Born Under a Bad Sign

Blues You Can Use Before History Uses You

Some tracks on Otis Taylor's White African (Northern Blues) snap and buzz like Ulmer's, but Taylor, who can compose a tune on the spot if you feed him a couple words, is closer to talking blues than neoprimitivist drone, more like country blues revivalists Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart. But Taylor's countryside has violent shadows and creeping stains on the earth, and he's far from a newcomer. Born in 1948, he played in mostly obscure r&b and rock outfits from 1964 until 1977, when he got into dealing antiques. He only played music at home until his 1996 solo debut, Blue Eyed Monster. A follow-up, When Negroes Walked the Earth, illustrated its title with photos of Taylor's father from the 1940s. White African is illustrated with mug shots of black men arrested for "vagrancy" in 1930s Kansas, and Taylor's uncle, killed by a robber.

Aside from two change-of-pace tunes about obsessive lust and an independent woman, Taylor uses a drumless band sparked by his banjo and Eddie Turner's lead guitar to tell angry, but not crazy-angry, cautionary tales that are thoughtful enough to make you flinch and sweat. Taylor's soft voice sing-coaxes, whispers, or just talks his tormented characters to life. There is the homeless father in "3 Days and 3 Nights," whose child is dying because he can't afford medical treatment. Or the tormented soul in the eerie "Resurrection Blues" who understands he has to suffer before he dies but above all doesn't want to become Jesus. The most harrowing track, "Saint Martha Blues," describes how Taylor's great-grandfather was lynched and dismembered. His great-grandmother persevered with hope for justice, and eventually a church was named after her. Taylor has said he wants to make big statements with few words. He also wants to save the blues from endless party-time.

Buddy Guy schmutzes the candle.
photo: Jeff Sciortino
Buddy Guy schmutzes the candle.

If time-forged music designed to kick against troubles is particularly welcome these days, its ever famished niche marketplace deserves thanks for sustaining it. Weekly showcases and mainstreamed clubs devoted to blues are as established as ever. The demand for 12-bar guitar youngsters is the denim underground equivalent of pop's harmony teens and get-downloaded nubiles. The huge difference is that wrinkles are fatal in the pop scene, but grayheads must participate in any blues resurgence to undercut suspicion that it's all a rootless shuck. Around 40 years ago, seasoned blues performers dropped their amplifiers and took up acoustic to show they were linked to the folk. Now old hands adopt greasy sound or deliver tart history lessons to prove that their blues, and they themselves, are not restricted to the mall or the museum.

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