The Chess Records 50th anniversary reissues and the death of the blues

Similarly compelling is John Lee Hooker's "Sugar Mama" (on the 1947 to 1956 disc), a loose-measured and sloppy-good interplay of single voice, single guitar, and tapping foot that recalls Delta blues -- the echoing, infinitely superior stuff that sounds little like today's popular music. Stalwart examples of the staying power of a good riff include "Smokestack Lightnin' " and "Spoonful" by Howlin' Wolf, as well as "Mannish Boy," by Waters. "Mannish Boy" 's riff never strays from its five-chop sequence of three chords -- and still, after all these years, is more instantly recognizable than most 12-bar blues songs. The "Mannish Boy" riff, which has itself been lifted ad infinitum by white folks trying to be heavy, remains a lyrically entertaining pastoral full of blossoming adolescent sexuality -- or at least that's what I think he's talking about when he says he's picking up his second cousin and a "John the Conqueroo."

Though the lesson here would seem to be that simplicity of arrangement beats canned structure, we all know this isn't true. Showboats always win, as demonstrated by blues vultures Led Zeppelin. Though they championed the cause of simplicity and good riffs (some of these stolen wholesale from Chess songwriters) -- recall that other five-chop, three-note sequence on "Whole Lotta Love" -- their approach, which subsequently informed all of hard rock and metal and hence a lot of that stuff we know as "alternative," has absolutely nothing to do with sparsity. Listen to Zep's cover of "You Shook Me" after three hours of authentic electric blues. Between Robert Plant's silly shrilling and John Bonham's headstrong drum approach, the younger listener realizes that Led Zep was nothing less than the detonation of blues by a crude corn bomb. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Plant's falsetto caterwaul remains entertaining no matter how silly it really is.) Even simplistic approach can become stilted and grandiose.

The later blues recordings in the Chess series suffer from a growing sophistication and emphasis on flaunting; the 1947 to 1956 disc is much better than the 1957 to 1967 compilation, and less given to reliance on 12-bar form. There's even evidence that the blues began to be influenced by its own poor reflection, like Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me," a direct steal from Booker T. & the MGs' "Green Onions." The later recordings are more prone to extended noodling, bland form, and needless embellishment (like the incessantly tinkling barrelhouse piano). Even Waters begins to sound dull and showy on 12-bar numbers like "Take the Bitter With the Sweet," though his '62 version of "You Shook Me" still beats Led Zep's ham-handing.

But never mind structural cliches and all this trouble over riffs -- the human elements of the Chess recordings remain affecting. Vocal imitation of a saxophone's brassy snarl on the part of both Etta James (on "Baby, What You Want Me to Do") and Koko Taylor (on "I Got What It Takes") accents the subject matter of the songs -- basically, as seems to be common among blues-singing women, "You fuck me," as opposed to the bluesman's "I'll fuck you." The tracks still raise hairs, if not other body parts.

Still, let's keep something in mind: Blues is done. The Chess Records reissues are best appreciated in a historical sense, not as a fresh and bright discovery. Whatever people who cling dearly to the form might claim, this genre of popular music has been thoroughly depleted. Explored, expanded upon, and, ultimately, exhausted. Even in Chicago, I'm told -- where Dixon and his Chess compatriots perfected the form -- the "scene" has been largely reduced to black folks playing "Sweet Home Chicago" (a Robert Johnson song about California) to uncomprehending frat boys, tourists, and misguided pilgrims on the North (or white) Side. And that's fine. All passe genres -- rockabilly, swing, funk, disco -- are given to retrofitting, even if only as an excuse for unimaginative youngsters to don costumes. It's only music, there to entertain and not to elevate. That's life -- forms come and go. We need new cliches. Fame is fleeting. Even Chuck Berry, who -- I'll readily concede -- invented something huge, has been reduced to no greater notoriety than his videotaped bedroom habits. (Or should I say bathroom?) There will always be people who appreciate "Johnny B. Goode" as a song and not a benchmark, as long as boomers are still alive. Blues may still play well as a tourist attraction, or even heavy the busker's hat, but as a wellspring, it's hacking up dust. Everything dies. Listening to the songs on these various compilations is the musical equivalent of marveling upon a beautiful tombstone -- proof, at least, that something was once alive.

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