second book—like a textbook attachment to his memoir—and will provide any blues enthusiast or beginner to the genre a great source of reference.
The Chicago Ambassador’s James Clarke had a chance to speak with Alan Harper about his book, Chicago blues mythology and Harper’s take on the current state of the blues.
CA) Early in your book you mention a trio of defining Chicago blues records—records that were influential to or influenced by the Chicago style: John Mayall with Eric Clapton Blues Breakers; Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s self-titled debut record and Junior Wells’s Hoodoo Man Blues. When discussing these records you address the idea of “authenticity”—
HARPER)I knew you were going to ask me about that—I do find it a very difficult question and I have thought about it a lot and the only sensible answer I can come up with is—honestly—it’s entirely up to the beholder. You really need to know what it is you’re after if you’re thinking about the music rather than just feeling it. If what you’re after is the kind of thing you’ve read in books, then only a certain kind of artist is going to be able to deliver that. But if what you’re after is simply the sound and the artistry and the musicianship, then there’s any number of artists who can deliver that to you. And as I’ve said before to people—if the music moves you then it moves you. I’m not gonna sit on my horse and tell people what they should be thinking —I think if you’re not sure which side of the fence you’re on—if you’re really not sure if the music is up to snuff—you just need to give a listen and have a beer. I think that the whole authenticity debate is very much chewed over these days. It was back then as well—we’re going back 30 odd years when I did the research for this book. Back then, though, it was fairly straight forward. If it was a problem to you—and what we’re talking about is race, mostly—then it was quite easy to just go and listen to black blues musicians if that’s what you wanted to do. But of course now that’s not so straight forward. It brings up the other question implicit in this whole authenticity business which is can authenticity be granted simply because your skin is a particular color? I think that’s a faintly ludicrous idea. There’s a lot more to it than that. And a lot of what that is about is experience—life experience—and there are fewer and fewer people I would imagine who could deliver on that score to the required degree if you’ve read your history books and listened to your Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson—you know there’s very few people who could claim to have lived the kind of lives those guys lived. So, it really is up to the individual. It’s a thorny issue if you want to make it a thorny issue. I personally regard it as a very straightforward issue and if it’s about music rather than racial politics—then I think focusing on the music is the thing to do and your ear will tell you whether it’s any good or not. If racial politics are your thing then you could talk until the cows come home about it and you’re never going to get the entire room to agree.
CA) So much has to do with access: what you’re exposed to and you’re ability to back trace—
HARPER) That’s absolutely true. I’m in my late fifties—anyone my age, unless they were born in Chicago—have had to “back trace” as you’ve said. You almost invariably have discovered blues music from a second or third perspective and you have to work your way back. I’m not sure how old you are—
CA) Forty-five, so I first heard “Little Red Rooster” on Doors Alive, She Cried then looked up Willie Dixon. Same with “Spoonful” by Cream—learned of Muddy after hearing the Stones perform “Mannish Boy”. Liner notes and looking up the records where those songs originated was my introduction to many of those blues artists.
You reference Alan Lomax in your book and the important work he did in terms of documenting music. When you first arrived in Chicago in ’79 as a twenty year old—did you come intending to conduct research or simply to take in the music as a listener?
HARPER) It wasn’t until later when I thought that I would do a book about this—I wanted an excuse to come back. I had such a good time in ’79 and I wasn’t doing any serious research. I wasn’t interviewing people. I took a few photographs and because I’m the kind of person I am I also seemed to take a lot of notes. I didn’t have any particular purpose with those notes in mind. I’m just really glad that I did keep them now so I could refer to them. I was just a tourist in ’79—albeit a long term one with two jobs. When I came back in ’82 I had decided—having graduated from university and having launched myself into adult life—I had decided I was a writer, so I came out with a writing project in mind which then took thirty four years to come to fruition.
CA) You mention when you returned in ‘82 you intended to write an epitaph for the blues—
HARPER) Yeah. I thought that. I knew from the trip in ’79 that all the old guys were going or gone. Muddy Waters was ill—he was still alive when I came back but he died the following year and I only saw him live in London once. Old chaps like Floyd Jones, Big Walter, they were on their last legs or dying and I just had a sense that something was passing and because of the background I had in looking at the influences of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton—and seeing where they first got their music from, I was looking at that generation of blues and regarding that as the “Real Chicago Blues”, which in a sense it was. The Chess Records catalog is pretty seminal. Therefore, I had a kind of blind spot to anyone under forty, basically. They all seemed way too new to be old men. They also had different influences in their playing. Probably if they hadn’t been making a living as blues musicians they could have been quite happy playing in another part of town—playing funk music or disco or jazz. They didn’t come across as the old guys had because they weren’t coming up from Mississippi to Chicago or working in the field. They were urban people—2nd or 3rd generation and quite often much more accomplished musicians. In my fairly blinded view then, they were lesser blues men than the people of their parents’ generation.
CA) You acknowledge the challenge some musicians of that era faced in promoting the genre and having to live “like musical missionaries spreading the blues in its own heartland”—
HARPER) It was a bit like that and they were conscious of that. They were full time. They didn’t have other jobs as far as I knew. They needed gigs and they were looking—they were young and energetic and actively looking for gigs in black neighborhoods. They could have probably got better paying gigs in white neighborhoods. They were a very good band—they could fill a dance floor. They played really good blues but they consciously wanted to re-export it to the south and west sides. It was a mission led by Billy Branch I believe who was the older of the two—seven years older than Lurrie Bell. They were on a mission. They taught blues in schools. They were really quite evangelical about it. I don’t know how they got on to be quite honest.
CA) There were a lot of stories about the amount of time Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters spent in the studio and out, promoting their music, performing live—
HARPER) It dawned on me as I was frequenting these clubs that it was astonishing to be sitting next to Big Walter Horton or James Cotton or younger artists like Carrie Bell. You needed to be reminded of how fortunate you were to be in such proximity to these people. And they were inwardly very friendly and happy to talk and very happy to engage with their fans. There is a story about the Rolling Stones going into the Chess Records building and finding Muddy Waters up a ladder painting the ceiling—which is almost certainly bullocks! Muddy Waters was a huge star. There’s absolutely no way.
I’ve read that—I think Robert Palmer or some other eminent blues writer—maybe Peter Guralnick– was hanging around Chess Records with the bosses and Koko Taylor was left waiting. She wasn’t a big star—she had had a hit record but she wasn’t a big star and she was being treated very disrespectfully, which was no doubt true. But stories like that have exploded into urban myths about Muddy Waters painting off a step ladder.
CA) Like the audience the night Muddy Waters and the Stones played the Checkerboard Lounge?
HARPER) I was not in Chicago at the time, but it was still being talked about —the number of people who claimed to have been there! I saw the film. Lefty Dizz was completely pissed.
CA) You spent a lot of time looking over and listening to records in your university library–
HARPER) Yeah. The University of Exeter. They had a terrific collection. They used to teach a course called American and Commonwealth Arts, a very popular course that delved into literature and music. That gave the university a reason to apply for a grant from the US State Department to set up a music collection which they went about doing with great efficiency. The librarian got in touch with an American collector who was living in Canada who was an amazing collector of old blues 78’s. The university library hooked up with him and he would send these huge reels of tape and they’d catalog them so you could find individual songs on these endless reels. As a student you could go in and tell them which songs you wanted to listen to. They had thousands—literally thousands—of blues songs of the pre-war era. Way more than you could hope to listen to—even if you were studying the blues for a university degree—which I wasn’t. I wasn’t on that course. I was in English. It was just an interest of mine. It was easy to get completely swamped in all this music. I did my best. I got a good grounding, but it was way more than I could make sense of. There was just so much of it.
CA) One specific record mentioned in your book really represented a turning point in the blues—Chuck Berry’s “Wee Wee Hours”/”Maybelline”.
HARPER) Rock ‘n’ Roll seemed to take everyone by surprise—not excluding the Chess brothers. They thought “Wee Wee Hours” would be the A side. Maybelline turned out to be a great hit much to everyone’s surprise as management was trying to find out which side of the fence they’d head.
CA) Which brings us to Buddy Guy—sort of the middle man. In his live shows he’ll often tease songs that have influenced him while also giving his audience a history or evolution of the blues–
HARPER) I haven’t seen him gig in a long time but back then he was playing bits of Lightnin’ Hopkins, BB King, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed whereas now I understand he does it with the rock bands– Hendrix, Cream, Stevie Ray Vaughan—which I imagine works great for him.
CA) As I progressed through the book it made me nervous because you’d mentioned expecting to write an epitaph—as influential people and places disappeared, what continued to give you hope for the genre?
HARPER) That sounds hopeless. Inherent in the question is that we will run out of hope. Blues is more popular than it’s ever been and I think the only people who worry about that are people who get exercised about authenticity. If you put that to one side and put focus on the fact that there are probably more people playing blues than ever before–more people listening to the blues than ever before, I don’t think you have any reason to start thinking in terms of needing hope. And you’ve still got people who’ve been playing it in Chicago—for example, Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch—for decades and decades. Lurrie is a direct root back through his father to the early guys of the Chicago blues. Carey Bell used to play alongside all the big guys as a bassist and a harmonica player going back to the 50s and 60s. He was a consummate Chicago bluesman and Lurrie his son—he started playing when he was still a child. We still have people like that to learn from, but there’s also records and the internet. It’s amazing. I’m so glad the internet didn’t exist thirty years ago because I wouldn’t have needed to go to Chicago.
The shellac and the vinyl—they are the artifacts that connect us to the history of the music. There’s nothing like that in classical music. You don’t get your hands on manuscripts by Mozart, but if you have a 78 pressing from the 50’s with Chuck Berry’s name on it –that is a hell of a piece of history you’ve got and it’s great to be in touch with them. But it’s quite hard to get in touch with them. If I was 20 years old now I wouldn’t even need to go to the library. I could listen in my bleeding room.
The library’s collection is still there. It’s a bit dusty now. Nobody goes there anymore. One reason is they don’t teach that course anymore. The other reason is that everyone’s got the world’s greatest library at their fingertips. You’ve got all the real gold dust of the original blues music at your fingertips. All you’ve got to do is tap a few keys, go straight into Youtube and some wonderful person has taken it upon themselves to put the most obscure blues out there on the internet. You can always refer back to that if you’re wondering about the quality of what you’re hearing. It’s there for you just to check on. It keeps the whole standard of the thing up. You’re gonna know when you’re being lied to in the club by some twat with a guitar. You will just know that he is just not getting it right. You can listen to the real thing any time you’d like. The original thing. The first time that song was ever recorded, for example.
So, I don’t think in terms of hope. What we’ve got is probably better than we’ve ever had at the moment.