The Blues In High Cotton

The new Cambridge, Mass., nightclub House of Blues is a juke joint wanna-be. Promoting--you might say enshrining--live blues music, this latest brainchild of Isaac Tigrett, mastermind of the Hard Rock Cafes, makes a fetish out of funkiness. Its plain wooden walls are covered with Mississippi Delta folk art; its ceilings wear graffiti. And while the place has been open only since last November, someone has scuffed the paint off the chairs to make them look old.

The House of Blues might also be called a historical nightmare-at least it would surely seem so to the sharecroppers, field hands and prison chain-gang inmates who created the Delta blues. Those luckless souls hated the Delta and took the first chance they could to get out. One thing they took with them to Northern cities was their music, which they literally electrified into the souped-up urban blues of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. The last thing these migrants would ever expect to see was a joint that reminded them of home. Yet the mostly white customers who wander into this blues theme park today don't seem to mind the slick repackaging. Despite charges that its owners were slow to hire African-Americans--in a club that capitalizes on their heritage--the House of Blues is doing turn-away business. With financial backers ranging from Dan Aykroyd to Harvard University, Tigrett plans to open Houses of Blues in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and London.

The chain of fake roadhouses is part of an astonishing phenomenon. Between 1990 and 1992, the number of blues clubs in the United States climbed 52 percent, from 896 to 1,360, while attendance shot up 75 percent. Nor is the action limited to the club scene. The blues resurgence extends to magazines, videos, books and, of course, records. In May, the noted musicologist Alan Lomax published a scholarly but warm memoir of his field recordings in Mississippi in pre-integration days, "The Land Where the Blues Began" (Pantheon. $25). In September Norton will publish the autobiography of Texas blues great Mance Lipscomb and Abbeville Press will publish a coffee-table book on the blues, complete with erudite essays and fascinating photographs. Here again, the gap between the sumptuousness of the book and the grinding hardship it depicts is jarring, but it drives home the point that the blues, once the music of the poor and disenfranchised, has lately become the source of some very heavy trading.

Record labels devoted exclusively to blues now number more than 200. And since Columbia's "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings" won a Grammy in 1991 and a gold record for the Mississippi country-blues artist who died in 1938, record companies have rushed to reissue a mountain of remastered, heavily annotated, luxuriously boxed sets of CDs showcasing such blues greats as Muddy Waters and B. B. King. The success of the Johnson collection "freaked out everybody in the record industry," said Barbara Shelley of Rhino Records. "Until then the industry had no idea how large the market was." Since then no artist and no style seems too obscure to be ignored. In the latest wave of creative repackaging, the output of long-gone little independent blues labels such as Cobra and Duke-Peacock has been resurrected.

And the demand only grows, particularly for the older stuff. Rhino hoped each entry in its projected 15-volume Blues Masters anthology would sell 30,000 copies, but so far the 10 discs issued have sold about 50,000 apiece. Capricorn has sold nearly 50,000 copies of its two-CD set "Elmore James: King of the Slide Guitar," and MCA Records' anthology of Muddy Waters has sold more than 100,000 copies.

Cigarette change for the likes of Michael Jackson, these sales figures are significant given that most of the artists are long dead--and given who's doing the buying. just as they did for country, "the baby-boom generation came back into the market" for the blues, according to Andy McKaie, vice president for catalog development at MCA Records, whose market research that shows the average blues buyer is a 40-year-old man. That's precisely the sort of listener most easily "alienated by pop and rap," says Yves Beauvais, senior director of A&R special projects at Atlantic Records. "Blues is closer to what they grew up with in the '60s. It has that grittiness, that accessibility, that sense of fun."

For the boomers who want to get beyond Clapton or the Stones, the logical route is back to what inspired those white rockers-namely, the blues. And perhaps it's easier to listen to Howlin' Wolf at 40 than at 20 because, while the Wolf possessed the passion of a rocker, his music has the gravity and eloquence of a man who'd seen a lot of life. Blues at its best is a homemade affair that depends on the lyricism of everyday images ("I believe I'll dust my broom," "I hate to see that evening sun go down"). As a musical form it is simple but elastic, capable of embracing tenderness, humor and sometimes surreally frightening emotion ("I'm gonna shoot my woman just to see her jump and fall"). "Musical fashions come and go, but the blues never goes out of style," says Stanley Booth, author of "Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South." "It's highly charged epic poetry about adult stuff."

Bobby Robinson, one of the first black record-company owners, agrees. Now 76, be spent the '50s and '60s recording everyone from Elmore James to Gladys Knight on his Fire and Fury labels, which are selling briskly again as one of Capricorn's reissues. A man of eclectic tastes, Robinson also recorded some early rap, including Grandmaster Flash, but he has little use for modern pop and finds it logical that adults should turn to the meatier stuff of the blues. "The blues came out of slavery when blacks were inhumanly treated. Whenever they got together, they would sing. Their song was a combination of hope and despair and longing and suffering. That's where it came from, and it will never really go away."

Musicologist Lomax, who along with his father, John, probably did more than anyone to educate people about the blues, takes it a step further. In his new memoir he writes, "Although this has been called the age of anxiety, it might better be termed the century of the blues...A hundred years ago only blacks in the Deep South were seized by the blues. Now the whole world begins to know them."

Rhino

Pleasurably encyclopedic. The best introduction to the subject. 15 CDs.

MCA

From the premier Chicago blues label. An indispensable primer. 4 CDs.

Atlantic

Field recordings by Alan Lomax. A weird and splendid aural tour from 1959. 4 CDs.

LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS Arhoolie

Rough poetry and great picking from the master of Texas blues. 2 CDs.

BIG MAMA THORNTON MCA

A belter who took the blues uptown. 1 CD.

Join the Discussion