State of the Blues

by Jack Austin
March 2021

Betts, Larkin, Conor by  - photo by Maryam Wilcher

Betts, Larkin, Conor by
photo by Maryam Wilcher

John Primer is no stranger to hard times. Growing up on a sharecropper’s farm in Mississippi, Primer lived in a wooden shack without running water, and shared a bed with cousins. Primer said that hardship produced good material for blues music. Something to be felt deeply, something to emanate out of your very soul.

“When you have hard times you got nothing but the blues,” Primer said. “When I’m playing it, it gives me the feeling that takes away all my pain.”

Primer started playing guitar at four years old and used his skills to play with prolific figures in the Chicago blues circuit, including Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.

3-time grammy winner Taj Mahal, said the genre needs to be protected because it arose from the particular situation black people faced in the United States. As such Mahal, who pushed the genre in new directions, adding Caribbean influences, believes the blues is an integral part of both American and global history. For Mahal, the blues should be studied and preserved.

According to music journalist and singer-songwriter Joe Matera, the blues is undergoing a metamorphosis with players like Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa experimenting with chords and forms aside from the standard 12 bar blues.

“To be able to take it somewhere else, put it in a mixer and come out with something new that is still the blues I think it is fantastic,” Matera said. “They (blues musicians) have so much emotion. They can play one note, that note can say a million things to you. It is so raw. At its core it comes from the soul.”

When Primer lived on the West Side of Chicago, he belonged to a large community of blues musicians who played at scores of clubs across the city. Today, few of the old clubs remain. Two of the most popular and long standing clubs remaining are Kingston Mines and Buddy Guy’s Legends.

Due to Covid, Kingston Mines, which opened in 1968, experienced financial difficulties that led patrons of the club to chip in almost $60,000 to a GoFundMe page to help save the historic blues bar.

Lisa and Donna Pellegrino, the owners of the bar said they took out a loan and are hoping to reopen by the end of the month. Sadly, they said the feature that made them unique, hiring two bands that switched playing hour sets on two separate stages, will not be possible with safe corona virus procedures.

Over the years, the bar has hosted the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, some members of the Grateful Dead, the Black Crowes, Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, Koko Taylor, Magic Slim, and Joanna Connor.

Connor, a professional blues guitarist since 19 first played Kingston Mines in 1986 as part of Dion Payton and the 43rd Street Blues Band, and said she enjoys that the club is always a mashup of different types of people from people all across the world and age groups. Connor has held what she labelled the longest gig in the world, playing at the Halsted St. bar since 2005.

According to Connor there is a lot more rock in the blues today and young artists are experimenting more with the genre, which she holds has benefits and drawbacks. In the 80’s, she said that “blues police” left very little room for growth in the blues, but today so much room for modification has been allowed that some acts she hears at festivals do not sound like the blues to her. It is important to Connor that the blues musicians today understand and respect the history of the blues. While welcoming increased diversity in the genre, she also acknowledged the special significance the music has for black people. While Connor is a white woman, her
backing band is often black.

“It is important that younger black people play the blues because it is their culture and it is their gift that they gave to the world,” Connor said. “I feel it would be sad if that didn’t exist.”

Larkin Poe, a roots rock band composed of Rebecca and Megan Lovell, sisters from North Georgia, draw heavy influence from the blues. Hearing the music as they grew up, and in particular artists from the turn of the 20th century, like Skip James, Koko Taylor, and Son House deeply affected their current style.

“I think we are witness to a resurgence in the blues. For the last 10, 12 years we are experiencing a resurgence in interest. Blues and roots music are in the trailers of Netflix shows, “ Rebecca Lovell said. “We are ambassadors of roots music. This renaissance of blues is encouraging and exciting.”

The blues is inclusive because the lyrics speak to human emotion that everyone can connect with, Rebecca said. “We can all have the blues.”

Duane Betts, the son of famed Allman Brother guitarist Dickey Betts, said that rock musicians would not exist without the blues. Duane was named after Duane Allman, arguably the best blues slide guitar player of all time.

Despite the sheer level of success his father achieved, Betts never felt an obligation to keep the blues alive. He did remember, however, his dad playing BB King, and he inherited an appreciation of the blues.

“It came from is coming from a place of struggle and sheer desperation and trying to overcome and bring some sort of comfort to themselves,” Betts said. “Now it’s just people who love great music and American music. Everybody appreciates where it came from even if they haven’t been in those folks shoes.”

According to Joanna Connor, some of the most promising young blues musicians include Christone Kingfish Ingram, a 21-year-old from Mississippi, Jeremiah Rogers from
Chicago, Marcus King from South Carolina, and Brandon Niederauer, a 16-year-old from New York.

“There are a lot of youngsters that are really good and they deserve a chance,” Mahal said. The music is supposed to be doing something for humanity.”

No matter how much younger artists experiment and modify the blues, Betts believes there will always be a love for the traditional and the classic.

“I think you always have people bringing it back to the traditional form, the pure form. People will take it really far out, I don’t know what people will be doing in 50 years but I think pure blues will always have a place,” Betts said. “I think people are always going to want to play it
how it was played by the original cats.”

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