I’ll never forget the first time I heard Lead Belly singing See See Rider. I was entranced… All of a sudden, in an instant, I could hear where it had all come from. And I could feel that the spirit behind the music, behind that voice and that guitar, came from somewhere much, much farther back in time.
See See Rider – Lead Belly
We all like to imagine that art can come from out of nowhere and shock us like nothing we’ve ever seen or read or heard before. The greater truth is that everything — every painting, every movie, every play, every song — comes out of something that precedes it. It’s a chain of human responses. The beauty of art and the power of art is that it can never be standardized or mechanized. It has to be a human exchange, passed down hand to hand, or else it’s not art. It’s endlessly old and endlessly new at the same time, because there are always young artists hearing and seeing work that’s come before them, getting inspired and making something of their own out of what they’ve absorbed.
When you really listen — and believe me, it’s not hard, because this is music that grabs your full attention from the first note — you’re hearing something very precious being passed down. A precious secret. It’s there in all those echoes and borrowings, all those shared phrasings and guitar figures, all those songs that have passed down from singer to singer, player to player, sometimes changing along the way and becoming whole new songs in the process.
Hellhound On My Trail – Robert Johnson
Corey [Harris] made a very important point: throughout the history of African-American music, right up through the present, there’s a distinction between the emotions of the singer and the words he or she is singing. The words of Hellhound On My Trail may be about a jealous woman but Robert Johnson is singing something else, something mysterious, powerful, undefinable. The words don’t contain the emotion, they’re a vehicle for it. Corey called this a ‘language of exclusion‘, which can be found in the poetry of Langston Hughes just as easily as it can be found in the music of Howlin’ Wolf or Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Spoonful – Howlin’ Wolf
It was and still is a way of maintaining dignity and identity, both individual and collective, through art; and as we all know (or should know), it originated as a response to the very worst forms of oppression: slavery, sharecropping, and the racism that’s never left American society.
The precious secret is simply that part of the human soul which can never be trampled on or taken away. It’s brought more to our culture than any of us ever could have imagined.
The blues has always held a special place for me. It’s the most physical music I know, with an emotional undertow that’s unlike absolutely anything else.
Devil Got My Woman – Skip James
When you listen to the otherworldly voice of Robert Johnson hitting those words ‘blues fallin’ down like hail’ or Howlin’ Wolf riding the rhythm of Spoonful with such amazing ease and more than living up to his name at the same time, or Skip James lamenting love, the worst of all human afflictions, in Devil Got My Woman or Son House hugging the memory of his dead lover for dear life in the tightly coiled Death Letter Blues, you’re hearing something eternal, elemental, something that defies rational thought, just like all the greatest art. You have to let it grab hold of you.
Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters
When I made The Last Waltz, I had the privilege of filming Muddy Waters, and I still get an electric thrill just thinking about his amazing rendition of Mannish Boy, the pleasure he took in every word, every phrase, the authority he commanded. How many times had he sung that song before that night? And there he was, singing it again, like it was the first time, or the last. I realized that the blues could do that for you, and for us. It gets at the essential.
– Martin Scorsese
[Prologue from Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues]