Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]
All right, welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and today we’re going back to 1994.
But, before we dive in I wanna give shout-outs to four people who recently joined the Don’t Call It Nothing squad, all at the $5 a month Good Beeble Level. Let’s have a round of applause for Lex Ames, RJ Simensen, Rick Crelia, and Scott Clark. “What?!?! Are you kidding? We got us a family here!” Gentlemen, you are now officially deputized to spread the Don’t Call It Nothing gospel. If you dear listener wanna support DIY musicology at the $5 / $20 / $50 a month level — that’s right, go nuts — go to dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com and click on the Buy Me a Coffee! button right at the top of the page.
OK friends, we need to talk about the blues. More specifically, why did Gen X largely abandon the blues? This is the American root music. The life source. The rock ‘n’ roll genome begins here. Lemme just check my notes. Oh right, white people ruined it [laughs]. Hey, at first it wasn’t so bad. White people learned to appreciate the blues and a few of them started playing it. A few intrepid whites even credibly mastered the form. Unfortunately, the generation that came of age in the 1960s didn’t just appreciate the blues, they held it fucking hostage and repeatedly assaulted it until all that was left were guitar heroes O facing their way through 17-minute solos and an audience of middle class hippies and faux revolutionary hipsters engaging in what Ulrich Adelt perceptively called a “romantic embrace of a poverty of choice.”
Mmm … hold on. Can we savor "romantic embrace of a poverty of choice" for just a good bit. That’s good criticism. I got that from Adelt’s 2007 PhD dissertation, Black, White and Blue: Racial Politics of Blues Music in the 1960s, which later became the book, Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White. A few pages after his glorious turn of phrase, Ulrich unloads his clip and catches a few white bodies with the following passage. Now, this is dry academic writing, so afterwards I’ll translate. Adelt writes:
An analysis of the ways in which white male power is deployed by seemingly counterhegemonic movements like those associated with the 1960s has lost nothing of its urgency. Therefore, with my dissertation I hope to contribute to scholarship on the history of racial formations in the 1960s as much as I hope to contribute to scholarship on blues music. Interestingly, in my particular case, white male power was mostly expressed through the appropriation of black masculinity. This explains my strong emphasis on male performers, cultural brokers, and fans. Women are notoriously absent from blues discourses of the 1960s.
--Ulrich Adelt, Black, White and Blue: Racial Politics of Blues Music in the 1960s, p. 9
Let’s translate, ok?
Why do you think the movie Get Out works? The villains in the movie aren’t maga rednecks. No, the white people in the movie make it very clear they’re good liberals. They would’ve voted for Obama a third time if they could’ve. Darn rules! [grrrr] That they wear black people like a suit isn’t an issue because they’ve already convinced themselves they’re the good guys. White men want to control black bodies, black culture, and black consciousness – shout out Lawrence Levine – and then demand the right to be seen as heroes instead of villains. We all know this is how white supremacy works, right?
That Brits became as obsessed with the blues as white Americans makes perfect historical sense. Both societies spent centuries explicitly defining themselves in opposition to brown “primitives” who were archetypes more than people, forget about being equals. Thus, the blues became just another resource to extract, no better or worse than oil, gas, coal, gold, platinum, diamonds, copper, ivory, timber, sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, rubber, coconuts, pineapple, bananas, and of course, king cotton.
Let us return to Ulrich Adelt because he specifically addresses this. He writes:
“I argue that attempts by young white audiences to reject white middle-class culture, racism, colonialism and fascism oftentimes took form in a nostalgic recreation of a safe blackness that predated the Civil Rights Movement. Listening to and playing the blues, then, was constructed as an anti-racist move, but instead of challenging racial classifications or even grappling with contemporary black politics, white performers, audiences and cultural brokers created a depoliticized and commercially charged blues culture.”
— Ulrich Adelt, Black, White and Blue: Racial Politics of Blues Music in the 1960s, p. 2
Nowhere is this black appropriation more comically apparent than in the recordings of John Sinclair, poet, self-styled ‘60s radical, White Panther, and briefly a mentor to the MC5. He’s the perfect avatar for “the white negro,” Norman Mailer’s postwar caricature of blackness that was basically a permission slip for white people to act a fool. To wit.
[laughing] What am I hearing??? I didn’t realize John Sinclair was Ned Flanders’ dad.
This isn’t about individual racists or determining who can authentically play the blues. No no, that ship has sailed. This is about honestly reckoning with a couple different elements of the ‘60s counterculture that don’t match the advertising, shall we say. One is their consistent exotic othering of minorities and the other is the wholesale displacement of black people from the genre that they created. Nowhere is this more sickeningly evident in the coverage of Jimi Hendrix. White journalists at the time, especially the Brits, played up his “Wild Man from Borneo” schtick, the big, bad Negro coming for your white women. And of course Jimi obliged them by humping his amps, burning his guitar, and playing into all of those black stereotypes that fascinated whites for centuries.
After Monterey Pop, Americans followed suit, but we had our own cultural reference points: Jim Crow, minstrelsy, blackface, etc. And as ridiculous as it sounds in 2021, the counterculture had serious conversations about whether Hendrix “played black enough.” It’s not that the hippies didn’t love Hendrix. Of course they did. Everyone did. It’s that this love was filtered through a deeply troubling racial lens that played up his otherness. For example, a month after Jimi died in September 1970, Rolling Stone ran an essay seemingly celebrating the late guitarist.
In the third paragraph of his essay unironically titled, Jimi Hendrix: An Appreciation, author John Burks writes the following:
“The sexual savage electric dandy rock and roll n-word hard-R hey who’s that over there it’s Patti Smith looking uncomfortable capital P Presence exclamation point.” You know why this is so reprehensible? Because Burks wasn’t some rogue writer hacking the system from within to take down the counterculture [laughs]. This was rote. This was banal. Everyone at Rolling Stone saw n-word hard-R and signed off on it. [white guy voice] “Looks great, JB. Thought you might’ve went a little far with electric dandy. I mean, Jimi’s no homo amirite???” And let’s be real. Millions of white readers rolled right over that passage without blinking.
The unremarkableness of Rolling Stone’s racism was as unremarkable as John Sinclair’s blackmouth patois. None of this is defensible, but that won’t stop white boomer men from trying [laughs]. Remember what Ulrich Adelt wrote back in 2007. “An analysis of the ways in which white male power is deployed by seemingly counterhegemonic movements like those associated with the 1960s has lost nothing of its urgency.” This is as important in 2021 as it was in 2007 as it was in 1994. Oh shit, I was supposed to talk about ’94, wasn’t I???
That was Jack O’Fire, an Austin, Texas punk blues force of nature featuring the legendary Tim Kerr of Big Boys and Poison 13 on guitar and Walter Daniels on harp. That was a cover of “Hate To See Ya Go” by Little Walter and His Jukes, originally recorded and released in the summer of 1955. Now, this is kind of a cheat because Jack O’Fire originally released this song in 1993. However, it was subsequently released on the 1994 Estrus compilation, The Destruction Of Squaresville, which is how I got turned onto it.
I was lucky enough to see Jack O’Fire on back-to-back days. On May 27, 1994, they played Crock Shock at the Crocodile Cafe (hence the name) with The Woggles and Man Or Astroman? Amazing show. Crock Shock was a spinoff of Garage Shock, the badass garage punk festival created by Estrus and held in their native Bellingham, straight up I-5, an hour and a half north of Seattle. The next day, Jack O’Fire played an in-store at Fallout Records and I was right up front with my roommate at the time, Greg Collinsworth (American Junk, Muzzle, The Band That Made Milwaukee Famous, Small Change).
Kerr was in constant motion, all spinning dreadlocks, big smile, and slashing guitars, but the real revelation was Daniels. He stalked the floor — as he did the stage the previous night — attacking his harp like he attacked his gravelly vocals. The rhythm section was Dean Gunderson from Seattle’s Cat Butt on upright bass and Josh LaRue holding the cacophony together by the skin of his traps. I hadn’t heard the Fat Possum dudes yet, so I didn’t know there was some righteous blues drone taking place in north Mississippi. I also didn’t know yet about Lester Butler and The Red Devils. So, 1994 me was stoked that these punks were making the blues sound fresh and exciting again.
I got turned onto JOF by my Chico homeboy, Sean McGowan, who was living in Austin and fronting a punk band called The Chumps. He raved up and down about Jack O’Fire and mentioned that one of his photos appeared on the cover of Squaresville. He was right on both counts. The picture of Walter Daniels playing harmonica was indeed on the cover and on stage those Austin motherscratchers came for scalps. It wasn’t just that they were breathing life into the blues canon (like The Red Devils), it’s that they were transforming every song into the blues. So, you’d get a Howlin’ Wolf, you’d get a Little Walter like we heard, you’d even get a Chuck Berry, all of which were supposed to sound bluesy. But, Jack O’Fire brought legit blues centrifugal force to songs by The Sonics, Small Faces, Lyres, and Joy Division.
That’s Austin’s Jack O’Fire with "No Love Lost," a can o’ whupass from noted blues band, Joy Division. And with that let’s return to the idea of Gen X and the blues. What’s more likely? That Gen X didn’t like the blues because we had no soul and couldn’t figure out why these singers kept repeating the first line of each verse OOORRRRR were we turned off by years of mediocre white blues bands turning the genre into self-parody? The irony is boomers were right to be enchanted by the blues. It’s such a sturdy form that you can rearrange an Ian Curtis song so that it makes perfect sense as a rockin blues.
Like country, bluegrass, and the blues, the problem was never the root genres themselves. The problem were self-appointed gatekeepers who decided what was — and who was — authentically country, bluegrass, and blues. This is why I’m stanning so hard for bands like Bikini Kill, Uncle Tupelo, and now Jack O'Fire. These bands weren’t interested in creating punk, country rock or blues holograms. Jack O'Fire was returning the blues to the juke joint and not in a performative way, like a major label blues band recording an acoustic blues album at union scale. Jack O'Fire was recording it DIY style because that’s all they could afford [laughs]. But, this is a good thing and should be valued. Just as importantly, they injected some fresh blood into the genre. [mock horror] “Oh no, they covered Joy Division. What’s next, a Small Faces cover that evokes Freddie King and Booker T & The MGs? That’s not canon!”
That’s Jack O’Fire with “Own-Up Time,” a Ronnie Lane/Steve Marriott instrumental from the Small Faces’ debut LP. Daniels is again the revelation. Revelator? His harp is powerful and overdriven like a second electric guitar, toying with feedback as Kerr mostly opts for slashing, horn-like phrasing and Pepper Wilson’s organ carries the melody. However, from 1:01-1:20, Kerr and Daniels are like Hearns and Hagler throwing bolos in a dazzling eight-bar exchange that’s definitely a highlight of Squaresville.
So, before I leave you to track down The Destruction Of Squaresville and these various Jack O’Fire singles, what did we learn today? First of all, the blues rules. The boomers were right to crush hard. Where they were wrong was objectifying black musicians like they were in a zoo guffawing at the sexual savage electric dandy rock and roll n-word hard R exhibit. All this romantic nonsense about the oversexed lone wolf Negro blues musician is (and was) profoundly racist colonial bullshit.
Black blues musicians were just people working on their craft in the immense shadow of white supremacy. In fact, the entire myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil is pure, unadulterated caucasity. [sarcastic white guy] “A black man couldn’t possibly get better by honing his chops. I mean, that’s what white musicians like Eric Clapton do. Black people can only achieve Godhead by invoking Negro voodoo. Everyone knows that.”
There’s a passage in the liner notes of Jack O’Fire’s 1993 EP, Six Super Shock Soul Songs. It’s attributed to Big Daddy Soul, who I’ve always assumed was either Kerr or Daniels, but I guess it could be a third party. Anyway, it reads:
"Jack O'Fire is not pretending to be black or taking advantage of a situation. If we were, we wouldn't be listing the authors of the lessons we present. We hope that someone who is struck by a particular lesson will go straight to the source and study what the original author has to teach. We also hope that YOUR intelligence reveals that Emotion & Spirit Expression (music being a product) has nothing to do with one's particular color!"
--Big Daddy Soul (pseudonym of either Kerr or Daniels) in the Six Super Shock Soul Songs liner notes, 1993
You don’t write that unless what I’ve said here today is true. These guys understood they existed in a context in which the genre was devalued by years and years of blues tourists. Big Daddy Soul is saying what I’m saying. If you love the blues, treat it with respect. It’s not about making white lawyers comfortable with their appropriation. It’s about acknowledging that this primordial American music was enriched by the best white blues musicians simultaneously as it was colonized by white people displacing the root black audience. It’s ok to interrogate this part of the genre’s evolution.
With that in mind, let’s finish off today’s celebration of the blues with Jack O'Fire’s acoustic run through Willie Dixon’s "Seventh Son." Kerr and Daniels weren’t trying to be black or pandering to the blues festival crowd. They were just dope-ass musicians trying to give something back to the genre that gave them so much. Walter Daniels' harp playing is righteous fury throughout and Tim Kerr shows off his slide guitar prowess. It’s simple, stark, and beautiful. Just like the blues.
You don’t have to be a seventh son of a seventh son to subscribe to this podcast, but that’s what Muddy Waters would’ve wanted. No pressure. Please go visit the Don’t Call It Nothing Facebook page and website. Dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com. Like, comment, become a member, tell yo mama, and tell a friend.
Talk to ya next time when we launch into space with The Flaming Lips in 1995!